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Progressive Vision Meets the Proverbial Road in Ukraine

Congress may finally have a tool for holding US policymakers accountable on foreign policy.

Words: Kate Kizer
Pictures: Alaric Duan

Most Americans are focusing on how to survive amidst an unprecedented global pandemic with little government support. Many are also blissfully unaware of the fierce, insular (and, at times, somewhat genocidal) debate occurring in Washington over arming Ukraine and a potential US–Russia war. And it’s happening within an echo chamber of predominantly white men whose main policy prescription is bullying and ridicule, that is matched only by their own attempts to berate anyone who suggests otherwise. If you aren’t on board with arming Ukraine to the teeth then it’s because you’re not white-male-and-Yale enough or as fellow columnist Emma Ashford put it: We’re just too young to understand.

In unplanned, yet perfect timing, congressional champions — Congressional Progress Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Chair Barbara Lee (D-CA) — unveiled a fundamentally revolutionary vision of foreign policy last week, offering hope of a different future. Reps. Jayapal and Lee were joined by over a dozen of their colleagues in introducing the Foreign Policy for the 21st Century resolution (H.Res.877) that would set up the US to lead “with diplomacy and human needs as the path to global security.” The outlines of the world that progressive are organizing to build globally are finally coming into focus, and it’s the exact opposite approach being advocated by the experts in Washington think tanks. 

More than just vision, the Foreign Policy for the 21st Century resolution should be seen as a critical accountability tool — an unprecedented opportunity for activists to push progressive electeds to expand their values-based analysis beyond our borders. That’s (theoretically) relatively easy in low stakes moments, but it becomes especially tough politically to chart an alternative to militarism and exploitation when the monied-powers-that-be (falsely) claim it’s a binary choice between war or nothing. And an upcoming congressional vote on Ukraine as soon as next week is the first opportunity to see which federally-elected progressives remain principled in the face of gaslighting for war.


Naturally, it is women of color leading the charge for a more common-sense, people-centered US approach to security. Reps. Jayapal and Lee, who represent multiple generations of progressive peace and security organizers, are the first to lay out a comprehensive roadmap to turning the page on our militaristic status quo. By centering untraditional, transnational existential challenges to security, this resolution rejects the idea that the most pressing need for our collective safety is maintaining US military or economic dominance above all else. Unlike left- and right-wing hawks, progressive lawmakers have laid out a comprehensive reform agenda for US foreign policy that focuses on multi-racial working class communities’ ability across the US, but also around the world, to thrive. 

The crisis in Ukraine reinforces that there are clear limits to relying on hegemony as the lynchpin to global security, especially when the transnational challenges we’re facing are further fueled by more militarism.

Boiling down questions of human, US, and global security into clickbaity, patriarchal tropes and painting entire countries, peoples, and cultures as “evil” or as neocolonial objects with no agency has done little, except distort everyday Americans’ perception of the world in which we live. Similarly, believing that sanctions or arming foreign militaries is a strategy that will create long-term stability and safety should be considered disproven following the collapse of both the Afghan and Iraqi security forces in the face of US withdrawal, and the clear failure of trying to sanction our way out of conflict in Cuba and Iran. Unfortunately, US policy toward Ukraine is just the latest example of questions of national security in Washington revolving around White Christian saviorism

The 19 lawmakers who introduced this resolution clearly recognize acting like the world’s policeman has rarely made the US the good guy, let alone safer. And that’s exactly the question the congressional votes on Ukraine will reveal: Will progressive leadership make Ukraine their first key test of accountability on foreign policy? Will at least H.Res.877 sponsors take this opportunity to point out that a $500 million, unaccountable military slush fund to buy more weapons and guns won’t prevent war, but is more likely to fuel instability and more violence? Will they cite their opposition to blanket sectoral sanctions, like those in the Ukraine bill, that create or exacerbate humanitarian nightmares, while breeding more corruption and repression?

Hubris, dick-measuring contests, and threatening nuclear annihilation to get a better negotiating position appears to have overtaken any attempt at developing a clear-eyed policy based on empirical, historical facts, and focused on helping build the security of the actual human beings under threat. It doesn’t matter how many times the US positions itself as a defender of democracy. So long as it continues to implement sanctions that strangle thousands of civilians daily and arm a series of brutal and/or corrupt strongmen whose only qualification as allies is that they don’t attack Washington’s ideology, its foreign policy will continue to fail. 

It’s within this context of strategic amnesia that it seems to matter little to experts or politicians that it’s best not to start a war with Russia… in the winter; that this conflict is not in fact out of the blue, but part of a decades-long cycle of tit-for-tat escalation where civilians are always the one who pay the price; that no, it is not a good idea to back an insurgency in Ukraine because it doesn’t work; that it was actually Ukraine’s kleptocratic (later, popularly-ousted) president who invited Putin to invade in 2014 (for which he was later convicted of treason) to help quell anti-corruption protests against the Kremlin-aligned government; and that nothing talked about over the last two weeks in Washington nor Moscow has been remotely about benefiting all people in Ukraine calling for their rights to self-determination. 


The crisis in Ukraine reinforces that there are clear limits to relying on hegemony as the lynchpin to global security, especially when the transnational challenges we’re facing are further fueled by more militarism. But it also reveals how the militaristic lens through which Washington views the world has made us less safe: Portraying diplomacy and compromise as naive, or engaging in maximalist, zero-sum diplomacy with Russia makes straightforward approaches — such as negotiating (with requires compromise), supporting the Normandy format talks that are already yielding results, and multilateral investment in bottom-up approaches already being led by change-makers on the ground — near politically impossible. 

As a new paradigm rooted in solidarity, dignity, and bottom-up reform takes shape, it’s time for progressives to call into question what it means to be safe in the age of climate chaos, worsening inequality, and rising racist ethnonationalism. It appears voting on whether to arm Ukraine will be their first test.

Kate Kizer


Kate Kizer is a leading progressive foreign policy strategist and legislative advocate. Kate was most recently the Policy Director at Win Without War, where she was a key leader in the fights to stop Trump's worst national security impulses, and to push Democrats to adopt bold alternatives. At the forefront of the legislative strategy and grassroots organizing of the recent war powers and weapons sales fights in Congress, Kate's work has helped lay the foundation for future transformational change in U.S. foreign policy. Follow her work on Twitter @KateKizer.


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