U.S. Politics and Global Responsibility

Although the U.S. election season seems never ending, there is no substantive discussion of the world beyond the borders. This claim might seem a bit strange. After all, debate organizers are always careful to balance “domestic” and “foreign” policy. But the “foreign policy” discussion fails to appreciate the deep links between the United States and the rest of the world. It is too often restricted to the narrow military dimension and too often shrouded in the dark rhetoric of dualism—dividing the world into allies and enemies, white hats and black hats, freedom lovers and terror enablers.   

To some extent, this can be explained by the enduring influence of Calvinist theology in the American worldview, seen especially through the prism of American exceptionalism. This is not compatible with Catholic social teaching, which instead insists on a global common good—and that this global common good is actually a higher good. The challenges that come with a globalized and interconnected world require, in the words of Pope Francis, “a new and universal solidarity.” With this sense of solidarity, globalization can too easily slide into a globalization of indifference, a refusal to acknowledge that we are all responsible for each other and for our common home.

This is also affirmed by solidarity’s sister, the principle of subsidiarity. Subsidiarity is about taking decisions at the right level, and Catholic social teaching recognizes that in a globalized world, the right level is often the supranational level. An obvious example lies in global cooperation for avoiding war and building up a positive peace. Another lies in the management of the interconnected global economy—Pope Benedict XVI called explicitly for a world political authority with responsibility in this area, and the Vatican followed up with a call for global coordination on financial reform. More recently, Pope Francis extended this logic to the environment, calling for enforceable international agreements over all areas of the global commons. He explicitly endorsed the Paris Agreement on climate change, signed by 196 nations last December. This agreement commits countries to a goal net-zero carbon emissions by the second half of the century.

This alignment of solidarity and subsidiarity toward the global common good bears special resonance the United States, given its enormous wealth and outsized influence in global governance, as well as its historical commitment to the cause of multilateralism and global cooperation. In his pathbreaking speech to Congress last September, Pope Francis dwelt more on U.S. global responsibilities than on domestic policy priorities. He talked about welcoming immigrants, building peace and ending the arms trade, alleviating poverty and hunger, and protecting the environment. This was his core political message to the United States, and it was a message of global responsibility.

So what are the lessons for current political debates?

On the core issue of climate change, there is barely any acknowledgement of global responsibility. Climate change is the neglected stepchild of American politics. While the world is seeing more severe droughts, flooding, fires, and record heat waves month after month, year after year, this is barely visible on the American radar. The Paris Agreement too is missing from the debate.

And for the past quarter century, the United States has refused to take action against climate change, pinning the blame on developing nations like China and India. In this debate, hardly anybody raised the issue that U.S. carbon emissions are about 17 tons per person, while the equivalent figure in both China and the European Union are about 7 tons per person. Does American exceptionalism permit such carbon exceptionalism? American political discourse also ignores the fact that the poorest three billion people in the world account for a mere 6 percent of the cumulative carbon emissions, and that these are the very people suffering most from the lifestyles of the rich.

What would a true commitment to the global common good look like in this area? It would require Americans not only to reduce their own carbon footprint, but also to pay the “ecological debt” imposed on the world’s poor by providing financial and technical resources to help them cope with the effects of climate change and invest in renewable energy. Global solidarity would also extend to the entire spectrum of sustainable development—including poverty, hunger, inadequate healthcare and education, and all forms of social exclusion.

But how can this be paid for? There is one obvious source. The United States spends almost $600 billion a year on the military, which amounts to more than half of all domestic discretionary spending—and almost 40 percent of global military spending. This is hardly ever questioned. Even those most enamored by “small government” nearly always make an exception for the military.

Yet this kind of “preferential option for the military” comes under intense scrutiny from Catholic social teaching. Pope Francis constantly condemns the global arms trade—in his speech to Congress, he denounced the “money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood.” It is also no coincidence that the three 20th century Americans he held up as role models in this speech—Martin Luther King, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day—were all fiercely opposed to war and the war machine.

It makes moral sense, therefore, to shift resources from the military to sustainable development. This is what Pope Paul VI proposed in his landmark 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio—he called for a world fund to “set aside part of their military expenditures for a world fund to relieve the needs of impoverished peoples.” This key insight seems to have been conveniently forgotten, but it needs to be revived.

Everything is connected

The notion that “everything is connected” is a constant refrain in Laudato Si’. Pope Francis is talking mainly about how we treat the earth and how we treat the poor. But this point holds more generally. Issues like war and peace, climate change, global poverty, immigration and refugee flows are all related. And while Americans are obsessed with terrorism, they never seem to really connect these dots to the threat of terrorism.

There is very little debate about the blowback from decades of disastrous U.S. foreign policy. As demonstrated by Jeffrey Sachs and Hannah Sachs, the U.S. military-intelligence complex is implicated in the destabilization of entire regions in the postwar period. In the Middle East alone, the toppling of Mohammad Mosaddegh by the CIA in 1953 paved the way for the Iranian revolution in 1979; the military support for the Islamists in Afghanistan in the 1980s gave rise to Al Qaeda; and the invasion and occupation of Iraq in the 2000s provided fertile conditions for the rise of ISIS. Yet there is no accounting for any of this in the U.S. political debate.

Closer to home, Americans bemoan the influx of immigrants across the southern borders, with many even pushing for deportation and wall building. But they never acknowledge their own complicity—the effect of trade policies on the poor, the role of large multinationals in harming the environment, the destabilization of entire regions caused by the insatiable American demand for narcotics combined with an unending supply of American firearms.

Similarly, there is also no real discussion of the connection between instability and climate change. With all the focus on Syria, there is barely any acknowledgement that this war has its roots in severe drought—possibly the most severe drought since the dawn of agricultural civilization. Because of this, herders lost 85 percent of their livestock, 75 percent of farmers experienced crop failure, and 1.5 million people were displaced. This climatic disaster, combined with the destabilization of neighboring Iraq by the US-initiated war, created the perfect storm for war, carnage, and the rise of ISIS. It provoked the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War. And as temperatures continue to rise, we should expect to see far more displacement, conflict, and chaos. The current refugee crisis is just a warning shot.

All of this has clear implications for U.S. politics. A true politics of the global common good would require the kind of sober democratic deliberation that has been sorely missing. What would an ethic of global responsibility look like in practical terms? First, implementing the Paris Agreement would become a major policy priority. Second, the military budget would be cut and both overt and covert intervention limited, with more deference to the United Nations. Third, foreign policy would be guided by the sustainable development agenda, especially in troubled regions—including by using funds from military budget savings. Fourth, there would be a humane approach to immigration, and a special commitment to accept refugees from regions where the United States is implicated in the political upheaval.

The ultimate goal, of course, is a peaceful world where all can flourish. This cannot be brought about by the lethal combination of insularity and bellicosity. As Pope Paul VI once wrote, “if you want peace, work for justice” and “development is the new name for peace.” Or in the words of Saint John Paul II, the two keys to peace are development and solidarity. These insights are even more relevant today, given the gravity of global challenges.

Yet such a vision need not be motivated solely by altruism. Given these deep interconnections, helping others is actually the best way to help yourself. Over the longer horizon, solidarity and self-interest align.  

Yet the United States has a long way to go to make this vision a reality. It must begin with a dose of humility—realizing that America is an important country with an important mission, but that importance does not signify exceptionality. And it needs to transcend the inherent short-termism, individualism, and parochialism that seem to define political and economic decision-making. This new mindset would be the first step toward an authentic politics of the global common good. 

Tony Annett is the Climate Change and Sustainable Development Advisor, Earth Institute, Columbia University, and Religions for Peace.