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Foreign Policy Goes Local


By Karen Dolan, Foreign Policy In Focus

The scene is the floor of the Chicago city council chambers. The meeting is unusually passionate. The floor speeches are particularly charged, even by the Chicago city council’s turbulent standards.

“Had this resolution not been introduced, we would have been accused of being morons, amoral. If we don’t speak out for the people – who will?” demands one of the council’s more conservative members, Alderman Bernard Stone.

The date is January 16, 2003, and the Chicago city council is in the midst of passing a resolution denouncing the drive toward war with Iraq. The author and principal sponsor of this resolution is Alderman Joe Moore from Chicago’s 49th Ward. Unsure that such a resolution will fly in a council controlled by Chicago’s powerful Mayor Richard M. Daley, Moore drafts it anyway, hoping that Chicago will join the close to 100 cities in a growing movement voicing local opposition to Bush’s impending war with Iraq. The resolution passes 46-to-1 and sent a loud message reverberating through the mainstream media and Congress that folks in the heart of America’s Midwest aren’t happy with the direction Bush’s administration is taking in the Middle East.

The passion of the council debate didn’t arise out of a pro-con debate. Liberals and conservatives agreed: U.S. foreign policy was heading in a reckless direction. Over the last five years, citizens and local leaders have increasingly added their voices to the national debate over the Iraq War through municipal institutions like city councils. Even before the costs of war began to hit home, these local voices warned of the risks of war and occupation.

The idea of municipal foreign policy draws on such experiences as the Cities for Peace movement, the anti-Apartheid municipal movement of the 1980s, and the nuclear-free zone movement of the 1970s. It asserts that politicians who are most accessible and accountable to their citizens are in the best position to represent positions that challenge the political status quo and the large corporate powers to which national lawmakers and policymakers usually answer. Locally elected officials are certainly susceptible to moneyed interests, particularly in many large cities. But the more local the office, the greater the accountability to the public and public sentiment.

The War

In the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, U.S. citizens filled hundreds town hall meetings with reasoned, rational, responsible discussion and said “No” to preemptive war. By the time of the March invasion, 170 municipalities and two state houses had approved anti-war resolutions, which foretold the disaster, destruction and cost such a policy, would bring to Iraq and the United States. This local resolution movement has been dubbed the Cities for Peace movement nation-wide. Since the invasion, the Cities for Peace movement has grown to include over 270 municipalities, 12 mayors, and 17 states, representing fully half of the U.S. population.

At the time of the 2006 elections, polls found that disapproval of Bush’s Iraq policy stood at about 65%. These high figures reflect the sentiment that made the Iraq War the number one issue in the last election, catapulting the Democrats to power on Capitol Hill. No one can predict the tipping point, but it seems safe to assume that as these numbers increase, pressure for lawmakers of both parties to end the war also increases.

The expressions of the local governments on this issue have proven the more judicious and wise. The resolutions prior to the invasion cited a disbelief that Iraq posed any immediate threat to the United States; they cited the violation of international law such a preemptive attack on Iraq would perpetrate; they cited the enormous long-term cost in lives and money; they cited environmental and moral concerns such a strike posed.

The post-invasion resolutions reiterated many of these concerns and wisely called for a prudent and swift end to the disaster.

Wal-Mart

In addition to his anti-war position, Chicago Alderman Joe Moore was also one of the most outspoken opponents of Wal-Mart’s entry into Chicago. He led the battle to deny Wal-Mart their requests for zoning changes. In April 2005, spurred by the Wal-Mart battle, Moore introduced a Living Wage Ordinance that would effectively increase the wages and health benefits of employees of Big Box retailers within Chicago’s city limits. The Wal-Mart and living wage campaigns were designed to improve the standards for American workers that had been steadily eroded by free trade agreements and corporate outsourcing.

Predictably, Chicago’s business interests, led by the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce and the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, waged a multi-million-dollar campaign to defeat the ordinance. Mayor Daley sided with the business interests and strongly opposed the ordinance. Despite the Mayor’s opposition, the City Council voted overwhelmingly in support of the Living Wage Ordinance and forced the mayor to exercise his first-ever veto.

The City Council’s living wage supporters ultimately failed to override the Mayor’s veto, but the political battle lines were drawn in the upcoming city elections. The Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce launched a $1.5 million campaign to defeat the city council supporters of the ordinance, and named Moore their number one target.

Although this corporate effort forced Moore into a run-off election, he ultimately won re-election in 2007. Because aldermen hold a local office and his constituency is relatively small (slightly fewer than 8,000 voters cast ballots in his race), Moore was able to meet most voters one-on-one at transit stops and door-to-door. Moore’s accessibility to the voters and their personal knowledge of him combined to overcome his big business and big money opponents.

Is It Constitutional?

The potential of making and influencing national and international policy at the local level excites progressives in particular. Not only is the influence of corporate interests diminished at the local level but also direct citizen participation and deliberation is a positive sign of true democracy. Not least, the town hall format allows for real citizen participation in debate that brings in human and moral dimensions relatively free from the influence of the business lobby. Corporate interests may come and join the debate directly, or may have council members speak for them, but the process is generally more transparent and includes more direct citizen participation than at the federal level.

Is the making and influencing policy at the local level constitutional? Opposition to state and local involvement in foreign policy has focused largely on the supremacy clause of the Constitution and the legal doctrine of preemption of state and local statute by federal statute or law. One proponent, however, Michael Shuman, founder of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, is a prominent scholar on this topic. He refers to the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, and to the people.” Nowhere in the Constitution is foreign policy delegated or restricted.

Shuman makes the point that the Constitution goes out of its way to create and protect “mediating” institutions where individuals who may not be able to act by themselves can come together with others to associate, organize, and have their voices heard. These institutions mediate in the sense of standing between the federal government and the People, and include juries, militia, civic associations and, most importantly, state and local governments.

Federal Opposition

Not surprisingly, the federal government has consistently opposed local involvement in matters of foreign policy. There have been legal challenges to municipal foreign policy-making such as the 1990 District Court of the 9th Circuit in the case of United States v. City of Oakland. The city of Oakland passed an ordinance that prohibited city investment in companies in any way involved in manufacturing nuclear warheads and/or delivery systems. The ordinance also banned the transportation of these materials within city limits. The court found the ordinance in direct conflict with the authority of the federal government and therefore unconstitutional. This decision however, was confined to the District Court of the 9th Circuit.

In 1996, Massachusetts passed a law barring state entities from buying goods or services from companies doing business with Burma. Three months later, the U.S. Congress enacted its own sanctions against Burma. The National Foreign Trade Council, a non-governmental business association dedicated to opening markets internationally, had several affiliates affected by the state Act. It filed suit against state officials in federal court, claiming that the state law unconstitutionally infringed on the federal foreign affairs power, violated the Foreign Commerce Clause, and was preempted by the federal act. The Supreme Court subsequently ruled against the Massachusetts law and reasoned that Congress had passed a law imposing sanctions on Burma and that the Massachusetts law "undermine[d] the intended purpose and 'natural effect' of at least three provisions of the federal Act…”

While this ruling led some legal scholars to conjecture that state (and local) governmental involvement in foreign affairs had suffered a fatal blow, a different view prevails in the legal writing in this area. Prominent legal scholar and Harvard Law professor Jack Goldsmith has written extensively on this case as well as on the doctrine of federal preemption of state statute. He points out that the Supreme Court “decided only that Congress’ own Burma sanctions preempted the Massachusetts sanctions. It carefully avoided any suggestion that state foreign affairs activities are invalid in the absence of some preemptive action by Congress.”

Thus, this ruling by the Supreme Court has no bearing on the current Sudanese divestment campaigns successfully launched by 20 states, including the more politically conservative states of Texas and Indiana. Most of these legislatures have passed prohibitions against public financial holdings in companies doing business with the Sudanese regime.

Historically, there have always been acts of what could be considered municipal foreign policy: In 1798, the Virginia and Kentucky legislatures adopted the words of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson condemning federal policies penalizing France. Abolitionists used local governments to condemn southern states and federal laws that supported U.S. slavery. And today hundreds of local governments are speaking out against the Iraq War, against the USA PATRIOT act, and in favor of the Kyoto Protocol that the United States has refused to sign.

A prime example of how direct citizen participation through municipal governments has affected both U.S. and world policy is the example of the local divestment campaigns opposing both Apartheid in South Africa and, effectively, the Reagan foreign policy of “constructive engagement” with South Africa. As internal and global pressure was destabilizing the Apartheid government of South Africa, the municipal divestment campaigns in the United States ramped up pressure and helped to push to victory the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986. This extraordinary accomplishment was achieved despite a Reagan veto and while the Senate was in Republican hands. The pressure felt by national lawmakers from the 14 U.S. states and close to 100 U.S. cities that had divested from South Africa made the critical difference. Within three weeks of the veto override, IBM and General Motors also announced they were withdrawing from South Africa. This movement also serves as a model for the current local divestment campaigns from Burma and Sudan.

Municipal Foreign Policy Now

With the advent of the Internet, the possibilities for such mass movements have increased exponentially. At least 30 cities, including the nation’s capital, have declared themselves “Sanctuary Cities” for illegal immigrants. Sanctuary Cities protect illegal aliens through local resolutions, executive orders or city ordinances. These cities have decided to defy federal guidelines from the 9/11 Commission Report to help federal agencies crack down on illegal immigrants and refuse to make inquiries into citizenship or residency status of the people they serve within their city limits. There are also now about 100 U.S. cities whose mayors are part of the international nuclear disarmament effort called Mayors for Peace. And, as stated above, some 20 states have weighed in on the repressive regime in Sudan by divesting public funds.

U.S. cities have also taken a position on the federal U.S. embargo against Cuba. The U.S.-Cuba Sister City Association has set up a multitude of sister city citizen diplomacy projects that once enjoyed privileged status in acquiring licenses to travel to Cuba for cultural, educational and diplomatic exchanges. Even in the face of a Bush Executive Order that now prohibits such travel, the town hall debates, education, and stakeholder status of citizens across cultures paves the way for a different foreign policy with Cuba when the Bush administration leaves office.

Although it is a signatory to the international Kyoto Protocol, designed to reduce the threat of global climate change through the reduction of greenhouses gas production by country, the United States has failed to ratify the treaty. However, after Mayor Greg Nickels of Seattle started a nationwide effort to get cities to agree to the protocol, 740 U.S. cities in 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, representing over 76 million Americans now support Kyoto.

The most recent development in state involvement in issues of foreign policy is the recent legislation crafted by Vermont state legislators claiming that the legal justification for federal commandeering of state National Guard units has expired. With the expiration of the president’s legal authority to send National Guard troops to Iraq, the power over the Guard must return to state governors. At least three more states are expected to follow the lead of Vermont, and another four are considering doing so.

As such, the heart of the municipal foreign policy movement remains the opposition to the Iraq War. There are now over 300 local and state resolutions or initiatives opposing the war in Iraq and over 400 opposing certain provisions in the USA PATRIOT act.

“We are the elected officials closest to the people,” says Chicago Alderman Joe Moore. “These resolutions, referenda and proclamations represent the will of the American people, average citizens from all walks of life, who are unalterably opposed to the Bush administration’s war in Iraq and who are profoundly disappointed in Congress’s inability to end this war.”

It is July 2007, four years and half a trillion dollars into the Iraq War. Moore is standing at the National Press Club in Washington DC, along with other locally elected officials from among the over-300 cities, towns, and states that have weighed in to end the disaster in Iraq.

“We cannot remain silent as our national leaders allow this war to continue indefinitely,” the Chicago alderman continues. “We cannot remain silent as our cities young men and woman are sent to die in this senseless war. We cannot remain silent as our scarce finical resources our squandered on this unnecessary disastrous military adventure while our cities and towns are told to fend for themselves. Mr. President, members of Congress, hear the pleas of the elected officials closest to the people. Let’s bring our brave men and woman home. Let’s end this war now.”

Karen Dolan is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington D.C. and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. She directs the Institute’s Cities for Progress project.

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