Internationalism and the Progressive Movement

BY Ken Brociner

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We have too often neglected our internationalist responsibilities–especially when it comes to confronting the ravages of world poverty.

One of the finest traditions of the American left has been its historic commitment to solidarity with the oppressed and poverty-stricken peoples of the world.

In the last few years, however, the progressive movement has become far too insular. As a result, we have too often neglected our internationalist responsibilities–especially when it comes to confronting the ravages of world poverty.

According to the World Health Organization, approximately 18 million people die each year due to poverty-related causes. This staggering figure represents about one third of all deaths that occur throughout the world on an annual basis. And these are deaths that could be easily prevented through better nutrition, safe drinking water, and adequate vaccines, antibiotics and other medicines.

As Robert Creamer points out in his book Stand up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, “A Manhattan Project to provide clean water to everyone in the world would prevent the deaths of 6,000 people per day – and 1.4 million children under five each year.”

Despite this unspeakable scale of human suffering, the United States government now allocates as much money towards military spending as does the rest of the world combined.

How many millions of lives could be saved each year if we spent just 10 percent less on feeding the Pentagon and 10 percent more on feeding sick and starving people is a question that isn’t even on our country’s radar screen. Nor is the human cost of our economic and trade policies – which also have deadly consequences for millions of people in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

On top of all this, the financial meltdown on Wall Street and the dramatically rising costs of food in the developing world are wreaking even further havoc on the economies of the poorest nations in the world.

Given all of the above, the relative silence of the American left is both perplexing and inexcusable. To illustrate this point:

• While Barack Obama has taken a clear and commendable stand in support of the UN’s Millennium Goal of cutting world poverty in half by 2015, there has been almost no recognition of this on the part of progressives. Also, while there’s been a lot of talk about “holding Obama to his promises” should he be elected, this particular pledge of his has been virtually ignored.

• At the NetRoots Nation conference in July just one discussion focused on global poverty–and that one only partially. (According to the conference’s program, there were more than one hundred workshops and panels at the event.)

• On Sept 5th, the New York Times carried a story with the headline “Donors’ Aid to Poor Nations Declines, U.N. reports.” In the article, it was reported that international aid to the poorest nations in the world “dropped 8.4 percent in 2007, after a 4.7 percent drop in 2006.” Yet in the month following the Times’ publication of this story, I have yet to see a single reference to it in the progressive media.

• The progressive media has also practically ignored the debate and discussion on eradicating world poverty which took place at the United Nations on September 25, and which will continue in a variety of ways during the current session of the U.N. General Assembly.

After the U.S. invasion of Iraq the attention of the progressive movement understandably shifted its focus from the broader global justice movement toward the goal of withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq.

Furthermore, the exponential growth of MoveOn.org and the progressive blogosphere during the last five years has significantly sharpened the progressive movement’s focus on electoral politics. In a strategic sense, this has been all well and good–especially since local organizing, public education, and other forms of activism haven’t become lost in the shuffle.

But while concentrating on domestic politics, too many progressives have lost sight of our historic responsibility to look at the world through the prism of internationalism.

Naturally, an emphasis on electoral politics entails the necessity of appealing to the self-interests of the American people. But in doing so, we have spent so much time and energy on such critical issues as bringing the troops home from Iraq, on promoting universal health care, and on repairing the damage done to the U.S. constitution (to name only a few), that we have failed to notice how much more insular our worldview has become.

We need to place the massive suffering that occurs everyday throughout the world at the top of our movement’s agenda. By doing so, we will help to ensure that world poverty is squarely placed on America’a agenda until the day this human plague is forever wiped off the face of the earth.


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Ken Brociner's essays and book reviews have appeared in Dissent, In These Times and Israel Horizons. He also has a biweekly column in the Somerville (Mass.) Journal.

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