1. Update
  2. U.S. Wars & Militarism, Peacebuilding

Building the Movement for a New Peaceful Foreign Policy

Annual Meeting 2019

By Diana Ohlbaum, November 14, 2019


FCNL's senior strategist and legislative director for foreign policy, Diana Ohlbaum, delivered this address at Annual Meeting 2019.

I came to Washington because I was angry, I was afraid, and I was outraged. Our president was cozying up to racists and carrying out undeclared wars. He was showering billions on the Pentagon while shredding social safety nets. He was marching us toward nuclear war and annihilation of the planet.

No, that wasn’t Donald Trump. That was Ronald Reagan.

Today those challenges seem almost quaint in comparison to the current hyper-militarized, hyper-polarized environment. I know how easy it is to sink into frustration and despair. Indeed, sometimes it feels like one step forward, two steps back:

  • We now have troops deployed for combat in 14 countries, and we have special operations forces in 149 countries.
  • The $738 billion we plan to spend on the Pentagon this year is more, even accounting for inflation, than we spent at the height of the Cold War.
  • In fact, the highest full year of Reagan’s national defense spending was still below the lowest full year of Obama’s national defense spending.
  • We’ve terminated the INF treaty and the Iran Nuclear Agreement and begun amassing an arsenal of supposedly more “usable” nuclear weapons.
  • Perhaps worst of all, there’s an entire generation of Americans that has grown up thinking this is normal.

You and I know this isn’t right. This aggressive, bullying approach to the world is not only ineffective, counterproductive, self-destructive, and often unconstitutional, but also morally repugnant.

Our addiction to the ways of war is so all-consuming that we are blinded to the harm we cause ourselves and others.

It is a symptom, to quote the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “of a far deeper malady within the American spirit.”

Viewing other countries as “ours” to control and punish, and the earth’s resources as “ours” to take or destroy, is fundamentally incompatible with Quaker teachings, as well as with universally-accepted principles of human rights and international law, and the ethical traditions of every society and every religion.

Our addiction to the ways of war is so all-consuming that we are blinded to the harm we cause ourselves and others. We have drunk so deeply of hubris, greed, and vanity that we can see in our nation’s conduct only honor, generosity, and virtue.

Now let me say right off: this isn’t just about Donald Trump. It goes way back to the origins of our nation.

From the systematic massacre and forced removal of Native American peoples from their lands, to the abduction and enslavement of millions of Africans, to the annexation of Mexican territory under the banner of “Manifest Destiny,” the United States has taken the path of subjugation and conquest from its very start.

The endless, unwinnable, and often unconstitutional wars that followed 9/11 are only the latest manifestations of a system of thinking and behavior that long predates the current dysfunction. What our country so desperately needs is not just a policy change. We are not seeking to accomplish the same objectives by less violent means. I’m talking about paradigm change. I’m talking about what Dr. King called a “radical revolution of values,” a challenge to the fear, arrogance and bigotry that cause us to seek global military domination.

For me, a new paradigm would mean recognizing that we can’t make ourselves more secure by making others less secure.

It helps to visualize what the alternative might look like. And that’s exactly what you’re doing this weekend with your revisions to “The World We Seek”.

For me, a new paradigm would mean recognizing that we can’t make ourselves more secure by making others less secure. The United States, instead of exempting itself from the rules and norms we apply to other nations, would become an exceptionally good partner and a leader by example. We would use diplomacy first and choose multilateral fora as the primary venues for solving problems and building cooperation.

Instead of seeking military primacy, we would embrace military sufficiency, maintaining only the conventional forces we need to deter and defend against attack. We would abolish nuclear weapons and recognize that most of the challenges we face in today’s world, such as climate change, have no military solutions. In fact, the more we spend on preparing for and fighting wars, the less we have available to address the real problems that confront us.

Six years ago, FCNL and AFSC put out a working paper called “Shared Security” that offered a reimagining of U.S. foreign policy. It presented a vision of the world we seek and a set of principles for ethical and effective engagement in the global community.

The problem is, simply presenting the alternative has not been enough. You can’t cure a chronic illness by showing someone a picture of good health. Even though poll after poll has shown that American voters want to see a foreign policy focused on international cooperation, human rights, and peacebuilding, our elected leaders have not been able to give us one.

Underneath our nation’s outward behavior lies a system of widely-held, but rarely acknowledged beliefs and assumptions about the U.S. role in the world – what I call the 'Militarist Paradigm'.

So it’s time to ask the question: Why is the U.S. government so reliant on the use of threats, coercion, and military force around the globe, and why can’t our policymakers admit it’s not working? Why are we so stuck in this way of relating to the world, and what do we have to do to change it?

And that’s where I think we have something fundamentally new to offer: a diagnosis of the underlying malady that holds our nation in its grip, and a prescription for nursing our popular spirit back to health.

It all starts by looking within.

Underneath our nation’s outward behavior lies a system of widely-held, but rarely acknowledged beliefs and assumptions about the U.S. role in the world – what I call the “Militarist Paradigm”.

It involves a general attitude of national superiority – that we are the best, we know what’s best for others, that we have the best interests of the world in mind, and therefore that the rules that apply to others don’t apply to us. We believe that our own suffering is greater and more important than that of others.

It involves a generalized perception of military solutions as “strong” (and therefore good) and diplomatic solutions as “weak” (and therefore bad). Civilian politicians, often more than military leaders themselves, believe that making peace is naïve and making war is realistic. This blind faith in the power of war is what Professor Ron Mock of George Fox University called the “myth of effective violence”.

What makes the Militarist Paradigm so insidious is the way it perpetuates itself.

It’s no coincidence how closely these attitudes mirror the age-old tropes of white supremacy and male privilege. The Militarist Paradigm is part “White Man’s Burden”, part “Might Makes Right”, part “Father Knows Best”. The sense of entitlement, the expectation of obedience, and the fear of loss of status are palpable.

This way of looking at the world is expressed not only through U.S. global conduct, but through domestic policy in the form of border walls and police impunity, the Muslim Ban and kids in cages.

By drawing on, and reinforcing, selected beliefs and values of the American public, the Militarist Paradigm masquerades as “common sense”. Yet in effect, it transforms white male privilege into a national pathos, and manipulates the fear of losing this privilege into a justification for brutality, exclusion and endless war.

What makes the Militarist Paradigm so insidious is the way it perpetuates itself. This way of thinking is embedded in the laws and political processes that define the character of our nation. It has molded our system to crave more of what is literally killing us.

We have a system under which candidates must raise enormous sums of money in order to be elected, and at the same time a campaign finance system that allows corporations, lobbyists and wealthy individuals to make virtually unlimited contributions in secrecy.

We have an electoral system that gives outsized influence to small states and rural populations while underrepresenting large cities and minority populations.

To keep growing, the arms industry must continually sell not just weapons, but the threats that justify their use.

We have laws that permit a revolving door of employment between the Pentagon, Congress, and the arms industry.

These laws and processes are not given by God, but chosen by men, and I use the term “men” advisedly.

The third element of the Militarist Paradigm is an economic system that is predicated on violence toward people and the Earth.

Our fossil-fueled economy demands unimpeded access to foreign oil and gas supplies, the steady flow of which is presumed to require U.S. military protection. And it’s a vicious cycle, because the Department of Defense is the world’s single largest consumer of oil and single largest producer of greenhouse gases.

We may think we don’t have industrial planning, but in fact our government has subsidized the arms industry to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars each year. Nine out of the top 10 government contractors are military contractors, and they distribute their work across almost every congressional district.

To keep growing, the arms industry must continually sell not just weapons, but the threats that justify their use.

At the same time, our system of private funding for universities, think tanks, and the media has created a proliferation of competing outlets that are highly dependent on funding from self-interested corporations and authoritarian foreign governments.

These are some daunting challenges. We all know that paradigm change won’t be easy. And we know that the Military-Industrial Complex won’t surrender its power without a fight. But we need at least to recognize and acknowledge the breadth and depth and shape of what ails us before we can devise an effective remedy.

And with your help, we are doing just that. I come from a religious tradition of “Tikkun Olam,” which means “repair the world” in Hebrew. It requires us not only to behave in accordance with our values, but to actively pursue social justice.

Here at FCNL we are taking corrective measures to heal our country. We are inviting partners to help us develop a long-term roadmap for getting from where we are to where we want to be: a plan to counteract the economic, political, and ideological sources of militarism. FCNL does not have the expertise or the mandate to work on all these issues, so other organizations will play an important role. We will work in coordination with them and build on their comparative strengths.

For the first time, we have Republicans and Independents and Democrats all agreeing with FCNL that War is Not the Answer.

We know that one step on the road to peace is diversifying the decisionmakers. The current foreign policy elite is overwhelmingly part of the problem, not part of the solution. We need new thinkers who can develop credible proposals for restoring our democracy and transitioning to a people-centered foreign policy.

We’ll cultivate political leaders to champion these proposals and move them into the mainstream.

We’ll develop traditional and social media campaigns to carry our messages to a broader audience.

And we’ll work with all of you -- our incredibly active and powerful grassroots networks – to get these proposals passed by Congress and enacted into law.

But the first step in recovering from our dependence on coercion, threats and violence is the internal work we all must do to relinquish the fears and prejudices that bolster the status quo. It is the type of work that the brilliant and courageous Quaker, John Woolman, meant when he talked about liberating people from the greed that led them to enslave others.

To help in this work, we envision leading a process of thoughtful, respectful dialogue in our meetings, our interfaith circles, and our larger communities. If we fail to do this patient listening and honest exchange, our country’s divisions will only grow deeper and harder to bridge.

After people engage in self-reflection and open themselves to new ways of thinking, we want to inspire and empower them to act. We need to grow a broad, popular peace movement that will generate pressure to demilitarize our economy, our political system, and our foreign policy.

It’s a tall order, I know. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be quick. But that’s what so special about FCNL and about Quakers. We are prophetic. We are persistent. We are powerful. We are in it for the long haul and we are in it because our consciences compel us to do so.

But let me be clear: we lead not only with our hearts, but also with our heads. This is an important moment in American history, a time when so much looks dark and gloomy, but in which all the seeds of change can germinate. It’s our duty to ensure that what grows in this soil are the seeds of constructive, peaceful and positive change.

It’s fertile soil for positive change because of the extreme outrageousness of the current administration. The unparalleled corruption, disregard for law and Constitution, disdain for reason and truth – these have motivated so many Americans, young and old, to understand what is at stake and reclaim their voice in our country’s future.

It’s the right moment for change because the American people recognize that the current approach is not working. Americans are nearly twice as likely to say that U.S. military interventions make us less safe rather than more safe, and 69 percent of voters want an end to endless wars. Among veterans, almost two-thirds say the war in Iraq was not worth fighting.

For the first time, we have Republicans and Independents and Democrats all agreeing with FCNL that War is Not the Answer.

And there is no time for delay because the continued existence of our planet demands immediate action.

Together we have the power to change the world, to heal the world, and to achieve the culture of peace that is our highest calling.

Our goal is to build lasting consensus -- not just temporary, partisan gains. And the good news is, we already have within us exactly what we need to build that consensus. We have love. Love that multiplies each time it is shared. Love not only for ourselves and our country, our family, friends and all our neighbors, but love for those who offend us and wish us harm. Love that transcends race and gender and nation and – yes, Trump. Even Trump.

In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, “If human beings can be trained for cruelty and greed and a belief in power which comes through hate and fear and force, certainly we can train equally well for greatness and mercy and the power of love which comes because of the strength of the good qualities to be found in the soul of every human being.”

I know that my own power of love has yet to be fully expressed. I rise faster to indignation than compassion; I find it difficult to empathize with people whose views offend me. But the love and support of this FCNL community is an inspiration to me and to everyone we touch. You have taught me that love is more potent than anger and hate. Together we have the power to change the world, to heal the world, and to achieve the culture of peace that is our highest calling.

Diana Ohlbaum

  • Senior Strategist and Legislative Director for Foreign Policy

Diana Ohlbaum directs FCNL’s foreign policy lobbying team and leads an effort to replace the current U.S. foreign policy paradigm of military domination and national superiority with a more ethical and effective one based on cooperation and mutual respect.