24 August 2010

Diving into deep waters in re: millenials and IR

Yesterday Daniel Drezner raised the question of how millenials (meaning folks in their 20s like me) think about international relations.  There are some really thoughtful responses in the comments, mentioning things like the interconnectedness of our current world, the massive sea of information in which we swim, how a huge growth economy that precipitously tanked on us impacts our lives, and how we see a role for the United States to play in the world without necessarily resorting to hyper nationalist imperialist misadventures. 

I want to respond to the piece, but I want to do so by altering the premise a bit.  Like one, if not more, of the commenters, I was a student of both history and political science.  But then, influenced by a Quaker educational setting and my own personal struggles for social justice, chose to pursue graduate work in international conflict resolution, rather than straight up international relations.  Because jobs in conflict resolution are just a wee bit scarce, I've ended up working in international education, while continuing to do very local level activism at the same time.  And in these past few years, an insight that sparked as an undergrad has become a core belief:  we cannot separate the local from the global.  Or, in other terms, the distinction between domestic policy and foreign policy is purely academic.  As I see it, such a division doesn't actually exist.

This insight first came to me, somewhat unexpectedly, while writing my senior project for my history major oh so long ago.  Through a someone circuitous path, I ended up writing on the domestic political constraints that impacted U.S. decision-making in the Korean War -- a war that could have ended two years sooner had Truman not been afraid of appearing soft on communism at home.  Today, we see that a faulty immigration system impacts our relations with our immediate neighbors.  Our unwillingness to provide healthcare to our citizens evokes scorn from some of our allies.  Because we have a massive array of ill-conceived farm subsidies, we dump unneeded foodstuffs in foreign markets and crush local farmers' livelihoods, all the while calling it aid.  We can't actually cut the bloated military budget because people need the jobs.  The United States lectures the world on human rights, and yet contains fully a quarter of the world's prison population -- jails filled predominantly with young black men serving time for petty crimes in an attempt to keep our longstanding racist history going full steam, but with less overt fanfare.

As I see it, the lesson for my peers is that we must recognize that our domestic politics have impacts on our foreign relations -- beyond the obvious choices in fighting wars, managing economic crises, or cleaning up oil spills.  It is arrogant and hypocritical to claim to be a shining city on a hill so long as children are going hungry, the elderly can't afford their medicine, and it is legal in about 30 states to deny employment and housing to people just for being gay or transgender.  We have enduring cycles of poverty and repression in this country, based on racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism and all manner of xenophobia's other children that we consistently fail to address.  My family came to this country 400 years ago, and yet I was the first of the line to get a college degree.  It wasn't until my grandfather's generation that my someone in family was even able to earn a steady paycheck, and yet my father has been unemployed for at least two years.  It's still far too likely that if you're born poor in this country, you'll die poor.  In our society, you either have privilege or you don't.  And if you don't, getting it takes work.  And that's an understatement.

In my mind, politics should be about the pursuit of justice.  We have a moral obligation to pursue it domestically and abroad, concurrently.  I don't just mean justice in a legalistic sense.  I mean justice in its fullest context -- social, cultural, economic, political, legal, and everything else.  But that isn't happening in our national politics.  Turn on cable television any night of the week and you'll find blabbering dunderheads of both the left and the right nannering on in a language that isn't the least bit powered by a brain.  Rather than focusing on issues that actually matter, politicians and commentators have spent fully two weeks debating where exactly one single mosque ought to go.  Stephen Walt points out that this kind of blubbering reminds him of the political discourse of the Weimar Republic -- not exactly high praise given what happened next.  If this is the kind of leadership my forbears want to demonstrate to people of my generation, then I'm afraid I must protest.  

Thus it is my sincere hope that my generation embraces a politics -- domestic and international -- rooted in justice that honors our fundamental humanity.  It is incumbent upon us to act where our predecessors have failed, namely to address some of the huge systemic problems we face.  I don't have any grand illusions about what can or might be achieved before my eventual demise, but I do know that we have to do better.  That we have to march on.  That we have to realize that justice is peace and that peace is justice.  And finally, I know this:  we damn sure better get to work. 

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