The Progressive Peace Movement & The 2020 Democratic Platform

by Euan Harlow-Lawrence

In August the Democratic Party hosted an entirely virtual national convention, approving the 2020 platform and officially nominating Joe Biden to take on Donald Trump in the November election. They sought to pitch their ideas and values to all Americans, defining Biden as a candidate capable of meeting the moment, and helping him deliver one of the most important speeches of his political life. Diversity in demographics and ideology were on full display at the convention, but for progressives there was one thing noticeably absent: little to no positive news for the progressive peace movement.

In July a joint task force between the Bernie and Biden camps released a blueprint containing policy recommendations for a progressive presidency, but it failed to consider foreign policy issues including the ongoing Saudi-led coalition’s conflict in Yemen or a just resolution for Palestine. Though the task force produced suggestions in compliance with the tone of the campaign, defeating Donald Trump, omissions such as these led to a platform where foreign policy saw little input from the left wing of the party. Overall, this year’s Democratic Platform is undeniably better than in 2016, but still leaves much to be desired for progressives on salient peace issues. As over 70 former national security officials back Biden, we must continue advocating the progressive peace position, since a Biden win would likely mean a tougher stance on Russia, and a more combative tone to confront Chinese expansionism. 

On Climate Change – The platform recognizes the urgent threat climate change poses and the need for an immediate response, outlining significant measures to combat the crisis. It sets an aggressive 2035 goal for carbon-free electricity, a return to the Paris Agreement, and further international and domestic cooperation across economic sectors. While there is no explicit mention of the Green New Deal, a number of domestic job creation efforts are outlined. These plans include repairing and modernizing transportation, advancing sustainable agricultural practices, promoting action in communities of colour and low-income that are disproportionately affected by climate change, and reversing “dangerous and destructive rollbacks of critical climate and environmental protections.” The platform correctly sees climate change as a threat multiplier for national security, calling for the issue to “be at the core of all policy and operations plans.” Unfortunately there is no call for re-allocating spending away from the military to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, no move toward complete societal and economical conversion beyond fossil fuels, or an end to the global petroleum supply chain.

On Defense Spending – In regards to defense spending the platform contains positive (though weak) intentions and purposely vague commitments, toying with the idea of balancing defense dollars to provide for urgently needed domestic investments. The Democrats claim “it’s past time to rebalance our investments, improve the efficiency and competitiveness of our defense industrial base, conduct rigorous annual audits of the Pentagon, and end waste and fraud.” MAPA supports significant cuts to the Pentagon budget and the diversion of funds to important domestic issues such as health care, education, and housing, and this platform offers no substantial commitment to making this a reality. Recent comments from Democratic candidate Joe Biden only reinforce the prospect that future reductions in military expenditures are unlikely.

On Nonproliferation and Disarmament – The platform posits that preventing the spread of CBRN weapons, and eventually securing their elimination, is a moral responsibility and national security imperative. Democrats are committed to strengthening the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, maintaining the moratorium on explosive nuclear weapons testing, pushing for the ratification of the UN Arms Trade Treaty and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and extending New START. They support working with Russia to verifiably limit and reduce nuclear stockpiles, while building on this foundation to “negotiate arms control agreements that reflect the emergence of new players like China, capture new technologies, and move the world back from the nuclear precipice.” The Democrats propose reducing over-reliance and excessive expenditure on nuclear weapons, stating the Trump Administration’s proposal to build new nuclear weapons as “unnecessary, wasteful, and indefensible.” 

While these are very positive positions, the platform defends deterrence theory and the need to maintain a nuclear arsenal, in contrast to MAPA’s position that nuclear weapons make the world less safe. As long as nuclear weapons exist, the threat of their use also exists, whether intentional or accidental. MAPA advocates for a declared US strategy fulfilling Obama’s pledge to set the world on a path to nuclear zero, an accelerated process of dismantling nuclear weapons slated for decommissioning, and significant, specific, and sustained reductions in nuclear weapons spending.

On Palestine-Israel – Possibly the least progressive foreign policy stance in the platform can be found, unsurprisingly, on Palestine-Israel. The language in the platform continues to ignore reality and basic Palestinian rights, falling short of a just policy and the stated values of the party. By reinforcing America’s “commitment to Israel’s security, its qualitative military edge, and its rights to defend itself,” Democrats continue to support ongoing militarization of the region, driving dangerous arms races, ratcheting regional tensions, and keeping the Palestinians down. Instead of recognizing the equal rights of Palestinians, the DNC instead chose to recognize “the worth of every Israeli and every Palestinian,” and by simply expressing support for “a negotiated two-state solution,” Democrats are making no real effort to chart a path for a just solution.

A credible approach to peace cannot be attained if the Democrats make no mention of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, which has lasted for more than 53 years. Similarly, there is no expressed opposition to Israel’s settlement project as a whole (which violates long-standing US policy and international law), instead language was only adopted opposing further “settlement expansion.” While Democrats claim to oppose annexation, it is of little substance if they fail to seriously consider requests to make US military funding subject to human rights guidelines. MAPA believes military and financial aid to Israel should be significantly reduced and tied to ending the Israeli occupation and opposing further illegal annexation. The result of unconditional US political, military and economic support is total impunity for Israel as damage to Palestinian rights, international law, and peacemaking efforts continue. Additionally, the Democratic Party continues to oppose legitimate criticism and action against Israel by opposing the BDS movement, something MAPA and progressives strongly support, as Israeli violations of human rights and international law must be countered. One of the few positive statements to emerge from the platform includes Democrats’ commitment to restoring diplomatic ties and assistance to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

On Saudi Arabia and Yemen – The platform claims “Democrats will end support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen and help bring the war to an end,” a conflict that “is responsible for the world’s worst humanitarian crisis” and “amplifies threats to the region and to our interests.” Absent from the platform is any mention of providing humanitarian assistance to Yemen, holding those responsible for gross human rights violations to account (such as Jamal Khashoggi’s murder), or most notably, the need to end military assistance to Saudi Arabia. The United States should stop selling arms to the Saudi regime and ultimately back away from the Saudi alliance.

On Iran – The platform opposes the “Trump Administration’s race to war with Iran and prioritizes nuclear diplomacy, de-escalation, and regional dialogue.” It also calls for a return to mutual compliance of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which “remains the best means to verifiably cut off all of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear bomb.” Democrats support “a comprehensive diplomatic effort to extend constraints on Iran’s nuclear program and address Iran’s other threatening activities, including its regional aggression, ballistic missile program, and domestic repression.” However, the platform fails to contain any mention of sanctions relief or the opposition of future sanctions.

On North Korea – The platform calls for a sustained diplomatic campaign with US allies to “constrain and contain the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear program and its regional belligerence… to advance the longer-term goal of denuclearization,” while supporting humanitarian assistance and pressuring the regime to cease its gross human rights abuses. Again on the topic of sanctions the platform fails to contain any mention of relief or opposition to their future imposition.

On Venezuela – The platform calls for a rejection of “President Trump’s failed Venezuela policy, which has only served to entrench Nicolás Maduro’s dictatorial regime and exacerbate a human rights and humanitarian crisis.” Democrats support granting Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelans in the United States and believe that the best opportunity to rescue Venezuela’s democracy is through smart pressure and effective diplomacy. While this is a positive approach to the situation, the platform fails to contain any mention of sanctions relief, nor does it explicitly rule out military action against Venezuela, although it has been previously stated that Democrats do not support the policy of regime change.

On Afghanistan – The platform claims Democrats will end forever wars, including in Afghanistan, while remaining “committed to a durable and inclusive political settlement in Afghanistan that ensures that al-Qaeda isn’t allowed to reconstitute, the Islamic State (ISIS) isn’t allowed to grow, and the international community can help Afghans safeguard hard-fought gains, especially for women and girls.” However, the platform doesn’t rule out ending ongoing offensive operations (including drone and airstrikes) or call for a definitive troop withdrawal.

On Iraq – Democrats believe “effective relations with the Gulf will help us reconnect Iraq to its neighbors and protect the country’s stability, security, and sovereignty.” Democrats “support a small, finite, and focused military presence to train our Iraqi partners so they can ensure the lasting defeat of ISIS”, while MAPA believes the US should not be involved militarily in a sectarian conflict that our war in Iraq contributed to setting off. The focus should rather be on supporting a policy on non-intervention and self-determination.

On Syria – The platform calls for work to “reinvigorate diplomacy to protect the humanitarian needs and human and civil rights of all Syrians and find a political resolution for this horrific war.” Democrats “support keeping up the offensive against ISIS in Syria to prevent it from regaining a foothold, and will stand by Kurdish and other critical partners in that fight,” in contrast to MAPA’s position that there is no military solution to the conflict. MAPA believes the US should stop supporting Syrian armed groups, withdraw its troops and covert forces, and stop the illegal bombing. 

The Democratic Party is visibly more united than in 2016, maintaining a singularly clear focus on defeating Donald Trump and the dire threat he poses. This convention, candidate, and platform can be considered a “return to normalcy” moment, reaching out to broad swathes of the electorate in a definitive rejection of the Trump presidency. A Democratic win will not yield all the policies the Left are after, but would hopefully offer a return to a more structured form of governance, allowing progressives to better position themselves for future advocacy. The Democratic Party must embrace the growing progressive movement, particularly in areas of foreign policy, and civil society must keep up the pressure to help produce progressive structural change and long-lasting peace.

To read the entire 2020 Democratic Party platform, click here.