Feb 19, 2009
It looks like we may be in luck as Americans—the views which I am about to espouse, and the tactics that I will make appeals for appear to be in vogue with the new administration. That which I am arguing for can essentially be boiled down into one word: diplomacy. US foreign policy in the last decade was beginning to resemble the oft-cited parable of the man with a great big hammer (for a man with a hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail). We have a great big military.—but not all of the problems in the world are nails. Most of the world’s problems do not have military solutions—not if you want a lasting solution. At best, the military may be a single tool, in an entire toolbox, but it’s important that the military aspect not be the dominant force in any plan. There are two reasons for my appeal, and only the first falls into the “hippie treehugger” category of a moral argument. The second is based pure efficacy.
The first is that modern warfare has become far more destructive in humanitarian regards than should be acceptable. The widespread use of explosives in any conflict renders it absolutely impossible to avoid killing innocent people in any fight. When precision munitions were introduced to the world decades ago many thought it would mean the end of staggering civilian body counts. While this may have been true to a minor degree the prediction as a whole can be considered false. One need only examine two of the most recent conflicts, where one of the warring parties possesses this superior smart bomb technology. Israel’s violent lashing out at Hamas in the Gaza territories claimed over 100 lives, or slightly less, depending on which source you believe (There’s plenty of dispute over the body count). Still, an estimated half of these casualties were civilians. Following the US invasion of Iraq (the US being the nation that pioneered precision munitions) nearly a million Iraqis have died. These numbers shouldn’t be ignored or shrugged off. Somewhere along the way it seems that civilian casualties became acceptable. They are not. An innocent person’s demise is tragic and wrong. It’s time for Americans to remember this. We cannot go into this new century as a superpower that acts with impunity and callous disregard for the innocent: we were supposed to be a beacon of freedom for the entire world. Thousands of dead children, killed by errant bombs, are the very antithesis of freedom and liberty.
We also must realize the moral obligation to treat people fairly where ever we exact our influence. The US has a legal jurisdiction in its own borders, but it carries its moral jurisdiction wherever it goes. We cannot forget about our principles just because we’re operating in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The next argument is purely practical, as it relates to our national security. We stand at a unique time in our world’s history. Due to a convergence of several factors, state sovereignty is weakening as governments lose more and more of their dominance over individuals. These factors are:
- the information age: people around the globe are becoming more and more connected, and sharing information in ways once thought impossible. Through the internet, young people are going to grow up in a world where their Chinese and Iranian brethren will not seem so different. In fact, the world will slowly awaken to a fact that was once only internalized by the well-travelled: all people are essentially the same. People will become less fractured by divisions of nationalism and race, and more bonds will develop based on ideals and common interests. Such a shift in human relations sounds promising, but let’s keep in mind that criminal pursuits have long united people from different cultures.
Along with the information age comes a brand new weapon that is relatively cheap, and can be wielded with awesome power by a single person: cyberattack. Many of the nation’s industries (banking comes to mind) have put their operations online to increase efficiency, but they risk being vulnerable to an attack by a single, talented person, or small organization.
The next threat is that of nuclear weaponry. At their advent nuclear weapons made the nation-state unquestionably strong. But Fifty years later, following a cold war, Russia and the United States have produced enough nuclear weapons to destroy the planet several times over. There’s a chance that one of these could (or did) make it out of Russia following the Soviet collapse. Add to that, many smaller nations are coming across the technology and capability to create their own nuclear weapons. This creates a situation where large nations are becoming increasingly vulnerable to radical groups with violent agendas. An organized group of violent ideologues could obtain a small nuclear weapon and smuggle it into a powerful nation. They might get this weapon from a sympathetic government. Or perhaps obtain it on the black market. The possibilities are plentiful in an environment where nuclear weapons have been overproduced. I’m hopeful that a robust intelligence initiative can keep the nuclear threat from ever becoming a real problem—but even if we reach a that point, the power of the individual will still have grown by a great measure.
We must come to terms with our fallibility. The United States must accept that due to these converging trends, she will become more vulnerable. George Orwell wisely noted that that the power of the individual relative to the state is a function of the technology of the most prevalent weapons. With automatic firearms, mortars, rockets, grenades, and the internet (all easily obtainable/accessible), small organizations hold significant power. In this emerging environment, governments may find that they will need to appeal to take the popular conscience more seriously. While this presents new dangers it also presents promise. After all, the founding fathers firmly believed that governments existed to serve the people, not the other way around. Governments may feel a strong push to act more democratically—or at least to control their message better. As the number of angry and disgruntled people increases, the odds that some group or individual will succeed in making a catastrophic attack against a state or corporation will go up. Ruling with an iron fist may soon become a thing of the past. Governments will have much more trouble keeping their actions in the dark in the information age. Any wonton imprisoning or slaughtering of citizens by a despot could reach the ears of the entire world in 24 hours. Note that dictators have always made such concerted efforts to keep a lid on the press. Information is key, and always has been. All successful dictatorships have controlled the press, but the world is changing. Any government imposing unpopular rule in the upcoming century will need to grapple with a sprawling internet. China is taking great pains to censor the internet to their citizens, but this will likely prove a futile effort. (Still it’s a shame to see Google help them out.)
These global trends are making it easier for the weak to organize against the strong. As we move forward governments will need to be very careful to present the proper image to the world. Governments will find it increasingly difficult to influence any group of people without their consent, or at least their apathy.
The United States would be wise to see this and adopt the proper image. That is, we need to make ourselves indispensable to the world at large. When a typical person in the world (not just a US citizen) is asked what they think of the United States, they should associate our nation with positive qualities, and see us as a force for good in the world. The only way to really achieve this is truly embody these qualities. To go the opposite way, to respond stubbornly and stupidly with only brute force, disregarding the welfare of the weak, is to paint a big target over our nation. And for the cynics, I do not believe deception will work. To talk of freedom and liberty but act selfishly and aggressively is dangerous and transparent. A perfect example: after the US invaded and occupied Iraq, wreaking havoc upon its people and infrastructure, no one in his right mind believes we went there to help the Iraqi populace.
Every person in the world who loses a child, mother, friend, etc. to a U.S. bomb is a probable enemy of the United States. Every Iraqi child who watched their parents get executed as a result of the ethnic cleansing unleashed by the U.S. invasion is a potential terrorist who sees the United States of America as a great evil empire. These thousands of resentful people can easily connect on the internet (just as Al Qaeda does right now). They can travel with relative ease to meet one another. They can share ideas, and work with one another towards a common goal.
I make this appeal for a more diplomatic approach because I feel the idea is somewhat understated. The absolute necessity of utilizing our intelligence services to track down and confiscate weapons of mass destruction, and to monitor and track criminal threats around the world is the other prong in what should be a two-pronged approach. We could never hope to eliminate all threats by simply ‘being good’. But we can certainly reduce the number of people in the world who see the U.S.’s downfall as being in their interest, and this in turn will reduce the strain on our military and intelligence services in combating ideological enemies.