Quick, who’s chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee? Don’t be embarrassed. Hardly anyone else knows either. Yet the person who holds this position has great power to shape the world — as much power as the leaders of many countries. Now, for the first time in modern history, there will be a public battle over who gets the job.
This looming fight reflects a sudden surge of support, in Washington and beyond, for the idea that the United States must begin approaching the world in a new way. The consensus that supported a militant American foreign policy over the last couple of decades is weakening. Progressives who have focused their efforts on domestic issues are pushing more strongly for changes in foreign policy. The mainstream is listening. In its newly unveiled platform, the Democratic Party pledges to cut the Pentagon budget, end “forever wars,” and stop trying to depose foreign governments. Until recently, many in Washington considered those ideas to be the province of deluded peaceniks.
The underlying reason for this seismic shift is evident. The foreign policy of the last couple of decades has failed. Our efforts to dominate the post-Soviet world have left a legacy of war and instability. The 2020 campaign, and the results it brings, may turn out to be decisive in curbing America’s gluttonous global appetite.
Nothing reflects this new moment better than the showdown over leadership of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. The incumbent, Representative Eliot Engel of New York, lost his seat to a primary challenger in June and will leave office in January. Tradition dictates that the gavel should pass quietly to a senior member of the committee who is submissive to party leadership. That won’t happen this time. Representative Joaquin Castro of Texas has declared his candidacy with an insurgent manifesto. “For too long, our foreign policy has been dominated by military and other coercive techniques like sanctions,” Castro said. He called for “direct dialogue with our competitors and adversaries” and “a national conversation about the role of the United States in the world.”
By deciding what subjects to scrutinize, whom to invite to testify, and which bills to promote or delay, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee has immense influence over both American foreign policy and what Americans learn about the world. Representative Castro has resolved not to allow this prize to be awarded as usual, which would be by seniority and behind closed doors. He has begun meeting with anti-war groups to plan a public campaign for the job, something rarely if ever attempted.
His candidacy is a long shot. He has been in Congress for only (!) eight years, and at 45, he would be the youngest chairman in the House by a decade. He is competing against Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s presumed choice, the well-connected Representative Gregory Meeks of New York. But Meeks senses the shift in opinion among Democratic voters, and is positioning himself as an anti-war figure who, like Castro, favors diplomacy over confrontation.
The first sign that war fatigue was reaching a new intensity in Washington came last year, when Congress approved a bill to end US support for Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen. President Trump vetoed it, but Congressional votes to end American involvement in a foreign war were a breakthrough victory for antiwar lobbyists. They immediately began working to shape the Democratic platform on which Joe Biden will run. After much behind-the-scenes maneuvering, they won Biden’s approval for a pledge that the United States will stop trying to “impose regime change on other countries.” This pledge, if observed, could change the world. The United States has directed the overthrow of at least a dozen foreign governments, and is now actively seeking “regime change” in Iran, Syria, Venezuela, and perhaps elsewhere. For an American president to renounce these campaigns would be a bold retreat from one of our most self-defeating foreign policies.
Other straws in the Washington wind also make this a promising moment for those seeking to change American foreign policy. With one powerful House chairman already defeated, progressives are salivating at the prospect that another lobbyist-fueled Pentagon ally, Representative Richard Neal of Massachusetts, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, might be upset in next month’s primary by an anti-war challenger, Alex Morse. Meanwhile, the year-old Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, an upstart Washington think tank that promotes diplomacy over coercive power, has just issued its first major report. It recommends a sweeping reversal of American policies in the Middle East, asserting that “the US military’s large footprint in the region, combined with voluminous US arms sales and support for repressive regimes, drives instability and exacerbates grievances and conditions that threaten the United States.”
Debate over the future of American foreign policy is intensifying against a backdrop of rising excitement over the prospect of a Biden presidency. Biden has a mixed record on world affairs. He supported George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003 but, perhaps chastened, opposed Barack Obama’s decision to attack Libya in 2011. Above all Biden is a man of the moment, attuned to the national mood. His lack of conviction opens him to influence from the Democratic base, which is steadily more passionate on foreign policy issues. Sobered by our failure to protect our own people, many Americans are losing enthusiasm for our campaign to dominate the world. So are some powerful people in Washington.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.