Monthly Archives: December 2018

Text of public talk delivered on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 2000

David Skidmore
Drake University

As we honor MLK, we also remember the names of the many courageous individuals who fought alongside him to expand the scope of freedom and opportunity in this country – Rosa Parks, Medger Evers, Bob Moses, John Lewis, Roger Wilkins and so many others that we could never hope to name them all here today. In fact, millions of Americans marched, sang, signed petitions and sometimes braved jail to challenge racial exclusion and oppression in this country. The crusade for civil rights was not about politics as usual, but was instead a vast, bottom up movement for social change.

With the Iowa caucuses almost upon us, we are in a season of conventional politics. But today I want to talk with you about movement politics and its potential to alter the terms of debate not just here in the US, but at the global level. Conventional politics revolves around politicians, political parties, political action committees, lobbying groups. Its highest expression is the vote and many have sacrificed and even died to expand access to the ballot box. Conventional politics is honorable and necessary. It is how we pick our leaders and choose between policy A and policy B.

But moments of profound and positive social change in this country have arisen not from conventional politics, but from movement politics – the unconventional churning of popular passion and creativity around basic demands for justice, freedom and democracy. The labor movement. The women’s movement. The peace movement. The environmental movement. The civil rights movement. These social movements shared certain traits in common. All were decentralized and non-hierarchical in structure. All based their strength upon grassroots support. All of these movements began outside of the boundaries of conventional politics. They depended upon dramatic applications of direct action – the labor strike, the hunger strike, the boycott, mass marches and civil disobedience. They all sought not just to tinker with existing policies, but to shift the moral center of gravity in the society at large. And all were controversial and even vilified in their day.

And yet in each case, movement politics changed the nature of conventional politics as ideas that were once considered radical and unthinkable came to be embraced within the system. The labor movement resulted in the 8 hour day, the minimum wage and the Wagner Act of the 1930s, which confirmed the rights of workers to engage in collective bargaining with their employers. The Vietnam-era peace movement led to the War Powers Act and the end of US involvement in a futile and bloody conflict. The environmental movement led to the Clear Air and Clean Water Acts. The civil rights movement led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Despite the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment, the women’s movement has led to the change of thousands of laws that have enhanced the rights and opportunities of women. Movement politics matters. Movement politics works.

As the title of my talk suggests, I want to argue that we have entered an era in which movement politics has shifted from the national to the global level. We have all heard the pundits talk about “globalization” and its significance for our daily lives. Our economy is more and more dependent upon those of other countries. Multinational corporations weave together operations that span the globe. Money and capital cross national boundaries in vast sums. The internet connects people from around the world. Vast media networks transmit cultural images far beyond their places of origin. Immigration results in massive movements of people from one place to another. We increasingly confront problems such as global warming or the spread of AIDS that cannot be resolved on a national level alone.

For better or worse, globalization is a fact of life. But a crucial question remains to be decided: What kind of globalization? In simplified terms, we face a choice between corporate globalism and grassroots globalism. Corporate globalism is a top down, elite controlled process driven by the search for profit. Grassroots globalism is a bottom up, democratic process driven by human needs and the quest for solidarity among peoples of different cultures and nationalities. The choice between these competing visions will determine the kind of world we bequeath to our children.

Corporate globalism is not evil. Nor is the desire for profit. Large corporations provide many of the products and services that enrich our lives daily. But the corporate vision is too narrow and too exclusionary. The profit motive does not respect the human need for community. It does not provide for those who fall behind in a hyper-competitive marketplace. It does not acknowledge the limits to growth or the need for environmental sustainability. It does not comprehend the value of cultural diversity. The corporate vision of globalization is dangerously myopic.

It is as a response to the limitations of corporate globalism that we are now witnessing the globalization of movement politics. The spread and deepening of transnational social movements has been quietly progressing for many years now. For the media, however, the battle in Seattle during the recent meeting of the World Trade Organization was the coming out party for this new kind of politics. Seattle became the focal point for a wide variety of groups that are demanding a more democratic and humane vision of globalization.

The rules of the existing world economic order focus predominantly upon corporate rights. Barriers to trade have been lowered. Multinational corporations have gained equal treatment under national laws. Intellectual property has been protected. But the emphasis is one sided. Grassroots global movements are now demanding that trade agreements establish minimum labor standards, that governments and corporations take steps to ensure that economic growth is environmentally sustainable, that poor countries be relieved of the crushing international debt burdens that create so much human misery.

But grassroots globalism extends beyond the international economy. Transnational social movements are addressing global issues such as peace, human rights, poverty, gender equality and the protection of indigenous cultures. These movements tie together activists from countries around the world. The internet serves as the primary medium of communication. And a commitment to democratic values serves as the core procedural norm.

Grassroots Globalism has already achieved important victories. The International Treaty to Ban Landmines was the product of over 1400 non-governmental organizations working to pressure governments to take action to rid the world of the estimated 100 million deadly mines that now plague countries such as Mozambique, Angola and Cambodia. The global warming agreement would not have come about without the persistence of hundreds of environmental groups from around the world. The human rights movement can take a large share of credit for the new International Criminal Court that will someday bring to justice those guilty of committing genocide and other crimes against humanity.

Americans play a major role in each of these networks. It is therefore ironic that the US government has yet to sign either the landmine or the ICC agreements and has signed but not ratified the global warming treaty. The US is also one of only a few countries that have not signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Children. As the world blazes new trails of cooperation, the US has fallen behind.

Governments are not the only targets of grassroots globalism. Transnational social movements have often campaigned to change corporate practices directly. An example concerns the issue of old growth forests, which play a critical role in maintaining global biological diversity. The Rainforest Action Network has demanded that the major home improvement retail stores make a commitment to phase out the marketing of products made with old growth wood. For several years now, RAN has organized protests and boycotts aimed at Home Depot and similar stores.

Last spring, a group of students from Drake, ISU and Grinnell held a protest at Home Depot as part of this campaign. By the fall of last year, Home Depot had capitulated, promising to phase out old growth wood. Lowes followed suit. The campaign then shifted to Menards. A group of students in my Grassroots Globalism class took part in another protest at Menards last Fall. This time the students engaged in civil disobedience, locking themselves down in the parking lot. 16 students were arrested by Des Moines police. One of those students was named Priscilla Wyman. When a reporter from the Des Moines Register asked Priscilla why she choose arrest in order to make her point, Priscilla pulled from her pocket a piece of paper that she carries with her. It contained a quote from Martin Luther King taken from his letter from the Birmingham jail:

You may well ask: Why direct action?…Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.

Movement politics is alive and well. And it remains as essential today as during King’s day. Today’s activists are working on a broader scale than ever before. The entire globe is their canvass. But they stand on the shoulders of those who came before and showed the way.





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Review of Betty Glad, An Amateur in the White House: Jimmy Carter, His Advisors and the Making of American Foreign Policy, Cornell University Press, 2009

David Skidmore
Drake University

Betty Glad’s examination of Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy record focuses on the president’s relationship with his principal advisors. Her thesis is relatively straightforward: Carter sought to pursue an idealistic foreign policy which produced some real successes, but which also suffered from complications resulting from Carter’s own inexperience and his inability to reconcile his own moralism with the realities of power politics. Over time, Carter abandoned essential elements of his initially liberal approach to foreign policy in favor of an increasingly hard line Cold War approach. This turn was crucially influenced by Zbigniew Brzezinski, who pushed aside Cyrus Vance and Carter’s other top foreign policy advisors through a combination of Machiavellian bureaucratic maneuvering and his own personal relationship with Carter. The end result was a disappointing and contradictory foreign policy record that departed in dramatic ways from the tone and substance of Carter’s early promises.

This is not an original interpretation. The factors that Glad emphasizes – Carter’s moralism, his inexperience and his inability to manage conflicts among his foreign policy advisors – have been conventional wisdom at least since the publication of Gaddis Smith’s Morality, Reason and Power. Other works that take a similar interpretation include Donald Spencer, The Carter Implosion: Jimmy Carter and the Amateur Style of Diplomacy; Richard Thorton, The Carter Years: Toward a New Global Order and Scott Kaufman, Plans Unraveled: The Foreign Policy of the Carter Administration.

Glad’s interpretation is as vulnerable to critique as the conventional wisdom it so closely mirrors. By focusing so narrowly on Carter’s personal characteristics and his relationships with key advisors, Glad misses the larger contexts, both international and domestic, in which decisions were made during the Carter years. And these contexts were arguably far more determining of Carter’s successes, failures and changes in direction than the twists and turns of the inner workings of the White House.

Carter’s moralism and inexperience in foreign affairs, for instance, are both vastly overemphasized by Glad and many other commentators. The priority goals that Carter and his team set for themselves in foreign affairs – strategic arms control with the Soviet Union, normalization of relations with China, the pursuit of Middle East peace, the conclusion of a canal treaty with Panama, the restoration of America’s image abroad and at home in the wake of the Vietnam debacle, the continuation of progress toward reduced barriers to trade in the global economy and gaining greater freedom from dependence on foreign oil – were inherited from previous administrations and represented objectives widely shared among moderate to liberal factions of the foreign policy elite. The connecting thread among these goals was the need to adjust to tightening international constraints on U.S. power and influence flowing from the rise of the Soviet Union to strategic parity, the growth of international economic challenges from Western Europe and Japan, the rise of Third World nationalism, the growing power of OPEC and the damage to U.S. prestige caused by failure in Vietnam.

Carter major achievements in office – SALT II (the terms of which were observed by both powers despite lack of ratification), the Panana Canal Treaties, the Camp David Accords, the transition to black rule in Zimbabwe, the recognition of China, the promotion of energy security (greater conservation, fuel switching to coal and natural gas in power plants, development of Alaskan oil fields, the filling of the strategic oil reserve, etc.), and the conclusion of the Tokyo Round of GATT negotiations – each served to relieve some of the international pressures and constraints that threatened U.S. interests during the seventies. These policies represented pragmatic responses to ongoing problems and should not be interpreted as expressions of Carter’s supposed moralism or a resurrected Wilsonian impulse. There is a coherence to Carter’s initial policy agenda that is often missed or misunderstood.

Indeed, Carter’s human rights rhetoric represented both a shrewd tactic for gaining office in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate and a means for restoring America’s claim to the moral high ground (soft power) at a time when U.S. prestige had sunk to a low point in world opinion. In actual practice, Carter applied human rights criteria selectively and strategically in U.S. relations with other states. All in all, the view that Carter’s policies were uniquely a product of inexperience, idealism and naiveté is greatly exaggerated.

So to is Glad’s emphasis on Brzezinski’s manipulative control over Carter as an explanation for the administration’s rightward turn. Far more important were domestic constraints posed by a conservative drift in Congress (even within Carter’s own party) and the public; a shift impelled by the rise of a constellation of Cold War and neoconservative pressure groups who mounted an unprecedented campaign against Détente and other liberal policies. In her introduction, Glad unwisely dismisses this right-wing campaign as a constant undercurrent in American politics that previous presidents had managed to overcome. Likewise, one finds no serious attention to domestic constraints in her narrative of Carter’s foreign policy-making record. What she overlooks, however, is that while previous presidents faced pressures from domestic hawks with regard to particular policies or decisions, Carter confronted across the board attacks on virtually his entire foreign policy agenda.

Carter’s rightward drift can be charted by way of his repeated attempts to appease conservative critics on appointments (e.g., Ted Sorenson), weapons systems (e.g., Trident, MX), defense spending, responses to Soviet involvement in Third World trouble spots, the Soviet brigade in Cuba debacle, Carter’s attacks on the Soviet’s human rights record, the administration’s tilt toward China and, finally, Carter’s almost hysterical response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Brzezinski’s rise in influence was a product of Carter’s attempts to accommodate the right, rather than a cause of the president’s increasingly hawkish tendencies. As he sought to win over Cold Warriors in the Senate and gain respite from attacks by groups like the Committee on the Present Danger, Carter naturally turned to the advisor who had the most credibility with such groups and even established Brzezinski as his back-channel conduit to conservative critics.

Contrary to Glad’s account, in other words, Carter’s initial policies had little to do with his personal moralism, but instead represented a pragmatic effort to adjust America’s global position in response to an age of tightened constraints abroad. In this respect, there was much continuity between Carter’s policies and his predecessors. Carter’s inexperience no doubt led to missteps and complications – such as his initial “deep cuts” arms control proposal to the Soviet Union – but a president capable of concluding SALT II, the Panama Canal Treaties, the Camp David Accords, the Tokyo Round of trade negotiations, the recognition of China and the transition to black rule in Zimbabwe can hardly be labeled an “amateur” when it comes to foreign policy (which is why the title is both misleading and unfair). And any account of U.S. foreign policy in the Carter years that downplays the domestic constraints that the president faced is inadequate.

In sum, Glad’s narrow focus on Carter’s personal qualities and his advisory system produces a flawed account of patterns of success and failure in his foreign policies and of the rightward drift of those policies over time. By ignoring the broader international and domestic contexts with which Carter grappled, Glad fails to grasp the underlying strategic rationale for Carter’s initial policy approach (one focused on adjusting U.S. policy to an age of growing international constraints) as well as the domestic factors that undermined this approach. In these ways, she repeats errors that are pervasive in much of the existing literature on Carter’s foreign policies.



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