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Foreign Policy and the Green New Deal

Foreign Policy and the Green New Deal

In their support of the Green New Deal, did some Democrats call for a return to American global leadership – or even endorse American Exceptionalism?

First-term Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D.-NY) and forty-year veteran Senator Ed Markey (D.- Mass.) put forth a dramatic re-imagining of the approach the U.S. government should take toward climate change and economic affairs, with important emphasis on social justice questions.  The announcement on Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s web site described it as “a 10-year plan to create a greenhouse gas neutral society that creates unprecedented levels of prosperity and wealth for all while ensuring economic and environmental justice and security” with a “World War II scale mobilization.”

Media attention went quickly to interpretations of some of the most curious proposals: eliminating air travel, retrofitting “all buildings,” and ensuring economic security “to all who are unable or unwilling to work.”  Supporters clarified that these items were in earlier, unfinished drafts.

When “House Resolution 109 – Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal” was formally introduced in Congress, it had lost references to banning fossil fuels, decommissioning every nuclear power plant, and the trouble of “cow emissions.”  It emphasized instead that inducing the private sector to implement small-scale climate change-fighting technologies was not sufficient.  It promised economic prosperity for all as a result of government-led shift to renewable energy and post-oil infrastructure. It focused on the importance of re-structuring the economy and the environment for the benefit of “frontline and vulnerable communities” – that is, those exposed to “systemic racial, regional, social, environmental, and economic injustices [including] indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth.”

Foreign Policy Questions

What the media did not discuss, though, were the foreign policy implications in the advocacy of the Green New Deal.

Rapidly shifting away from a carbon-based economy could have obvious impacts on the oil-producing world.  Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other Middle Eastern states might come to mind first, but countries as different as Nigeria, Russia, and Mexico – and many others – rely on energy exports for large parts of their GDP, export earnings, or government revenue.  Losing significant amounts of income could have destabilizing effects in even otherwise stable countries around the world.

Less predictable, perhaps, was the emphasis by Green New Deal advocates on restoring the United States’ role as a global leader, at times even seeming to invoke the ideals of American exceptionalism.

At the press conference announcing the Green New Deal, Sen. Markey talked in universal terms:  “We will save all of Creation by massive job creation.”  That is, “we” the U.S. government will save not just Europe from fascism but the whole world from global warming. Citing FDR, the New Deal, and World War II, Markey said, “We have acted on this scale before, and we must do it again.”

Markey continued by pointing out that when President Kennedy said we would go to the moon, he didn’t say how, because the methods hadn’t been invented yet. Markey left no room for modesty or half-measures: “We are reclaiming our leadership on the most important issue facing humankind,” toward a Lincoln-esque “new climate democracy: of the people, by the people, for the planet.”

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez was as grand: “Economic, racial, and social justice in America – that’s what this agenda is all about.”  “Climate change,” she continued. “is one of the biggest existential threats to our way of life – not just as a nation but as a world…Today is also the day that we choose to assert ourselves as a global leader in transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy and to charting that path…. We should do it because we should lead.  We should do it because that is what this nation is about.  We should do it because we are a country that is founded on ideals, on a culture that is innovative…. We should do it because we are an example to the world…. We need to save ourselves and we can save the rest of the world with us.”

In previous weeks, other Democrats had supported this kind of globalism.  In December 2018, Governor Jerry Brown (D-CA) compared the scale of urgency and effort of combating climate change to fighting World War II and the Nazis.  In October 2018, climate scientist Kevin Anderson called for a “Marshall Plan.”

In response to Markey and Ocasio-Cortez, support came with the same magnitude. Obama-era Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz criticized the Trump administration for leaving the Paris climate treaty and “not exercising the global leadership that we need to bring the whole world along.”

Democratic presidential hopefuls joined the chorus.  New Jersey Senator Corey Booker introduced an environment bill in 2017 that emphasized social and economic justice; last week he adopted the Green New Deal’s World War II and Moon Landing analogies.  “When the planet has been in peril in the past, who came forward to save Earth from the scourge of Nazis and totalitarian regimes?” the Washington Post reported on Booker in Iowa, “We came forward.”  Booker elaborated: “So the question is, what’s the United States of America going to do? Is it going to lead the planet in terms of dealing with this crisis? Or is it going to pull back from global leadership when we are the biggest economy on the planet Earth? I believe that America should lead, and it should lead boldly”

California Senator Kamala Harris endorsed the Green New Deal by identifying climate change as  “an existential threat to our country, our planet, and our future” and called for urgent action “to protect ourselves and our planet.”

In January, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand used President Kennedy’s own words from his pledge to go to the Moon:  “Why not create a moonshot? Say in the next ten years we are going to create an entire economy based on our innovations, based on what we can do, not because it is easy, but because it is hard.” She repeated this Kennedy language after the Markey–Ocasio-Cortez release.

A New Global Leadership – Narrow or Broad-based?

Together, these calls for American global leadership reverse much of the last two decades’ mixed commitment to lead.  As a candidate and before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush pledged to quit nation-building and to abandon the ABM treaty (US did end the ABM treaty in 2002).  The global war on terror at times lacked key allies and raised human rights questions.  Barack Obama was elected on his promise to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan.  Later, he drew “a line in the sand” over Syria’s use of chemical weapons but then ceded the issue to Congress and Russia.  Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders railed against the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in 2016, surrendering the region’s American diplomatic and economic leadership to China.  Eventual nominee Hillary Clinton finally joined him on TPP, reversing her earlier commitments as Secretary of State.  Donald Trump has criticized NATO and other essential allies, decried and replaced NAFTA, battled China over trade, and fiercely opposed illegal and much legal immigration. These are not the leadership principles of American globalism from World War II to the 1990s “indispensable nation.”

Democratic advocates of the Green New Deal, rooted in the left-wing of the party, are drawing on America’s historic global leadership roles to justify and demand a leadership role in today’s environmental/economic/social justice questions.  The call is for a “shining progressive city on a hill” to lead the world and save the world.  American Exceptionalism language is unusual from the U.S. political left. Observers will watch carefully to see if calls like these expand to other issues.

Photo from C-SPAN




Jim Quirk

Jim Quirk teaches American and comparatiive politics at American University in Washington, D.C. He has taught at Loyola University Maryland, The Catholic University of America, and the University of Economics in Varna, Bulgaria. His favorite projects have included work with in Mexico, Russia, the Balkans, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, OSCE, IEEE, and the Open World Leadership Center. He tweets from @webQuirks