Generation ‘Why War?’

 the car, still loaded with people, made a wide U-turn and stopped; it was the end of the line.”– Paul Bowles, last words of The Sheltering Sky

It was my Grandfather’s favorite story, and he swore it was true: a man horribly lost in a maze of back roads, unable to make head nor tail of his map, stops to ask the way to the big city.

“Well,” he’s advised, after a solemn silence, “if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here.”

But in my new version, some friendly folk materialize, ask to see the map, turn it over, start to draw…


In the spring of last year, 12 young activists hatched a plan to achieve nothing less than a reformation of American foreign policy, launching their Foreign Policy Generation initiative by declaring:

We are all old enough to remember the events of September 11, 2001 and the impact they had on US policy, but were too young to have our voices heard in shaping those policies in the years that followed.

Now, though:

Millennials and Generation Z now constitute the largest voting bloc in the United States. We therefore see upcoming elections as an opportunity to articulate a progressive foreign policy platform for the next generation.

The co-directors of the group are Matt Korda, a Canadian researcher exploring “the nexus between nuclear weapons, climate change, and injustice” with the Federation of American Scientists, and author of a landmark piece, published on the 18th anniversary of 9/11, ‘We Need a Green New Deal for Nuclear Weapons;’ and fellow nuclear weapons expert Abigail Stowe-Thurston – published in journals as diverse as the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and Teen Vogue – with extensive knowledge of the politics (and languages) of Russia, Central Asia and North Korea.

L-R: Matt Korda, Namratha Somayajula, Sam Ratner, Susan Nahvi

L-R: Matt Korda, Namratha Somayajula, Sam Ratner, Susan Nahvi

Their colleagues include another nuclear weapons expert, Jennifer Knox; another Russian expert, Leona Amosah (also a “proud vegan” and trans activist); and another North Korean expert, Catherine Killough of Women Cross DMZ  – a concentration of intellectual energy suggesting both a general embrace of disarmament and the urgent need for détente – an ‘end to enmity’ – with reflexively-demonized ‘enemies’ in Moscow, Pyongyang, and elsewhere.

The other would-be paradigm-shifters are active in a depressingly-wide range of areas reflecting the chronic neglect of ‘human security’: refugees, torture and poverty (Matt Currie, a Toronto-based educator); climate justice (Christian Stirling Haig, a “Norwegian-American dual citizen from climate-vulnerable South Florida and the Arctic”); protection of civilians (and prisoners) in armed conflict (Susan Nahvi); patriarchy and militarism (Ashley Pratt); economic rights and prison reform (Namratha Somayajula); conflict, and enduring colonialism, in Africa (Sam Ratner); and the role of media and art in “the intersection of narrative and policy” (Laila Ujayli).


Given the profound ‘intersectionality’ of these perspectives and priorities, the group “spent many hours” in far-ranging debate, “guided” by one “overarching” conviction: that because “foreign and domestic policy are inherently connected,” “examining any particular issue in a vacuum fails to account for the unintended and cascading effects that the solutions will necessarily have in other policy areas.” “Given,” they write, that their efforts:

…are focused on US electoral platforms in 2020 and beyond, we recognize that there are limitations to the change we can expect in a relatively short time frame. Creating the country we truly envision would require fundamental shifts in the United States’ foundational systems, the outlook of its leaders, and the way we understand its history. We cannot simply legislate away oppression tomorrow – but the promotion of just policies is a valuable and necessary starting point.

The most basic ‘starting point’ is Using Force as a Last Resort, breaking with a “force-first (and often force-only) approach” devastating “communities at home and abroad.” To quote General Lawrence Wilkerson, Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Chief-of-Staff during the illegal US invasion of Iraq, “America exists today to make war,”often without regard to its own Constitution, leading to the obscene spread of the spectacularly counter-productive ‘Global War on Terror’ to almost 40% of the world’s nations. In contrast, “embracing a model of foreign policy based on human experiences” involves:

Tackling the Climate Emergency through a Green New Deal, featuring systematic “subsidy swaps” from non-renewable to renewable energy, and finally treating the Pentagon as the global-warming rogue – “the single greatest institutional carbon emitter on the planet” – it is.

L-R: Jennifer Knox, Laila Ujayli, Leona (Leo) Amosah, Matt Currie.

L-R: Jennifer Knox, Laila Ujayli, Leona (Leo) Amosah, Matt Currie.

Engaging Strategic Competitors, pre-eminently China and Russia, rather than preparing to ‘prevail’ against them in major conflict (conventional and nuclear). Such prioritizing of “‘soft’ tools like proactive diplomacy, investment, trade, and education” will allow the closure of “superfluous overseas military bases which are obsolete, expensive, environmentally harmful, and imperial in nature.”

Talking of ‘imperial,’ the group advocates decolonization of five “remnants of US empire” – the heavily-militarized territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Marianas and the US Virgin Islands – by offering “immediate binding referenda regarding their status within the United States.”

Reshaping Nuclear Weapons Policy, finally addressing “the myriad ways in which these weapons make the world less safe.” Specifically, by scrapping its “obsolete” force of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), the US should finally abandon its Cold War ‘triad’ (land-, sea- and air-based forces) currently scheduled to cost $100,000 per minute for the next 10 years; vow never to use nuclear weapons first, and never again build or deploy new nuclear weapons (something it is currently doing); revive its near-comatose bilateral nuclear arms control relationship with Russia; and recommit to the Iran nuclear deal.

In addition, acknowledging the immense nuclear mess it’s made since 1945, it should redeploy its technical expertise to providing “environmental remediation and humanitarian assistance to frontline communities harmed by nuclear testing, both domestically and abroad.”

Limiting the Role of Economic Sanctions, insisting on “legitimate and functional humanitarian exemptions” to avoid a repeat of the sadistic sanctions imposed on Iraq in the 1990s – leading to the deaths of at least 500,000 children  – and now again on Iran and North Korea.

Fixing the Broken Immigration System, closing “all concentration camps located within the United States,” abolishing the “unnecessary, unaccountable, and cruel” Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE), and recognizing that civilians “fleeing deteriorating climate conditions are refugees.”

Strengthening International Institutions, enabling them to fight, rather than exacerbate, global poverty and inequality. As the richest and most powerful nation on earth, the US should “participate fully in international organizations, particularly the United Nations,” even – imagine! – “paying dues” on time.

L-R: Abigail Stowe-Thurston, Ashley Pratt, Catherine Killough, Christian Sterling-Haig.

L-R: Abigail Stowe-Thurston, Ashley Pratt, Catherine Killough, Christian Sterling-Haig.

Pursuing Responsible Trade Agreements, insisting on clauses “addressing climate change in a globally cooperative way” and requiring “historically high-polluting states to help subsidize energy and other transitions when crafting environmental standards.”

Reforming Humanitarian Aid and Development Assistance, particularly where, through “military intervention, regime change, and support for authoritarian governments” (and, one might add, election-meddling) the US “has previously created and exacerbated suffering.” In addition, Washington must “repair the harms done to Black people through colonialism, slavery, food and housing redlining, mass incarceration, and surveillance.” (Such reparation is also owed, of course, to Indigenous communities genocidally-assaulted throughout US history.)

Enhancing Oversight and Accountability, a subject broached with particular feeling:

Most of us were in grade school while, in the years following 9/11, the United States government constructed and empowered a surveillance state that often acts unconstitutionally and with insufficient oversight. From our perspective, these fear-driven policies and institutions have imperiled Americans’ fundamental right to privacy and endangered the United States’ reputation internationally.

A long list of proposals follows, including banning “the systematic FBI practice of entrapping American Muslims in aggressive sting operations,” as well as ending “programs which allow state and local police forces across the country to acquire high-tech and dangerous military equipment from the Pentagon at little or no cost.” (The final suggestion is that “the Pentagon,” with an annual budget approaching three quarters of a trillion dollars, actually “pass an audit,” a basic obligation most voters probably assume it meets.)   

Transforming Military Alliances into Progressive Partnerships, recognizing that in “its current form,” the “US global alliance system…entrenches an exclusionary and hierarchical approach,” often enabling (think Saudi Arabia) “its allies’ harmful behavior,” when “the goal,” instead, should be “collectively solving global challenges.” To name but three, on all of which the US is “uniquely positioned to take the lead”: “kickstarting a global Green New Deal,” renovating “multilateral arms control,” and funding a “global anti-poverty campaign.” 


Reviewing the Platform, I was struck by its resemblance to the revisioning of Soviet foreign and defense policy under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s, the ‘New Political Thinking’ of glasnost (‘openness’) and perestroika (‘restructuring’) applied with dramatic effect – in the name of domestic renewal and world peace – to a vast and arrogant military-industrial bureaucracy. Mocked though I may be, I believe glasnost and perestroika are as badly needed in Washington today as they were in Moscow then (and now).

School Strike For Climate, Santa Rosa

Climate Strike, Santa Rosa, CA, March 2019. (Photo by Fabrice Florin, CC BY-SA, via Wikimedia Commons)

To avoid it gathering digital dust, the authors’ are keen to subject the Platform to an open restructuring of its own, initiating consultations in and beyond the Democratic Party, and across and beyond the United States. Ideally, indeed, parallel Platforms will emerge elsewhere, with Canada perhaps a prime candidate by virtue not just of its proximity to ‘the Giant,’ but also, alas, its ingrained complicity, through NATO and NORAD, in American nuclear militarism.

On February 27, Matt Korda kindly provided the Spectator with an email statement, stressing that because, “for the first time,” young people “are the largest voting bloc in the United States, policymakers who don’t act quickly to take ambitious steps that satisfy the next generation” will place “their own power at risk.” To that end:

…young people should do whatever they can to communicate those constructive desires and demands to the politicians that represent them. This is one of the key goals of Foreign Policy Generation: to provide a snapshot for policymakers of how a subsection of the next generation is thinking about a variety of policy issues – in the hope that those same policymakers will adjust their own stances in order to gain the support of this fresh crop of young voters. So far, I’m delighted to say that everyone to whom we’ve pitched the project – including congressional staffers and policy advisers for presidential candidates – has responded very positively.

In the spirit of forthright feedback, I’d like to offer my comments.


The Platform’s greatest strength, perhaps, is that in acknowledging the traumatic impact of 9/11, it avoids the trap (fallen into, as I lamented last month, by General Wilkerson) of idealizing American policy and conduct before that dreadful day. The whole project, indeed, is imbued with revulsion at the imperial nature of the Republic, at home and abroad, with a concomitant sense on redress and reparation – truth and reconciliation – as the guiding spirit of reform.

In this, it stands in extremest contrast to the ‘Old Political Thinking’ encapsulated by the distempered, Pravda-esque rantings of Christopher Ford, President Trump’s Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation, who on February 11 sounded the alarm against the “sort of madness” advocated by the “dim bulbs or apologists” of an “arms control Left” seeking “symbolic distance from those with incorrect ideas…such as the idea that geopolitics has something to do with power and with competition”: the ‘real world,’ presumably, requiring ‘real men’ to keep us safe. Foams Ford:

Such distancing may also help assuage Western liberal guilt rooted in fashionable fixations upon the historical sins of our own culture, upon Europe’s imperialist past, and upon the United States’ invention and first use of nuclear weaponry.

The core argument, he claims, of those – unlike him! – seeking “narrative control,” is that ‘progressives’ must “not only embrace a correct vision of the future, but must also,” in a relentless “ritual” of “self-criticism,” “repudiate former versions of the collective Western self.”

The FP Generation Platform doubtless conforms to Ford’s notion of a dangerous, self-brainwashing cult, hopelessly-hooked on “Post-Cold War Pathologies” of peace, cooperation, and (worst of all) empathy. Such cults, Ford warns, are inveterate foes of “arms control for adults” – which, as far as I can tell from close reading of his oeuvre, means no arms control for anyone.

In Ford’s terms, an ‘adult’ absence of ‘self-criticism’ was certainly on offer at this year’s Munich Security Conference, taking as its hand-wringing theme the specter of ‘Westlessness,’ the supposed dimming of the beacon of ‘Enlightenment,’ bestowing on the globe the blessings of science, industry, liberalism, free markets, and – drumroll, please! – NATO, described by the Alliance’s Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, as “in many ways…the ultimate expression of the ‘West.’” 

Catherine Killough, ICAN Paris Forum

Catherine Killough, ICAN Paris Forum, 14 Feb 2020. (Photo by Orel Kichigai, ICAN)

The Conference was consumed by debate between optimists – ‘The West is Winning,’ US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted  – and pessimists, lamenting the loss of American leadership of ‘the free world.’ But the real threat we face, the chronic disease we’ve contracted, isn’t ‘Westlessness,’ it’s ‘Futurelessness,’ life overshadowed – history and meaning radically devalued – by two intolerable threats: catastrophic climate change (and mass death) from global warming; catastrophic climate change (and far more rapid mass death) from even a ‘limited’ nuclear exchange.   

This, I suggest, is the one place the ‘next generation’ could have gone more boldly, for while the Platform enthusiastically embraces the goal of Net Zero carbon emissions, it does not explicitly endorse the goal of Global Zero nuclear weapons. Nor does it mention the new UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW, or Ban Treaty), despite its path-breaking emphasis on remediation and reparation, reflecting the shift, so dreaded by Ford, from state-centric to humanitarian disarmament. 

I have no doubt the group supports the Treaty: one of them, indeed, Catherine Killough, recently spoke at the Paris Forum of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its crucial Ban advocacy. The tactical peril, I suppose, of openly-embracing Abolition is that it detracts from the more ‘sellable,’ ‘doable’ reform agenda of abandoning the triad, adopting no-first-use, etc. But why not frame such gradualism in terms of a bigger, more inspiring human picture: as the means not to a nuclear posture we can somehow ‘live with’ – “minimum deterrence,” in the Platform’s anticlimactic phrase – but rather the end of the nuclear threat? Is there, after all, a carbon-based economy we can live with, rather than die from: why insist on Zero net emissions? And what about ‘Zero plantations’: wasn’t there a way to sanitize, rather than scrap, slavery?

Such a framing, in addition to its moral appeal, also ‘adds the value’ of a harsh, ‘real world’ truth. As President Kennedy understood, when it comes to the Bomb, either we or It will be abolished: if we really want out of the nuclear net, we really have to get to Zero.             

Perhaps, 75 years into the nuclear age, we’re so far from Exodus we can’t see the Promised Land? And to be sure, no one in their right mind would choose to start from here.

But if we don’t turn this thing round soon…


Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton. He may be reached here.