San Francisco acts locally, thinks globally with foreign-policy resolutions

The city of San Francisco is not a member of the United Nations, but don’t bother local elected leaders with facts like that — they’re too busy crafting unsolicited foreign policy positions.

Tuesday’s 8-3 Board of Supervisors approval of a nonbinding resolution urging the U.S. government to slash military spending and to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was only the latest move in a string of mostly futile attempts to sway the outcome of international affairs.

Whether it’s strife in Northern Ireland, the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the Iraq War, supervisors over the years have spent more time debating global issues than a political science class.

“Some San Franciscans would prefer to deal with issues like fixing our streets or getting Muni to run on time,” said local political consultant Jim Ross, “rather than making sure the federal government knows how San Francisco feels about spending on foreign wars and that sort of thing.”

But Ross said certain international issues, such as apartheid in South Africa, have been decided by pressure from foreign sources, including San Francisco.

“A lot of that came from Americans and other foreigners wanting to stop investing in South Africa,” Ross said. “San Francisco was a leader in that.”

Public affairs consultant Alex Clemens said when issues have momentum, San Francisco is able to contribute to a measurable cumulative impact. But if The City forges its own path, the result is often perceived as mere noise, he said.

Supervisor John Avalos — the sponsor of Tuesday’s resolution — said war spending may start with the federal government, but its impact is deeply felt on the local level because disproportionate military budgets take away from basic services.

“That figure amounts to a great deal of money not going to education, health care, public infrastructure and opportunity for current and future generations here at home,” Avalos said.

Supervisor Mark Farrell, who voted against Tuesday’s resolution, said he’s opposed to the general concept of weighing in on nonlocal matters.

“We have enough problems to worry about,” Farrell said.

Tony Hall, a former supervisor and mayoral candidate, was even more pointed in his distaste for such resolutions, attributing their creation to “big egos” among local legislators.

“They can’t even handle their own districts,” Hall said.

Speaking out on world events

  • 1987: Union and activist demonstrations against apartheid culminate in a ballot measure to let The City request a voluntary boycott on supporting South African commerce.
  • 1991: San Francisco agrees to support the MacBride Principles, a set of employment practices aimed at ending religious persecution in Northern Ireland.
  • 2006: Supervisors vote to make San Francisco the first large municipality to officially call for the impeachment of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
  • 2007: Supervisors vote in favor of calling for troop removal from the Iraq War.
  • 2010: Supervisors conduct four hours of debate on whether to denounce Israel over the raid of Gaza-bound aid flotillas.
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