A foreign policy that works for all Americans

Elizabeth Warren
16 min readNov 30, 2018
Remarks at American University, November 29th, 2018

Let’s start with a serious problem: Around the world, democracy is under assault. Authoritarian governments are gaining power. Right-wing demagogues are gaining strength. Movements toward openness and pluralism have stalled and begun to reverse. Inequality is rapidly growing, transforming rule by-the-people into rule by-wealthy-elites. And here at home, many American politicians seem to accept — even embrace — the politics of division and resentment.

So, how did we get here? There’s a story we tell as Americans, about how we built an international order — one based on democracy, human rights, and improving economic standards of living for everyone. It wasn’t perfect — we weren’t perfect — but our foreign policy benefited a lot of people around the world.

It’s a good story, with long roots. But in recent decades, something changed.

Beginning in the 1980’s, Washington’s focus shifted from policies that benefit everyone to policies that benefit a handful of elites, both here at home and around the world.

Mistakes piled on mistakes. Reckless, endless wars in the Middle East. Trade deals rammed through with callous disregard for our working people. Extraordinary expansion of risk in the global financial system. Why? Mostly to serve the interests of big corporations while ignoring the interests of American workers.

Add in decades of domestic policies that have helped the rich get richer and left everyone else behind, and it’s no wonder Americans have less faith in democratic government today than at any other time in modern U.S. history.

Our country is in a moment of crisis decades in the making, a moment in which America’s middle class has been hollowed out, working people have been betrayed, and democracy itself is under threat.

While it is easy to blame President Trump for our problems, the truth is that our challenges began long before him. And without serious reforms, they are just as likely to outlast him.

We need to refocus our international economic policies so that they benefit all Americans, not just wealthy elites. At the same time, we must refocus our security policies by reining in unsustainable and ill-advised military commitments and adapt our strategies overseas for the new challenges we’ll face in this coming century. And we need to end the fiction that our domestic and foreign policies are somehow separate, and recognize that policies that undermine working families in this country, also erode America’s strength in the world.

In other words, it’s time to create a foreign policy that works for all Americans, not just the rich and powerful. Authoritarianism is on the move around the world, there is no time to waste.

We can start our defense of democracy by fixing what has gone wrong with our international economic policies.

The globalization of trade has opened up opportunity and lifted billions out of poverty around the world. Giant corporations have made money hand over fist. But our trade and economic policies have not delivered the same kind of benefits for America’s middle class. In fact, U.S. trade policy has delivered one punch in the gut after another to workers and to the unions that fight for them.

For decades, the leaders of both parties preached the gospel that free trade was a rising tide that would lift all boats. Great rhetoric — except that the trade deals they negotiated mainly lifted the yachts — and threw millions of working Americans overboard to drown.

Policymakers were willing to sacrifice American jobs — not their own, of course — in return for boosting sales at Walmart and gaining access to consumer markets around the world.

Washington had it all figured out. And this confidence spilled over into more than trade deals. Champions of cutthroat capitalism pushed former Soviet states to privatize as quickly as possible, despite the risk of corruption. They looked the other way as China manipulated its currency to advance its own interests and undercut work done here in America.

Washington technocrats backed austerity, deregulation, and privatization around the world. As one crisis after another hit, the economic security of working people around the globe was destroyed, reducing public faith in both capitalism and democracy.

Policymakers promised that open markets would lead to open societies.

Wow. Did Washington get that one wrong. Efforts to bring capitalism to the global stage unwittingly helped create the conditions for anti-democratic countries to rise up and lash out.

Russia has become belligerent and resurgent. China has weaponized its economy without loosening its domestic political constraints. And over time, in country after country, faith in both capitalism and democracy has eroded.

A program once aimed at promoting the forces of freedom ended up empowering the opposite.

Of course, those trade deals worked just great for giant corporations. Huge multinationals used their enormous influence on both sides of the negotiating table to ensure that the terms of the deals always favored their own bottom lines. At home, trillion-dollar global behemoths dominated entire market sectors, while limp U.S. antitrust enforcement remained stuck somewhere in the 1980s.

I believe capitalism has the capacity to deliver extraordinary benefits to American workers. But time after time, our economic policies left these workers with the short end of the stick: stagnant incomes, decimated unions, lower labor standards, rising costs of living. Job training and transition assistance have proven powerless against the onslaught of offshoring.

By the time the 2008 global financial crash came around, it only confirmed what millions of Americans already knew: the system didn’t work for working people — and it wasn’t really intended to.

And it’s still not working. Tomorrow, the Trump Administration will likely sign a renegotiated NAFTA deal.

There’s no question we need to renegotiate NAFTA. The federal government has certified that NAFTA has already cost us nearly a million good American jobs — and big companies continue to use NAFTA to outsource jobs to Mexico to this day.

But as it’s currently written, Trump’s deal won’t stop the serious and ongoing harm NAFTA causes for American workers. It won’t stop outsourcing, it won’t raise wages, and it won’t create jobs. It’s NAFTA 2.0.

For example, NAFTA 2.0 has better labor standards on paper but it doesn’t give American workers enough tools to enforce those standards. Without swift and certain enforcement of these new labor standards, big corporations will continue outsourcing jobs to Mexico to so they can pay workers less.

NAFTA 2.0 is also stuffed with handouts that will let big drug companies lock in the high prices they charge for many drugs. The new rules will make it harder to bring down drug prices for seniors and anyone else who needs access to life-saving medicine.

And NAFTA 2.0 does little to reduce pollution or combat the dangers of climate change — giving American companies one more reason to close their factories here and move to Mexico where the environmental standards are lower. That’s bad for the earth and bad for American workers.

For these reasons, I oppose NAFTA 2.0, and will vote against it in the Senate unless President Trump reopens the agreement and produces a better deal for America’s working families.

The President grabs headlines railing against GM’s plans to axe thousands of American jobs in Ohio and Michigan — but his actual policies aren’t stopping them or others like them from continuing to put corporate profits ahead of American workers. It’s time for real change.

We need a new approach to trade, and it should begin with a simple principle: our policies should not prioritize corporate profits over American paychecks. That should be true for NAFTA and true for every deal we cut.

How can we make the system fair for working Americans? Lots of ways.

· We can start by ensuring that workers are meaningfully represented at the negotiating table and build trade agreements that strengthen labor standards worldwide.

· We can make every trade promise equally enforceable, both those terms that help corporations and those that help workers.

· We can curtail the power of multinational monopolies through serious antitrust enforcement.

· We can work with our international partners to crack down on tax havens.

Those four changes would fundamentally alter every trade negotiation.

Our economic policies are about far more than trade. Our policies should also address the challenges of today’s interconnected world.

· To address corruption, we need transparency about the movement of assets across borders.

· To get serious about privacy, we need to actually protect data rights — both from global technology companies hell bent on boosting market share and from governments that seek to exploit technology as a means to control their own people.

· To make progress on climate change and protect our higher standards here in the US, we should leverage foreign countries’ desire for access to U.S. markets as an opportunity to insist on meaningful environmental protections. Just last week our own government said that climate change is already happening and will dramatically endanger the world we share. The threat is real and it is existential — and we need to take action, now.

In other words: we need to set new rules for global capitalism in the 21st century — rules that work for all Americans, not just wealthy elites.

None of this requires sacrificing the interests of American businesses — although it will require some of them to take a longer view. The world exists beyond the next quarterly report.

We should be on the side of American businesses, protecting them from unfair practices abroad. That means aggressively targeting corruption and pay-to-play demands from unscrupulous governments. It means fighting back against the threat of forced technology transfer in exchange for market access. And it means penalizing the theft of American intellectual property.

These are policies that are good for American workers, good for American investors, and good for American businesses.

A foreign policy that lifts the fortunes of all Americans must also take an honest look at the full costs and risks of our military actions.

All three of my brothers served in the military. I know our servicemembers and their families are smart, tough, and resourceful. But a strong military should act as a deterrent so that most of the time, we won’t have to use it.

That’s not what where we are today. For nearly two decades, this country has been mired in a series of wars — conflicts that sap American strength.

The human costs of these wars has been staggering: more than 6,900 Americans killed, another 52,000 wounded. Many more who live every day with the invisible scars of war. And hundreds of thousands of civilians killed.

The financial costs are also staggering. The U.S. has put more than a trillion dollars on a credit card for our children to pay, a burden that creates a drag on our economy that will last for generations. Meanwhile, Congress has shirked its responsibility to oversee these ever expanding conflicts.

Despite America’s huge investment, these wars have not succeeded even on their own terms. 17 years later, the Middle East remains in shambles. U.S. counterterrorism efforts have often undermined other efforts to reinforce civilian governance, the rule of law, and human rights abroad. We have partnered with countries that share neither our goals nor our values. In some cases, as with our support for Saudi Arabia’s proxy war in Yemen, U.S. policies risk generating even more extremism. Widespread migration of millions of people seeking safety from war-torn regions has allowed right-wing demagogues to unfairly blame the newcomers for the economic pain of working people at home.

And even with all the blood and money we have spilled, America still faces violent terrorist groups that wish to do us harm.

While our leaders were focused on wars in distant lands, the world changed under our feet. Would-be rivals like China and Russia watched and learned, and they are hard at work developing technologies and tactics to leapfrog the United States, in areas like cyber, robotics and artificial intelligence.

Neither military nor civilian policymakers seem capable of defining success — but surely this is not it. The first responsibility of government is to do what is necessary to protect ourselves at home and abroad, but it’s long past time we asked the question: what actions make us truly safer?

Let’s start by reexamining our force structure around the world. The United States has troops deployed in harm’s way in over a dozen countries today.

Take Afghanistan. We’ve “turned the corner” in Afghanistan so many times that we’re now going in circles. Poppy production is up. The Taliban are on the rise. Afghan forces are taking unsustainable losses. The government is losing territory and credibility. On my trip to Afghanistan last year, I met American servicemembers who were young children on 9/11. This isn’t working.

Yes, we can — and we must — continue to be vigilant about the threat of terrorism, whether from Afghanistan or anywhere else. But rather than fighting in an Afghan civil war, let’s help them reach a realistic peace settlement that halts the violence and protects our security. Let’s make sure that the three brave Americans killed in Afghanistan this week, including a soldier who grew up in Boston, are the last Americans to lose their lives in this war. It’s time to bring our troops home from Afghanistan — starting now.

Next, let’s cut our bloated defense budget. The United States will spend more than $700 billion on defense this year alone. That is more than President Ronald Reagan spent during the Cold War. It’s more than the federal government spends on education, medical research, border security, housing, the FBI, disaster relief, the State Department, foreign aid — everything else in the discretionary budget put together. This is unsustainable. If more money for the Pentagon could solve our security challenges, we would have solved them by now.

How do we responsibly cut back? We can start by ending the stranglehold of defense contractors on our military policy. It’s clear that the Pentagon is captured by the so-called “Big Five” defense contractors — and taxpayers are picking up the bill.

If you’re skeptical that this a problem, consider this: the President of the United States has refused to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia in part because he is more interested in appeasing U.S. defense contractors than holding the Saudis accountable for the murder of a Washington Post journalist or for the thousands of Yemeni civilians killed by those weapons.

The defense industry will inevitably have a seat at the table– but they shouldn’t get to own the table.

American security and American values should come ahead of the profit margins of these private companies. It is time to identify which programs actually benefit American security in the 21st century, and which programs merely line the pockets of defense contractors — then pull out a sharp knife and make some cuts.

America should also be reinvesting in diplomacy. Foreign policy should not be run exclusively by the Pentagon.

Yes, we should expect our partners to pay their fair share. But diplomacy is not about charity; it is about advancing U.S. interests and dealing with problems before they morph into costly wars. Similarly, alliances are about shared principles, like our shared commitment to human rights, but they are also about safety in numbers. Not even the strongest nation should have to solve everything on its own.

We should also look at where our defense spending is actually counterproductive. For example, the President has threatened Russia with a nuclear arms race, saying we’ll simply outspend our rivals. Boy, is that wrong. The United States has over 4,000 nuclear weapons in our active arsenal, and our conventional military might is overwhelming. Trump’s nuclear arms race does not make us — or the world — any safer.

Let me propose three core nuclear security principles. One: No new nuclear weapons. I have voted against and will continue to vote against this President’s attempt to create new, more “usable” nuclear weapons. Two: More international arms control, not less. We should not spend over a trillion dollars to modernize our nuclear arsenal, at a time when the President is doing everything he can to undermine generations of verified arms control agreements. Instead, let’s start by extending New START through 2026. Three: No first use. To reduce the chances of a miscalculation or an accident, and to maintain our moral and diplomatic leadership in the world, we must be clear that deterrence is the sole purpose of our arsenal.

More-of-everything is great for defense contractors — but it’s a poor replacement for a real strategy. We need to be smarter and faster than those who wish to do us harm. We need to tap our creativity to anticipate and evaluate both risks and responses. And we need to better weigh the long-term costs and benefits of military intervention. That’s how we’ll keep Americans safe.

Finally, a foreign policy that works for all Americans must recognize that America can project power abroad only if we are strong and secure at home.

But every day, shortsighted domestic policies are weakening our national strength. At a time when growing inequality stifles economic growth, Congress’ response has been a $1.5 trillion tax giveaway to the wealthiest.

Life expectancy in the U.S. is falling as drug overdoses skyrocket, and our health-care system struggles to respond. The U.S. is slashing domestic investments in education and infrastructure even as potential adversaries double down on those same priorities. Our government guts environmental protections while coastal cities spend days underwater and California burns.

Investments at home strengthen the economy, but these investments also serve national security. A 21st century industrial policy, for example, would produce good jobs that provide dignity, respect, and a living wage, and it would also reinforce U.S. international economic power.

Our needs at home are many: infrastructure to increase connectivity and expand opportunity across the United States. Immigration policies to yield a more robust economy. Education policies to equip future generations without crushing them with debt. High-quality, affordable health care. An economy that is fair and open to entrepreneurs and businesses of all sizes. A progressive tax system that requires the wealthy to pay their fair share. A government that is not for sale to the highest bidder.

The 2016 election provided a stark reminder that we must remain vigilant and fight for our democracy every single day. That starts with protecting our elections and democratic processes, and making it clear that there will be severe consequences for those — foreign or domestic — who meddle, hack, or undermine them. It means ensuring a meaningful opportunity for every American citizen to vote. And it means fighting for equal justice and protection under the law for all.

It also requires us to speak out against hateful rhetoric that fuels domestic terrorism of all kinds, whether in San Bernadino or Charleston, Orlando or Charlottesville, Fort Hood or Pittsburgh. We must speak plainly about all of these incidents. Just like the hateful terrorism of Al Qaeda and ISIS, domestic right-wing terrorism is completely incompatible with our American values. It is a threat to American safety and security, and we must not tolerate it in the United States of America.

I wanted to come here today because there’s a lot at stake — and it’s your generation that will live with the consequences of the decisions being made today.

Whether our leaders recognize it or not, after years as the world’s lone superpower, the United States is entering a new period of competition. Democracy is running headlong into the ideologies of nationalism, authoritarianism, and corruption.

China is on the rise, using its economic might to bludgeon its way onto the world stage and offering a model in which economic gains legitimize oppression. To mask its decline, Russia is provoking the international community with opportunistic harassment and covert attacks — including just this week, when Russia seized three Ukrainian Navy ships near Crimea.

Both China and Russia invest heavily in their militaries and other tools of national power. Both hope to shape spheres of influence in their own image. Both are working flat out to remake the global order to suit their own priorities. Both are working to undermine the basic human rights we hold dear. And if we cannot make our government work for all Americans, China and Russia will almost certainly succeed.

But here’s the thing about authoritarian governments — they are rotten from the inside out. Authoritarian leaders talk a big game — about nationalism, and patriotism, and how they — and they alone — can save the state and the people.

But the authoritarian system is rotten, because, by its very design, it stacks the deck for the wealthy and it depends on corruption in order to survive.

Vladimir Putin attacks the free press and thumps his chest about the power of Russia, but his real power comes from state-run corporations conveniently overseen by his friends and cronies. Corruption.

In China, President Xi consolidates his power and talks about the “China Dream,” while state-owned and state-influenced corporations make millionaires out of friends and family of Communist party elites. Corruption.

From Hungary to Turkey, from the Philippines to Brazil, wealthy elites work together to grow the state’s power while the state works to grow the wealth of those who remain loyal to the leader. That’s corruption, pure and simple.

This combination of authoritarianism and corrupt capitalism is a fundamental threat to democracy, both here in the United States and around the world.

It is a threat because economic corruption knows no borders — and in a global economy, corruption can provide a strategic advantage.

It is a threat because corrupt leaders enhance their own power by subverting the power of everyone else — and so they actively undermine free and open societies through cyber-attacks, disinformation campaigns, or support for illiberal politicians.

If free societies like ours slide toward corruption and autocracy, they risk becoming democracies in name only.

We need to be honest about the hard work that is needed to restore our democracy here at home and to align our foreign policy abroad to regain the trust of the American people.

I can’t leave here today without addressing the elephant in the room: President Trump and his political allies in Congress. We must face reality head on: President Trump’s actions and instincts align with those of authoritarian regimes around the globe. He embraces dictators of all stripes. He cozies up to white nationalists. He undermines the free press and incites violence against journalists. He attacks the independence of our Judiciary. He wraps himself in the flag and coopts the military for partisan purposes — but he can’t be bothered to visit our troops in harm’s way. And he is aided and abetted every step of the way by Republican politicians in Washington too pleased with his judicial appointments and tax cuts for the wealthy to stand up for fundamental American values.

The time for holding back is over. Patriots of every political persuasion must stand up to this type of behavior. Americans must demonstrate to this President and to the world that we are not sliding toward autocracy — not without a fight.

Fifty-five years ago, when President John F. Kennedy spoke here at American University, he said that, “our problems are manmade — therefore, they can be solved by man.”

The same is true today. OK, I’d add that they can also be solved by women, too.

Americans are an adaptive, resilient people, and we have met hard challenges head on before. We can work together, as we have before, to strengthen democracy at home and abroad. We can build a foreign policy that works for all Americans, not just wealthy elites.

The challenge we face may be our most profound since the end of WWII. Because here’s the truth: in our time together this afternoon, we’ve only just scratched the surface of the problems we face. None of this will be easy — but we persist.

I believe in us. I believe in what we can do. I believe in democracy and in what we must do to save it.

Photo courtesy of American University/Jeff Watts