We Need to Lead by Example, Not Threats

Toward a Humanist Foreign Policy
by Carl Coon

President George W. Bush has proved to be as much of a disaster on foreign affairs as on domestic issues. More, if possible. And not just on Iraq. On many other issues, including global warming, missile defense, population growth, and now Iran, he has been just as flagrantly wrong as he was on the supposed weapons of mass destruction held by Saddam Hussein. It’s not just that he’s getting bad advice: his narrow worldview is upside-down to begin with. Combine that with his desire to seek advice only from people who will fortify his prejudices, rather than from the ones who know and understand the issues, and you get a dangerous combination.

It was a national tragedy that we had this kind of person at the helm when the terrorists struck on September 11, 2001. Bush used the attack to justify a foreign policy aimed at world domination, accompanied by an even more systematic and thorough attack on our civil liberties, all in the name of “protecting” us against further terrorist assaults. As a result we are no longer admired abroad–we are feared and hated–while on the home front we face an erosion of our rights, an extraordinary accession of executive power, and an assault on the wall separating church and state.

I think it was Henry Kissinger who once observed that absolute security for any one country meant absolute insecurity for its neighbors. The Bush response to a serious, but not existential terrorist threat, has been entirely disproportionate. We built up our conventional military forces and then used them against Iraq, a country that wasn’t even threatening us. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda continues to regroup in the frontier regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan while we stride across the globe like some modern colossus, threatening anyone who disagrees with us, turning a deaf ear to their arguments.

There has to be a better way, and of course there is. We need to lead by example, not threats. We need to listen to others, learn what their problems are, and exercise our talents and ingenuity toward finding solutions that help everyone to the extent possible. We need to take the dawning environmental crisis seriously and show that we’re willing to make our share of needed sacrifices. Above all, we need to recognize that we have to sacrifice some of our national sovereignty if we are to cooperate effectively on global problems with the rest of the world.

This last point is critical and is least understood, not only by Bush and his accomplices, but by many, if not most, Americans. The fact of the matter is that we can’t have it both ways. We can’t insist on total security for us and us alone, and expect full cooperation from everyone else. Cooperation requires some sacrifices, some concessions, from each of the partners.


The tradeoff between liberty and security is as old as humanity itself. Any human society that endures has rules that constrain its members in ways that make cooperation possible. So we prize liberty but fear anarchy. We are all for free choice but insist that everyone should respect the law of the land. We recognize that there’s a contradiction, or at least a tradeoff, between our yearning for as much individual freedom as possible, and the maintenance of public order, but we also believe that a just society can have its cake and eat it too. We admire societies, including our own, to the extent they have worked out institutions and attitudes and principles that maintain order while maximizing freedom. We deplore both failed states, where chaos reigns, and dictatorships, where order is maintained only by force. Isn’t that what democracy is all about?

Until now, there has been no such thing as a global society. The most complex societies have been nation-states. There is a global authority, the United Nations, but it has no teeth. On the most important issues, a sovereign nation can ignore any UN attempt to constrain or control its behavior. It’s true that many international and regional organizations, buttressed by treaties and conventions, bring a modicum of law and order into specific areas of international relations. They are useful and respond to real needs. But on the most important issues, any member of the UN can defy its authority, and the only recourse the UN has is to try to persuade other nations to put pressure on the miscreant. This sometimes works with small and powerless countries, but the big ones can behave as they please. When the chips are down, the current global society resembles Dodge City from the mythology of the cowboy movie, where victory goes to the fastest draw.


Humanity is now in a transitional phase, moving reluctantly from Dodge City to a global society ruled by law. We’ve seen this kind of transition before, on more limited scales. Some combination of circumstances alters the environment and the existing social order comes under great stress. People get desperate enough to commit to a substantially different order that involves cooperating with former competitors, even enemies, in a larger society. There are problems of adjustment but eventually almost everyone is integrated into the new order and few want to go back to the old one. Our own nation’s history tells the story: thirteen colonies, each of them filled with pride at its particular history and character, hesitantly agreed to form a confederation. From that, the tighter bonds of a federal republic were created and now here we are. Who wants to go back?

Our history of morphing from thirteen small societies into a subcontinental giant was extraordinary. Usually the process involves more trauma, more false steps (I say this even while acknowledging that our civil war was a thoroughly traumatic affair). European history is more typical in that respect. How many wars have been fought on European soil since the Roman Empire collapsed? And how difficult is it still, when all the disadvantages of narrow nationalism have been revealed, and all the blessings of union are being unveiled, for the several national parties to agree on the institutions and modalities of union?

All this suggests that creating some kind of law and order that will include the whole globe will be an enormously complicated task, one that certainly will not be fully accomplished during the lifetime of anyone alive today. But it’s equally plausible that some such order will evolve eventually, if humanity is to survive at all. Right now we are living in a fool’s paradise, based on an uneasy equilibrium backed up not by an effective international rule of law but by a balance of terror, known as mutually assured destruction. No nation-state is mad enough to use nuclear weapons first, not so far at least, and all are concerned lest some of those weapons fall into terrorist hands. But is this the best guarantee of stability that we can leave to our grandchildren? If this is the best we can do, will there be that many grandchildren left to receive our inheritance?

Read all of it here.

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