An Alternative to Empire

Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from the newly released book, "Power Trip" (Seven Stories Press, 2003) edited by John Feffer in association with Foreign Policy in Focus.

A week before the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, the heads of state of a hundred countries assembled in Johannesburg for the U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development. They gathered to accelerate efforts to raise living standards around the world without destroying the global environment in the process, a plan established a decade ago at the historic Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

In symbolic gestures – an empty chair and pair of shoes planted at one session, a sea of buttons asking "Where Is W?" – delegates in Johannesburg noted the conspicuous absence of the U.S. president. Unlike his father ten years before, George W. Bush skipped the summit and sent his secretary of state as his designated hitter. Bush's boycott was supported by a collection of oil companies, including mega-giant Exxon Mobil, who wrote the president congratulating him on his good judgment. Petroleum, after all, is a major driving force behind unsustainable development (otherwise known generically as "business as usual").

Colin Powell arrived on the summit's last day, during an impassioned speech by the Palestinian environment minister describing the environmental devastation wreaked by the Israeli occupation. The U.S. secretary of state could be seen chatting with the minister next to him, his translation earphones on the table by his side. Powell's schedule at the summit focused not on sustainable development but on behind-the-scenes lobbying to convince the assembled leaders to back U.S. plans to attack Iraq. The United States had clearly come to lecture, not to listen.

Indeed, the United States has been suffering gradual hearing loss for some time. The louder the world raises its objections, the more deafly the United States soldiers on. The historical moment created by the Sept. 11 attacks could have accomplished a minor medical miracle by restoring to the United States the ability to hear. In fact, the American government and the American people gratefully listened to the expressions of sympathy that came pouring in from around the world and were surprised to hear from some unexpected quarters such as Libya's Muammar Qaddafi and Cuba's Fidel Castro. But the restoration of hearing was only partial. Our leaders still could not hear why so much of the world is unhappy with U.S. foreign policy. They could hear the sweet strains of sympathy but not the bass rumblings of dissatisfaction.

The United States needs to listen for two reasons: our allies and our adversaries. The challenge of international terrorism clearly requires international cooperation, so the United States must listen to allies. Listening is central to the practice of multilateralism. Multilateralism, like politics, is the art of the possible, and this art is practiced through conversation. Virtually every state views terrorism as a threat to its existence, but most ongoing resolutions (in Ireland, in Spain) are being negotiated, not imposed by force of arms. Coalition-building among our allies requires greater acknowledgment of their strengths, experiences, and concerns. If the U.S. government abandons the fundamentals of diplomatic engagement, U.S. allies such as Israel and Colombia will be even less likely to alter their own hard-line policies.

With our adversaries – actual, potential, or imagined – listening is also critical. Popular opposition to U.S. policies is rising around the globe. Again the Earth Summit was symbolic: Secretary Powell's speech could barely be delivered over the loud and recurrent chorus of disapproval. The unilateralism of the Bush administration – crystallized in "The National Security Strategy of the United States" released in Sept. 2002, and implemented most recently in the war in Iraq – has been the exact opposite of a dialogue, and this marks a dramatic change in how the United States conducts foreign policy. Our present leaders have graduated from the take-it-or-leave-it school of diplomacy. This is the art of the impossible, a mafioso's take on democracy, and this is the art that the United States practiced so deafly at the World Summit on Sustainable Development: nonattendance, nonengagement, nonnegotiation.

The following modest suggestions are aimed at carving out a more modest role for the United States. They all hinge on one thing: changing the terms of U.S. engagement with the world and transforming the United States into a responsible international partner. This transformation can be expressed in language that directly appeals to the Bush administration. In its relationship with the world, the United States should be both compassionate and conservative. Compassion literally means "to suffer with." A compassionate policy would marry empathy to geopolitics in an effort to address the problems of those suffering from debt, disease, and despair around the world. A conservative policy, meanwhile, is one that recognizes limits – the limits of law, tradition, the environment, and, indeed, the power of the United States itself. It is time to reclaim these honorable words – compassion, conservative – from a U.S. administration that is neither.

Recognizing Limits

The militarism that lies at the heart of the U.S. power trip is fundamentally different from the Cold War version. The Soviet Union – and Soviet nuclear weapons – established certain hard constraints that defined U.S. military policy. During the Cold War, the United States did not use nuclear weapons (though it considered doing so), nor did it directly attack the Soviet Union or China. Pentagon strategists conformed to a relatively conservative balance-of-power approach to geopolitics. Those who have fought in wars know very well the limits of military action. It is not surprising that some of the key opponents of Bush's plan to attack Iraq were generals such as Anthony Zinni, Brent Scowcroft, and Norman Schwarzkopf.

But the hawks in the Bush administration – Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz – are anything but conservative. They have pushed at the very limits of traditional military doctrine: embracing preemptive strikes, contemplating the use of nuclear weapons in warfare, violating long-standing arms control treaties, and spreading weapons everywhere from Uzbekistan to outer space. There is a dangerous liberality in these policies. Weapons are being given away liberally; arms control treaties are being interpreted liberally. This liberality verges on the libertine: the United States is acting without moral restraint in its military policy.

This inability to act with restraint extends to the field of resources. The American addiction to petroleum propels our policies in the Middle East and justifies the expansion of U.S. military operations into West Africa, Central Asia, and Latin America. The more oil we burn, the more oil we need, and neither arctic wilderness nor human rights abroad has interfered with getting our fix. Our liberal use of gasoline in sports utility vehicles and our liberal misuse of other resources such as food and water far exceed the portion allotted to us by our percentage of the global population. In this sense, liberal is indeed a dirty word.

Terrorism, too, is a doctrine that ignores limits. Terrorists violate the greatest military taboo by targeting not soldiers but civilians. Yet this is not the monopoly of terrorists. In World War II, the Germans bombed London, the Americans bombed Dresden and Hiroshima, the Japanese slaughtered civilians in China and elsewhere in Asia. Nuclear warfare is fundamentally a terrorist operation, for it kills noncombatants. The "war on terrorism," then, is a misnomer, for it suggests that the two elements in the equation are distinct. It is time to strip the terrorist elements from modern warfare and impose conservative constraints on military operations. A war on terrorism that threatens to become permanent and all-encompassing will dissolve all international laws and lead the world into a downward spiral of all against all.

Exercising Compassion

According to polls, Americans believe that foreign aid constitutes roughly 20 percent of the federal budget. This is an intriguing myth, for it assumes that the United States already has a compassionate policy. Anti-Americanism, whether expressed by terrorists or hecklers at the Johannesburg meeting, then appears to be rank ingratitude. Yet in fact the United States provides less in foreign aid (as a percentage of GNP) than any other industrialized nation: a mere sliver of one percent.

Increasing foreign aid is an integral part of a compassionate policy. But aid must not only be significantly increased, it must be transformed. In distributing economic aid, the United States tends to reward allies rather than address the poorest of the poor. The aid comes with strings attached: countries have to embrace the neoliberal model of structural adjustment, 80 percent of the aid requires purchases from U.S. companies, and the majority of the aid is military. A hungry child knows neither politics nor economics, to update Ronald Reagan's famous dictum, and these strings do not help the hungry.

Under the banner of free trade, the United States has been negotiating trade agreements in order to engineer the balance of power to its own benefit. It has been busily trying to fix the rules, in other words, to make trade another tool of U.S. "power projection." Rescuing trade from its dubious "free" variation requires a certain injection of compassion into the process. "Free" trade has caused considerable suffering in the world – poorly paid labor in Mexican maquiladoras, hazardous working conditions in Chinese sweatshops, bankrupt farmers throughout the developing world. The United States must sign the remaining core labor standards promoted by the International Labor Organization (ILO) and pressure other countries to do so as well. Acknowledging that our prosperity was built on a foundation of protected national industries, we must allow other countries to build up their own productive enterprises.

To create the conditions in which workers can organize safer workplaces and countries can find ways to participate in the world economic system on an equal footing, the United States must also establish limits on speculative investments and help reform international financial institutions so that they adhere to their original purpose of closing the gap between the developing countries and the industrialized world.

A New Engagement with the World

The Bush administration espouses "compassionate conservatism" but does not practice what it preaches. Echoing back the administration's words will not necessarily trigger a conversion, particularly since listening has proven not to be the strong suit of those currently in power in Washington. To check the administration's power trip, there must be an equal counterforce. Some of this force will be provided by the sheer outrage of the outside world. Many European governments are aghast at the U.S. government's refusal to play by the rules of the game. The Chinese and the Russians have grudgingly and perhaps only temporarily acceded to U.S. demands. The Arab world is demanding a more balanced approach to the stand-off between Israel and Palestine. The U.N., told to go to the back of the bus, is uncomfortable with the United States climbing into the driver's seat.

The rest of the counterforce, however, must come from within. In the United States itself, the American public has been hesitant about expanding the war on terrorism beyond a narrow focus on those responsible for Sept. 11. The democratic process, which took such a beating in Florida in Dec. 2000, still holds much promise, although congressional opposition to the Bush agenda has been less a matter of collective action than individual conscience – Barbara Lee's (D-Calif.) solitary vote against going to war in Afghanistan, Russell Feingold's (D-Wisc.) solitary vote against the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act. While certain politicians have taken courageous stands, other elected representatives will require more "street heat" – pressure from concerned constituents – particularly after the 2002 elections returned control of both houses of Congress to the Republican Party.

During the last efflorescence of U.S. unilateralism in the Reagan years, powerful social movements helped to prevent the worst-case scenarios. The peace movement pressured the Reagan administration to negotiate with the Soviet Union on nuclear missile withdrawals from Europe and reductions in strategic arsenals. The anti-intervention movement helped deter a direct U.S. invasion of El Salvador and Nicaragua. The antiapartheid movement helped to dissolve U.S. support for the South African regime.

Today, the global justice movement and the peace movement are similarly countering U.S. policies around the world. But effective resistance will require cooperation not only across borders but across topics as well: the global justice and the peace movements need to forge a common critique and establish a common agenda for action.

The nonviolent end of the Cold War – forty years of military alert ending with hardly a shot fired – created an opportunity for the world to find its way to an order based less on power balances than on genuine international cooperation. So far this has been largely an opportunity missed.

In 1935, the international order faced a dire threat. Fascism, as a doctrine, set itself against a democratic, multilateral system. But the precipitating factor for the demise of the League of Nations – the predecessor to the United Nations – was Italy's invasion of Abyssinia in that year. International norms could not survive this final violation.

Seventy years later, a considerably stronger international community faces a similar problem, though the threat itself has bifurcated. Whatever challenge terrorism poses to the current democratic, multilateral system, it is the ostensibly democratic United States, in its unilateral attempt to remake the world in its own image, that more directly threatens the United Nations and the rule of international law. How many U.S.-led invasions will it take before the U.N. follows the League of Nations into history's dustbin?

As the signs at railway crossings once advised motorists, the United States must "stop, look, and listen." To do otherwise is to court disaster.

John Feffer is the author of "Shock Waves: Eastern Europe after the Revolutions" (South End, 1992), coeditor of "Europe's New Nationalism" (Oxford, 1996), and editor of "Living in Hope: People Challenging Globalization" (Zed, 2002). Miriam Pemberton is a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and Peace and Security Editor for FPIF.

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