How Domestic Civic Movements Could Reshape US Foreign Policy

President Joe Biden’s early reversals of Trump policies have included at least three that were the direct or indirect result of grassroots movements. The administration froze the extraction of oil and gas from federal lands, ended U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and launched an initiative to advance racial equity in the federal government. The youth-led Sunrise Movement, which made climate change a central issue of the 2020 election, is largely responsible for the first victory. Relentless grassroots pressure ended U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s disastrous offensive in Yemen. The Black Lives Matter movement forced national action on systemic racism at all levels.

Broad-based civic movements provide the energy, dynamism, and power-shifting ability necessary to address the world’s interconnected social, political, and economic crises, including climate change, staggering inequality, structural racism, and resurgent authoritarianism linked to white nationalism. Given the inextricable linkages between domestic and foreign policy, the ability of movements to bridge these domains is critical to addressing these challenges.

These kinds of powerful movements operating in the United States have human rights and human dignity at their core and bring together domestic and foreign policy. They are critical to developing and implementing effective solutions at home and abroad. And practical steps can enhance collaboration between domestic movements and the U.S. foreign policy community, building on previous efforts to bridge domestic and foreign policy.

Why Movements Matter 

For centuries, grassroots movements have driven social, political, and economic changes in the United States and globally. From abolishing slavery and ending apartheid, to winning women’s suffrage and worker protections, to resisting dictatorship, movements have achieved impressive successes while contributing to more democratic and inclusive societies. Rooted in communities and driven by volunteers, movements are fluid entities made up of diverse actors including youth groups, faith-based organizations, professional associations, neighborhood committees, trade and labor unions, NGOs, and artist groups. Movements have change-oriented goals and use extra-institutional tactics like vigils, marches, demonstrations, boycotts, strikes, and sit-ins, often in combination with courts and legislative actions, to raise the urgency of issues, disrupt the status quo, and shift incentives and power dynamics.

There has been a dramatic rise across the globe in the number of protests and movements focused on resisting authoritarianism (Hong Kong, Belarus, and Uganda); challenging corruption (Iraq, Lebanon, and Chile); and advancing religious freedoms (India), among other causes. The Black-led protests in the United States following George Floyd’s murder, which the Crowd Counting Consortium called the broadest in U.S. history, forced a national and global reckoning on racism and police brutality. The COVID pandemic, which has disproportionately harmed vulnerable and marginalized communities, exposed structural injustices and spawned protests demanding government accountability. Not all protests have focused on public health – there have been anti-mask protests as well in the U.S. and across world. 

Movements and U.S. Foreign Policy

Movements in the United States focused on issues including climate, labor rights, immigration, anti-poverty, and racial justice link domestic and foreign policy in their analyses, platforms, and coalitions. However, for institutional, budgetary, and other reasons, contact between these movements and the foreign policy community (particularly in the executive branch) has been limited. Exceptions to this include antiwar and labor movements, which have targeted defense and international trade agencies in the U.S. government.

The walls separating domestic movements and foreign policy should be dismantled by policymakers and civil society for three key reasons.

First, the intersectional approach that movements like Black Lives Matter, the Poor People’s Campaign, the Sunrise Movement, and feminist anti-war movements apply to their organizing efforts strengthens the analysis of issues like inequality, racism, and climate change by highlighting the linkages among them. For example, the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) policy platform connects systemic racism and police brutality at home to aggressive militarism, police and security force training, and the marketing of violent technologies abroad. The M4BL platform calls for the demilitarization of police forces and offers a plan for reinvesting war-making funds in domestic infrastructure and community well-being.

The Poor People’s Campaign, a faith-based U.S. anti-poverty movement, focuses on the five interlocking injustices of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, militarism, and the war economy, and the false narrative of religious nationalism. Drawing inspiration from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the movement connects U.S. militarism abroad to violence and poverty at home. Its 2020 Jubilee platform prioritizes “provid[ing] for the common defense” and lays out a plan for defunding militarism and reinvesting in communities. The movement has facilitated connections between U.S. labor groups, like the Service Employees International Union, and the proposed U.S.-European Union Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership to push for worker rights and fair trade.

A feminist peace initiative established in 2019 by Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, a group of 60 U.S.-based grassroots organizing groups comprised of working and poor people; Women Cross DMZ, a global movement of women mobilizing for peace on the Korean peninsula; and MADRE, an international women’s human rights organization, highlights how militarized approaches to security through weapons sales, militarized policing, and mass incarceration have contributed to violence and insecurity domestically and internationally. It calls for a reorientation of foreign policy around an intersectional, movements-focused framework. These movements and others, including the Women’s March and #MeToo, the DREAMers, and the LGBTQ and transgender movements, focus on those most adversely impacted by violence and inequality at home and abroad, including indigenous populations, Black and brown communities, and women.

A growing veterans’ movement, which includes traditional organizations like the Vietnam Veterans of America and newer groups like VoteVets, Secure Families Initiative, and Common Defense, works on both foreign and domestic policy. Common Defense focuses not only on traditional veteran issues but also larger society issues like health care, the minimum wage, and anti-poverty. These groups, which are starting to organize military families for alternatives to war and militarism, could play a significant role in changing the public conversation about national security priorities.

A second reason to remove the wall separating domestic movements and foreign policy is that engaging with grassroots movements would democratize U.S. foreign policy. That would bring motivated and mobilized constituencies into the foreign policy arena and make cross-national connections.

While technical expertise is critical to effective policymaking, the concentration of foreign policy expertise and decision-making in a relatively small number of hands inside the Beltway has disconnected foreign policy from mainstream America. The best way to address this disconnect is to diversify the foreign policy and national security communities to make them more reflective of the country, something groups like Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security and the Diversity in National Security Network are doing effectively. An additional and crucial approach is to engage with those movements that represent broad and diverse constituencies across the country.

Democratizing U.S. foreign policy through movement engagement would make it more inclusive of the interests and needs of domestic constituencies. At the same time, such actions would connect foreign policy to the kind of grassroots pressure needed to reduce reliance on military solutions and invest in alternatives. Movements led by youth and women are particularly adept at building diverse alliances and challenging the status quo.

A prime example is the Sunrise movement, a multiracial youth-led environmental movement with over 400 hubs across the United States that was established in 2017 to stop climate change and create a green economy. The movement, with tactics such as sit-ins at congressional offices and acts of civil disobedience, has driven the Green New Deal, which aims to shift American society to 100 percent clean and renewable energy over the next 10 years. Sunrise has combined skillful direct action, backed by extensive training, with successful campaigns to turn out the youth vote for political candidates who endorse the Green New Deal. The result has been a number of prominent electoral victories and a greater public understanding of the urgency of climate action.

Other youth movements have combined mass action with institutional politics to advance key policies. The DREAMers youth movement has built a broad, nationwide coalition to protect the rights of undocumented youth, fundamentally shifting the immigration debate. Dissenters, a youth-led anti-war group led by people of color, has mobilized hundreds of young people through local chapters to oppose war with Iran, linking the uprisings against policy brutality to the struggle against global militarism.

Feminist and women’s-led movements have a long history of resisting war and militarism, including the famously audacious campaign undertaken by Liberian women to end a civil war in 2003 that featured blockades and a sex strike. More recently, women marched across the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea to demand a negotiated peace to end that war. CODEPINK, a women-led grassroots organization in the United States working to end war and militarism, uses similar audacious tactics. The Black Lives Matter movement was founded in 2013 by a small group of Black women fed up with systematic police killings and centuries of entrenched racism in the United States.

The resolve of these movements and their ability to mobilize people across divisions and national borders make them a significant foreign policy asset – even if they do not feature prominently in foreign policy discussions. Their organizing prowess could strengthen efforts to increase U.S. foreign assistance in public health, women’s development, indigenous and LGBTQ+ groups, support for violence prevention initiatives, and greater investment in renewables.

Meanwhile, the cross-national nature of feminist, youth, environmental, anti-corruption, and racial justice movements is an added strength. The transnational solidarity around the Black Lives Matter movement, which included a campaign organized by U.S.-based BLM activists targeting the Nigerian government after its violent crackdown on activists protesting police brutality, is a case in point. The global environmental movement that includes the Sunrise movement, and which made Greta Thunberg a household name after her sit-in outside the Swedish parliament, has focused priorities and coordinated global mass actions.

The third reason why building bridges with movements is critical for foreign policy is that it could help close the hypocrisy gap between the values the United States professes overseas and the realities at home. As Travis Adkins and Judd Devermont of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) wrote, the failure to acknowledge and confront the legacy of slavery and racism in the United States has weakened claims to defend human rights and fundamental freedoms abroad. It was difficult for American diplomats to condemn apartheid in South Africa while Jim Crow was deeply entrenched in the United States. Similarly, it is hard for the United States to credibly criticize human rights abuses in places like Myanmar, China, and Russia in light of the systematic state-sanctioned killings of unarmed Black men and women in the US and militarized police responses to protestors.

Movements force honesty and self-improvement at home, which in turn enhances credibility and leverage abroad. The Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and ‘60s, which exposed profound injustices at a time when the United States and the Soviet Union were competing for global influence, ended legally-sanctioned racial discrimination in the United States and bolstered U.S. moral authority abroad. Similarly, the Black Lives Matter movement, which has brought together an unprecedented number of Americans from different generations, genders, races, and ideologies, has forced a conversation about police reform and systemic racism, while inspiring global solidarity actions.

At a time when foreign aid and development are coming under criticism for their role in perpetuating racist and neo-colonial policies and practices, listening to the experiences of individuals fighting to end poverty and advance racial and economic equity in the United States could deepen diplomats’ and foreign aid practitioners’ understanding of those issues. Those focused on human rights and democracy would do well to learn how movements in the United States, led by people of color, are countering anti-democratic policies and practices, the challenges they face, and how they are learning from activists and movements challenging authoritarianism abroad. 

Getting Practical 

Building meaningful relationships between domestic movements and the foreign policy community will take time, patience, prioritization, and commitment. While there are already strong connections between movement leaders and progressive members of Congress, notably through the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which recently introduced the 2021 People’s Agenda, developing links to the executive branch may take more effort. The National Security Council (NSC) and the White House Domestic Policy Council (DPC), along with the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), could start by acknowledging the powerful role of movements at home and abroad and commit to a listening tour. They might tap the experience and expertise of their younger staff, who are undoubtedly clued into these movements and familiar with their work.

The NSC or the DPC could help coordinate federal government engagement with movements and include both domestic and foreign policy officials. It may be a propitious time for such engagements given National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s depth of experience on domestic policy and DPC leader Susan Rice’s background in foreign affairs.  For example, meetings with the Poor People’s Campaign could include representatives from the State Department and USAID, in addition to the Department of Health and Human Services and other relevant domestic agencies. Meetings with M4BL activists or leaders of the Feminist Peace Initiative could involve a similar mix of State, USAID, the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and other agencies as appropriate. The purpose of these meetings would be to build relationships, exchange ideas, surface tensions, and discuss potential alignment around shared priorities.

Trusted intermediaries in civil society, including think tanks, academic institutions, faith-based groups, human rights and peacebuilding networks could host movement-centered roundtables and other convenings whose goal is to build relationships between movement leaders and policymakers and align strategies on shared goals in various issue areas. They could include domestic movement priorities in their outreach and advocacy strategies, something that the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobbying group, and Win Without War already do. While think tanks like the Quincy Institute and the Institute for Policy Studies have highlighted movements in U.S. foreign policy, and CSIS hosts a webinar series on Race and Diplomacy, more think tanks, foundations, and the NGO community could follow suit.

In its 2019 report, “Reimagining U.S. Security Spending for the 21st Century and Beyond,” Win Without War recommends four priorities: halting the spread of global authoritarianism, combating the climate crisis, reducing mass inequality, and repudiating militarism. These priorities could inform a series of roundtables or other meetings involving movement leaders and the FP community. The Poor People’s Campaign, whose People’s Agenda emphasizes the close interlinkages between domestic and foreign policy issues, could serve as a key conduit for these convenings. The movement roundtables that formed after the 2016 election, including Fight Back Table, the Social and Economic Justice leaders project, and The Frontline, which unites M4BL, United We Dream, and the Working Families Party, are other key interlocutors.

There are existing models of effective coalition building between foreign and domestic policy groups that could inform this process. One is the partnership that has developed in recent years between foreign policy experts and U.S. officials and civil society for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a global plan adopted in 2015 to end extreme poverty, reduce inequality, and protect the planet by 2030. In Pittsburgh, in an effort led by the mayor, different constituencies and stakeholders including city workers and Carnegie Mellon University have mobilized around the SDG framework and committed to achieving goals set out in the SDGs, notably those related to green jobs.

Another example is the Open Government Partnership (OGP), an alliance between governments and civil society organizations launched in 2011 to strengthen transparent and accountable governance. There are now 78 OGP national members, a growing number of local governments, and thousands of civil society organizations that come together to co-create OGP action plans focused on reinvigorating democracy. U.S. civil groups have prioritized combating corruption, protecting civil rights and electoral integrity, and tackling disinformation in the fourth OGP national plan. The linkage between open governance and racial justice opens new avenues for OGP engagement with domestic movements in the United States.

The Biden-Harris administration could use platforms like the SDGs and OGP, along with other high-level initiatives, to highlight the work of movements and build bridges between the domestic and foreign policy communities. One such opportunity is the Summit for Democracy that the administration has committed to hosting and that Secretary of State Antony Blinken said would likely occur by the end of this year. The summit, which will seek to address democracy challenges at home and internationally, could put movements fighting corruption, authoritarianism, and inequality in the United States and abroad at its center. Prioritizing engagement with activists and movement leaders in the lead-up to, during, and following the summit would signal humility and a recognition of their importance in advancing democracy.

Exchange and fellowship programs could be used to build and strengthen relationships between movements and the foreign policy community. Existing exchange programs that send diplomats and Foreign Service officers to work with state and local government offices could be expanded to include “postings” with social movement organizations. The State Department and USAID could consider hosting “activists-in-residence” to build bridges between domestic movements and offices focused on human rights and democracy overseas. Think tanks, NGOs, and philanthropies could establish fellowships for movement leaders and federal government leaders dedicated to forging these relationships.

Others have recommended creating venues where foreign policy professionals could talk openly with American and overseas audiences about their experiences with racism. Establishing and institutionalizing these fora, and inviting movement leaders to participate in them, would generate honesty while building trust and relationships between the domestic and foreign policy communities. At the same time, there is always a risk that such interactions between movements and policymakers could lead to exploitation of the former by the latter. Movement leaders should establish clear ground rules for policy engagement, guard their political independence, and use their best judgement about whether and how to engage with policymakers.

Anticipating Challenges 

The perspectives, approaches, and tactics used by activists and movements may differ from what government officials are used to. Unlike government bureaucracies and traditional NGOs, grassroots movements are fluid, non-hierarchical, and decentralized by design. For this reason, inclusivity and flexibility on issues of rank are particularly important. Some of the most impressive activists and organizers are local youth leaders who will be at first unknown to most policymakers and NGO leaders.

While movements include policy experts and those skilled in advocacy and negotiation, they also feature activists who have no qualms about engaging in civil disobedience or being arrested for challenging government policies. They would likely be very sensitive to attempts to coopt or water down their goals and strategies. While some activists may not wish to engage with government officials for ideological or other reasons, others will see engagement as core to their inside-outside strategy. Policymakers should avoid “choosing favorites” and prioritize the agendas of movement leaders. They should be aware that U.S. movement leaders, who have experienced many hardships and traumas over the past few years, may have immediate priorities that take precedence over engagement with the foreign policy community.

Public and private funding pose further challenges to bridge-building. Philanthropic funding, for example, is usually divided between domestic and international programming. There are some noteworthy exceptions, including efforts by the Colombe Foundation, Arca Foundation, Compton Foundation, and Ploughshares to bridge these arenas. The campaign to right-size the Pentagon budget, which brought together the National Taxpayers’ Union, Americans for Tax Reform, Win Without War, and the Coalition on Human Needs, is a good example of philanthropic funding that incentivized domestic-international collaboration. The Colombe Foundation has actively connected M4BL with anti-war groups.

Furthermore, the amount of private funding to groups focused on peace and security (about 1 percent of total foundation giving) is miniscule compared to the amount of funding in the social- and environmental-justice ecosystem. This disequilibrium poses a challenge to effective collaboration between groups focused on social justice and those focused on peacebuilding and anti-militarism.

The federal budgeting process creates further barriers. The 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA), which created a decade-long budget cap and a firewall between domestic and defense funding and which requires that any increase in domestic spending has to be matched by increases in defense spending, discouraged honest conversations about budget priorities and resulted in an explosion of post-9/11 defense spending. The expiration of the BCA this year creates an opportunity to revisit budget priorities and could prompt collaboration and alignment between domestic and foreign policy groups. Movements will be key to making this happen.

Conclusion 

Movements are natural bridges between domestic and foreign policy. They bring fresh ideas, critical perspectives, and the ability to mobilize diverse coalitions over interrelated issues. Movement participation could democratize U.S. foreign policy while strengthening domestic constituencies for foreign assistance programs and priorities – because they would be seen as improving communities and priorities at home. These partnerships could build momentum for focusing U.S. foreign and national security priorities and budgets on human security.

Tensions and disagreements between movements and the foreign policy community are inevitable and healthy. While intermediary organizations such as universities, NGOs, think tanks, and foundations can help facilitate relationship-building and problem-solving, it may not be possible or even desirable for movements and policymakers to reach unified positions on key issues. Still, their interaction could pave the way to dynamic new coalitions, and create a sense of urgency about the interconnected crises faced jointly by the United States and the world. Ultimately, they could build the power necessary to transform these crises and build a more just and peaceful world.

IMAGE: Demonstrators from several environmental groups including Extinction Rebellion and Sunrise Movement demand broad action at a youth-led climate strike near City Hall on December 6, 2019 in New York City. Hundreds attended the strike, the latest in a series of school walk-outs dubbed “Fridays For Future.” (Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Maria J. Stephan

Maria J. Stephan (@MariaJStephan) is an advisor on the Horizons Project with PartnersGlobal Institute and Humanity United. She formerly directed the Program on Nonviolent Action at the U.S. Institute of Peace. She is co-author of "Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict," "Bolstering Democracy: Lessons Learned and the Path Forward," and "Is Authoritarianism Staging a Comeback?"