Chicago is girding for the opening of the NATO Summit on May 20. The ministers and heads of state will be greeted by a rich array of protests, marches, events and counter-summits. Security is already tight near the conference center, and tensions are building.
Why protest a meeting of U.S. allies? One major reason is that after the Soviet Union collapsed and Europe united, NATO became an organization in search of a mission. It was created as a defensive alliance to bolster the West against the Soviet threat. Now that threat is no longer. And NATO has slowly turned from a mutual defensive alliance to a mutual offensive alliance. In the Balkans, Afghanistan and Libya, NATO has coordinated interventions into areas outside the alliance.
The summit will focus on Afghanistan. The allies will discuss how quickly to transfer authority over to the Afghans, and what kind of commitments will be sustained after the troop withdrawals, slated to be completed by 2014. After more than ten years, Afghanistan is an unpopular war, opposed by the vast majority of Americans.
National Nurses United will organize one of the most visible demonstrations. They oppose the war in principle, but also because of its costs. The U.S. spends almost as much on our military as the nations of the world combined spend on theirs. President Barack Obama has helped bring the Iraq War to an end, but the administration's budget spends more on war in Afghanistan than it does on education here at home.
NATO is the symbol and the centerpiece of the U.S. commitment to global military intervention. The demonstrators are right to take their protests to its doorstep. Nonviolent protest will make their message clear. Violence or vandalism will only divert attention. Gandhi and King chose nonviolence because they were wise. Nonviolence works. Its moral witness is far more powerful than the fear and anger created by violence.
If the message is clear, Americans will stand with the demonstrators. The only country the U.S. should be focused on rebuilding is right here at home. We have the most powerful military in the world, but our students aren't keeping up, our roads and bridges and basic infrastructure are in decline, poverty is spreading. And abroad, we're increasingly known not for the aid we provide but for the bombs we drop.
Last week in Washington, Republicans in Congress passed a budget resolution that increased military spending while cutting funding for food stamps and child nutrition. Republican Mitt Romney has called for raising military spending -- already above its Cold War levels in comparable dollars -- even as he supports a budget that would require cutting Medicare and virtually eliminating domestic government investments in education, food safety, roads and bridges, new energy and more. Obama's budget is less unbalanced, but even he would sustain a military budget far higher than required for defense.
Instead of diplomacy and peaceful engagement, the U.S. increasingly employs drones and remote-controlled missiles to "speak" to our adversaries. Too many scorn diplomacy as weak, as "soft power." But in fact, Americans would be better served if we had fewer smart bombs and more educated kids. We'd do better if our military were smaller, our diplomats more active and our economy stronger.
If nonviolent, the protests at the NATO Summit will be compelling because their means fit their ends. Chicago and America would be far better off with more peaceful citizen organizing and less military mobilization.