"Since the creation of the United Nations [in 1945], there has not been a world war. Therefore for anybody, especially the leader of a superstate, to act outside the United Nations is something that must be condemned by everybody who wants peace."
Nelson Mandela, 1993 Nobel Peace Prize winner
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There are dates in history that resound like gun shots: June 28, 1914 (the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, igniting World War I), September 1, 1939 (the invasion of Poland by Hitler's Germany, touching off World War II), December 7, 1941 (the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor), August 6, 1945 (the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima), September 11, 2001 (the al Qaeda terrorist attacks in New York and Washington) and March 20, 2003, (when George W. Bush ordered the bombing of Baghdad and the military invasion of Iraq). These dates heralded the beginnings of new eras and of profound changes for the world.
In the 21st Century, even more so than during the past centuries, resorting to terrorist tactics and using war as a political instrument constitutes a step backwards for civilization. Today, technologies of destruction make both modern warfare and politico-religious terrorism immoral. Killing thousands of innocent people or bombing human populations from 30,000 feetand having the gall to claim it is in the name of an abstract dietyis the epitome of savagery and cowardice. Those that do must one day answer to history.
The role played by the United States in the building of a better and more prosperous world is still uncertain. Indeed, since 1945, there is no other country in the world which has promoted more enthusiastically and which has benefited more from the globalization of the economy. As a consequence, American corporations, financial institutions and brand names are all over the world, and international trade has grown three times faster than all other economic activities.
The U.S. government, under Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, etc., has been at the forefront of the development of the legal and political international framework to support this globalization of the economy, with the establishment of the United Nations, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), to name only the most important multilateral international institutions. Without outright American support, such a beneficial development would not have been possible.
But, paradoxically, at the beginning of the 21st Century, the U.S. government, under George W. Bush, has adopted go-it-alone supremacist policies that threaten to unravel what took half a century to build. By withdrawing from international treaties, by snubbing the other 191 countries of the United Nations and by waging war unilaterally, the Bush administration has undertaken to dismantle piece by piece the international legal and political system that has been the foundation of the post-war era of peace and prosperity.
Two political philosophies are presently at odds in the U.S.: supremacist hegemonism and cooperative multilateralism. Supremacist hegemonism is a go-it-alone strategy that is froth with isolationism, interventionism and the idea of preeminence. Cooperative multilateralism is about respecting people and about diffusing and sharing power among nations with equal rights, within international democratic institutions. Which approach is more congenial with the ideals of democracy and peace? Which political philosophy is more likely to advance both international and American long run interests? These are the questions that will have to be answered in the coming years.
Since Republican George W. Bush became president, in early 2001, the world has become a more dangerous place for Americans, and the United States has become a somewhat more dangerous country to the world. Terrorism has stopped being a local political phenomenon and has emerged as a worldwide threat and, since 9/11, an even more menacing threat to the United States and to American interests around the world.
At the center of these developments is the election of President George W. Bush, on November 7, 2000. During the first three years of its administration, George W. Bush has blurred the separation of Church and State, has embarked upon two wars of his own choosing in Afghanistan and in Iraq, has withdrawn from a string of international agreements and international institutions that he considered too confining, has adopted a provocative with-us-or-against-us rhetorical style, has declared an end to the policies of deterrence and of balance of power as a way to preserve international peace, and has challenged other nations as a policy goal not to attempt to rival American military superiority, thus running the risk of rekindling the arms race.
Just as in 1945, after the disaster of World War II, the United States is still the key-nation that can advance democracy and rules-based multilateralism in world institutions. It is a responsibility that it cannot recuse without risking destabilizing the entire planet. Above all, it must behave as a democracy and not as a tyrant, and it should believe in self-limiting its power for the sake of world peace. This is a small price to pay for creating a better world for all. Current U.S. politicians should meditate about what President Harry S. Truman had to say at the 1945 San Francisco conference that gave birth to the United Nations:
"We all have to recogniseno matter how great our strengththat we must deny ourselves the license to do always as we please."
It remains to be seen, however, if the present-day U.S. political system can generate the types of individuals and braintrusts capable of looking beyond the partisan electoral horizon and devoted to building a better world for future generations. For that, America must follow policies true to its original ideals. It should not fear to embrace Benjamin Franklin's seven "great virtues" in public affairsaversion to tyranny, support for a free press, a sense of humor, humility, idealism in foreign policy, tolerance and respect for compromise.