Department of State
I am flattered by your offer but in good conscience I cannot accept your invitation to serve as secretary of state. To be honest, some of the duties involved I consider impossible, others undesirable, and what remain are years out of date. The best advice I can offer is that you save on concussions and emissions and do the planet and public spending a favor by scrapping the post.
To elaborate: prominent among the duties assigned the secretary of state (henceforth SOS) is representing the United States in high-level negotiations with other states. Imagining that such negotiations turn at least occasionally to matters of international law and human rights, consider the quandary: Is the SOS to argue for those principles so often vaunted in public declarations, or, in light of actual U.S. practices, to adopt a defiant position against? First-strike war, targeted assassination, torture and occupation are hard to gloss.
There are other problems. The SOS is charged with protecting U.S. citizens abroad, and yet the President asserts the right to attack and kill anyone on suspicion (including U.S. citizens) anywhere at any time. You see the challenge.
It is not easy to win respect and influence people in countries whose first association with the United States is with a thousand sprawling military bases, proliferating intelligence agencies, wiretaps, extraordinary renditions, the dungeon of Guantánamo and a shadowy cast of “advisors” and “trainers.” The calm tones of diplomacy are drowned out by the din of drone attacks.
Don’t worry too much about international law, I hear you say. The United States hasn’t signed very much of the stuff. Of course, you’re right. (Not that signing matters. We are a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights yet we violate it daily as matter of principle and as a matter of course. We tolerate mass hunger, unemployment and the death penalty in promotion of “individual responsibility” and steadily suppress wages and workers’ rights in the United States and around the world to boost private profits.)
Still, it’s embarrassing how many worthy treaties on the rights of the child, land mines, cluster bombs, small arms, even discrimination against women, lie about unratified, even unsigned. The doctrine of American exceptionalism and “Do As We Say, Not as We Do” is a hard sell for our diplomatic corps.
Aside from the United States’ own wars and occupations, the prime causes of insecurity in the past few years have been global financial institutions, some based in the United States. By its own definition, U.S. foreign policy is intended “to create a more secure democratic and prosperous world for the benefit of American people and the international community.” Yet the pursuit of prosperity for some has made much of the world more insecure and less democratic. For all the talk of non-state actors, terrorists and armed insurgents, it was Goldman Sachs not Al Qaeda that brought the Greek economy to the brink by increasing and covering up that state’s debts while making a massive private profit. Financial speculation by (among others) U.S.-based Wells Fargo fueled price fluctuations and food shortages that sparked riots in more than 30 countries in 2007-08, and the overthrow of Haiti’s government, before prices peaked again in February 2011, during the Arab Spring.
Is diplomats’ power any match for Wall Street? Global financial institutions are famously “too big to jail.” There was no time served by the mortgage mobsters who tricked a generation out of its wealth. There will be no life sentence without parole for the executives of HSBC, even when they have been found laundering cash for narco-terrorists. Those global players don’t attend diplomatic conferences. Likewise, there’s no bite (and barely any bark) in the office of secretary of state when it comes to the destabilizing effect of global trade, even when unscrupulous financial trading practices are prime threats to peace and human rights.
Give us back the wars of yore. The rogue state that invaded its neighbor was a whole lot easier to rein in than Coca Cola or Shell or Motorola. Impoverished nations will sell water, fuel and minerals to the highest bidder, and why shouldn’t they? Beholden to the same breed of corporations, the United States opposes climate regulations. If global warming is not seen as a threat to national security, why should smaller states worry about resource wars?
Besides, why would anyone worry about peace? The United States talks peace but triples weapons sales. Overseas arms sales total $66.3 billion in 2011 (more than three quarters of the global arms market), driven by major sales to authoritarian Persian Gulf states. A $30 billion deal with Saudi Arabia was hailed by the secretary of state’s office as a boon for security and by Barack Obama as good for American jobs. By this standard, the true American crisis would be a decrease in military spending or a decline in global conflict.
The reality is that the world is very different place from what it was when Thomas Jefferson served as the first secretary of state or from 1648 when the Peace of Westphalia first articulated the sovereignty of the nation-state. George Washington in his farewell address urged the United States to steer clear of “inveterate antipathies” or “permanent alliances.” We now have both, most notably in the Middle East. The Israel lobby would have hated our first president.
Secretaries representing individual states aren’t well suited to today’s biggest problems. As the Capital Institute’s John Fullerton told me recently, “Three-and-a-half centuries later, with the rise of globalization in business, a global interconnected financial system, non-state terrorist actors with the power to upset global security, global epidemics and global environmental threats, Westphalian principles, like the Newtonian physics of its time, are no longer adequate.”
At the start of the last century novelist and essayist Virginia Woolf wrote, “As a woman I have no country. As a woman my country is the world.” That is even more true today. To quote author and foreign policy analyst Phyllis Bennis, the task is to “redefine what makes us safer: not bigger armies, more nukes, bigger corporations wreaking havoc and having other countries being afraid of us.” Interdependent states need to tackle global threats together. And perhaps stability shouldn’t be our sine qua non goal. After all, security is an illusion, as Eve Ensler of One Billion Rising and V-Day says, when one in three women will experience sexual assault or rape in her lifetime. If the status quo has brought us this far, why do we want more of the same?
Maybe the best place for a secretary of state is here at home. We need a secretary who clears the diplomatic air by delivering up U.S. war criminals for prosecution. As the “war on terror” is without definition or jurisdiction, the jury for such a case should similarly be global. How about American Anti-Idol live, online and let the world set the sentence?
Want to reduce poverty and hunger, make the world a less precarious place? When it comes to global “gun violence,” the National Rifle Association and its corporate partners can’t hold a candle to the Pentagon and theirs.
We need a secretary not of state but of the people. Now that might be something worth talking about.
Laura Flanders is the founder and director of GRITtv and a contributing writer to The Nation.