Earth Day Means Let’s Undermine Empire

By Clare Bayard
April, 2014

By Clare Bayard

The month of April contains Earth Day, in that way that we often designate a month to contain concepts of year-round importance (see: Black History Month).  Earth Day is not unconnected to the predations of empires. Empire-building has always required disrupting people’s relationships with their land and ability to self-sustain. A few of April’s developments in struggles for land, survival, and democracy follow.

Team America, World Police v. 2014

April’s catchphrase for U.S. military and diplomatic maneuvers: “We need to reassure our allies.”

That is, we need to reassure them that the U.S. ‘s fading star still shines around the globe, at least when it comes to territorial disputes and trade deals to benefit transnational capitalism.

“Reassurance” here includes boots on the ground in Eastern Europe, the Obama administration’s visits to Asia while shoring up the heavily protested Trans-Pacific Partnership  (a trade agreement between the U.S. And 11 Asian countries, also called “NAFTA on steroids”),  sending warships and drones to back Japan, and U.S. Troops back to the Philippines.

Let’s listen in on these reassurances:  “Let me reiterate that our treaty commitments to Japan’s security are absolute”  - President Obama

“Our engagement with China does not and will not come at the expense of Japan or any other ally.”—President Obama  “We reaffirm the U.S. commitment to the security of the Philippines”- Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor  

“Since Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, we have been constantly looking at ways to reassure allies and partners.” Pentagon spokesman Rear. Adm. John Kirby

That’s the sound of the Obama administration banking on the best defense being a good offense. Regarding China, they teeter on a delicate line, straddling containment and cooperation. It’s a volatile mix of cajoling Beijing to threaten sanctions on Russia and North Korea, while also provoking it with military buildup and promises of aggressive support to China’s rivals like Japan and the Philippines. 

Disaster Militarism and Protective Big Brother

Obama’s Asia tour clinched a new 10-year agreement with Manila for the U.S. military to return in full force to the Philippines. Since grassroots pressure pushed the U.S. out of its major bases in 1991, troop presence had been reduced to a relatively small program of so-called counter-terrorism training. When Haiyan, the largest recorded storm to ever make landfall, killed thousands of [email protected] and displaced four and half million people last winter, Washington greased the wheels for a resurgence of military presence cloaked in the language of “humanitarian relief”—delivered by the military. Unsurprisingly, as tensions rose this month between China and the Philippines over territorial disputes, the U.S. closed in on inking a deal that opens the door for regional power plays.

Rommel Banlaoi, executive director of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, told the Washington Post the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement will not only increase America’s presence in the region but will “justify an increase of U.S. military assistance to the Philippines as a major non-NATO ally.”

At the same time, peoples involved with demilitarization and anti-imperialist initiatives are speaking up and calling for solidarity. Peoples’ movements took the streets across the Philippines protesting Obama’s visit and the new agreement on hosting U.S. troops. Asian and Pacific Islander activists denounce the Pacific Pivot and TPP, highlighting the Korean and [email protected] pushback. South Korean activists and allies demand a reversal of course in U.S. militarization of the Korean peninsula. Organizers across the Pacific have been working for years to build functional solidarity so that their work against U.S. bases and interference can’t be fragmented into NIMBY struggles.

U.S.: Make New Friends, But Keep the Old

After talks in Paris about Ukraine’s future failed to produce conclusive Russian withdrawal, 600 U.S. troops arrived in Poland, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia to help NATO build capacity for  “more planes in the air, more ships on the water, and more readiness on the land,” according to the Army Times. The head of U.S. European Command, Gen. Phillip Breedlove, says of Russia (with no apparent irony), “We have had a nation that crossed an internationally recognized border and imposed its will on another sovereign nation in a military manner. That changes the way we have to think about Europe in the future.” For more on the complexities of the situation in Ukraine, see last month’s “Month in Review” by Nathan Paulsen, and Tim Judah’s piece on the potential for civil war in the New York Review of Books.

This anti-Russian push is reinvigorating for NATO, whose original purpose was the containment of the Soviet Union within Europe. Since that nation’s collapse, NATO’s mission has taken increasing liberties – from Afghanistan to Iraq and Libya, but it has missed facing off with a cold-war enemy. Washington’s interest in NATO’s continued existence is no surprise. Simultaneously stretching U.S. military capacity ever farther around the globe, while reducing actual troop numbers, has revealed the limits of how many active theaters an already bloated military budget can underwrite. The United States has on occasion been able to treat NATO as an alternative to the UN Security Council, where Russian and Chinese vetoes often prevent the U.S. from imposing its will. NATO has acceded to U.S. desires by providing troops and infrastructure for the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, military training for Iraq, and – despite internal discord – offering key muscle against Qaddafi in Libya. 

Elections and Negotiations

Democratic process may not reach its highest form in elections or “peace talks,” but these arenas do show which way the winds blow.

Volatile negotiations between Israel and Palestine bounced in all directions before finally dissolving in April. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) threatened to disband the Palestinian Authority and make Israel formally responsible for the occupied West Bank, rather than accepting Israel’s continued undercutting of its ability to govern. Days later, the PLO reached a unity pact with Hamas, the party elected to power in the Gaza Strip. While many Palestinian citizens were nonplussed (previous agreements were never implemented, and many don’t feel represented by either the PLO/PA or Hamas), Israel took advantage of the pact to unilaterally collapse the talks, while demanding that the PLO end its agreement with Hamas.

Cracks appeared in the usual administration and mainstream media practice of stonewalling any criticism of Israel. This month Secretary of State John Kerry’s admitted that Israel deserved at least half the blame for the failure of negotiations, and made private remarks (later retracted) to the effect that Israel risks becoming an apartheid state. And the New York Times published a historic by Ali Abunimah arguing for a one-state solution.  

Important elections bookended this month. Afghanistan’s early April elections turned out about the same percentage of voters as the last U.S. Presidential election (about 58%), and were considered a defeat for the Taliban and success for domestic security forces protecting access to the polls (and one less excuse for continued U.S. occupation). All month, India has been conducting the world’s largest democratic election, in which more than 815 million people voted. Narendra Modi, leader of the Hindu nationalist BJP opposition party and widely considered an extremist, is expected to win the Prime Minister spot. The high stakes for India and the globe warrant their own article, but here’s some brief commentary from the Guardian

An Economy That Works for People not Empires

Obama vows to continue the Pacific Pivot while swelling military investment in Europe. At the same time, AFRICOM, the strikingly under-reported U.S. military command in Africa, continues a massive buildup discussed only with contractors. The U.S. now averages over a military mission per day in Africa, while expanding military infrastructure through contracting to build new facilities and create proxy use agreements for others. “We have shifted from our original intent of being a more congenial combatant command to an actual war-fighting combatant command,” said AFRICOM’s Rick Cook to an audience of defense contractors.

Such a multi-continent commitment to increase projection of military power provides a cover for those pushing austerity at home. Champions of the war economy will continue to broaden austerity measures, inside and outside this country, to fund overstretched empire. Peace advocates and those who challenge militarism must continue to amplify the connections with domestic and international economic justice, both here at home and in the global context.

Sleeves rolled to the elbows, our people and our peers are organizing for a different future. Many grassroots efforts this April shed hopeful light on ways to combine powerful membership and alliance building with visionary forward motion. The National Domestic Workers’ Alliance gathered over a thousand people for their Voices Rising for a New Economy, joining with Peoples’ Action, before leading a civil disobedience action at the White House to challenge neoliberal corporate capitalism, and to call for an end to deportations. And in Jackson, Mississippi, leaders of the Jackson Plan to build liberatory political power in working-class Black community are surmounting major hurdles, pushing past electoral defeat and the sudden loss of key leader Mayor Chokwe Lumumba. Let’s keep our eyes on the visionary work in Jackson, and look out in May for the Jackson Rising: New Economies convening.

No Keystone XL Black Snake Pipeline will cross Lakota Lands. We will protect our lands and waters and we have our horses ready. --  Brian Brewer, President of the Oglala Sioux

Another bright spot this month was the arrival of thousands in Washington, on horseback and by boot and moccasin, for Reject and Protect. This five-day encampment and ceremony led by elders from a dozen Indian tribes, along with white ranchers from the Cowboy Indian Alliance and other allies, challenged the Keystone XL pipeline and tar sands extraction, and called on the Obama administration to honor treaties and territorial rights of Native and First Nations people on the lands currently known as the United States and Canada. 

The Reject and Protect encampment lifts up the pipelines’ impact on water, land and survival hopes for Native nations. The Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota hosted an opening Spirit Camp in the path of the proposed pipeline, convening nonviolent actions including placing medicine along its route. “Today we stand together, today we stand united,” Brandon Sazue, president of the Crow Creek Sioux. “The KXL Pipeline will not come through here. I will die if I have to.” Organizers of the Oyate Wahacanka Woecun (Shield the People) project plan to continue the encampment 24 hours a day in South Dakota until Obama denies the KXL permit or construction begins.

This partnership is another chapter in hidden histories of cooperation between peoples who have been pitted against each other by a settler-colonial government. Mainstream stories only depict opposed interests leading to friction, but some leaders of farmer/fisher/rancher communities have partnered with Native communities for generations to defeat mining and nuclear interests.

The most effective climate action will come from the grassroots. The frontline leadership of indigenous folks and working-class communities of color points to a need to confront in Winona LaDuke’s words, “what Native people call the choice between two paths – one well scorched and worn, the other green.” Let’s get beyond Earth Day and get behind efforts like Grassroots Global Justice’s No War, No Warming, Build an Economy for People and the Planet.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

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