Global Responsibility: Towards a More Cognizant Foreign Policy

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Following the events of September 11, 2001, the United States found itself confronted by a threat posed by a group of individuals based halfway across the world. Coming out from the Cold War as the world's sole superpower, the United States seemed untouchable, invincible. How was it attacked? And had the US done anything to provoke these attacks? These two questions, among others, provided much fodder for discussion in the aftermath of the attacks.

However, the realization that underpinned both of these questions, that the United States is part of a world whose activities, conflicts, and woes affect our country, has remained under-addressed. It is a realization of our interconnectedness with the rest of the world, and that it would not be reasonable to seek to extricate ourselves from it, or claim that we can. Rather, we ought to consider that there is a need for an encompassing vision of our past as a nation, our present, and our future.

The American response to the tragedy on September 11th emphasized and exploited American military strength, something that had been prefigured by plans the administration had formulated with respect to the military. When former President George W. Bush had first begun campaigning, his stated mission had been to completely transform the American military and bring it up-to-date in terms of technology and tactics. With reference to these proposals, Dick Cheney stated in 2000: "Rarely has so much been demanded of our armed forces, and so little given to them in return." The sad irony of this statement is becoming apparent now.

The events of September 11 served to further the administration's path along this trajectory: among other developments, the military transformation came to include reconfiguring Trident submarines to make them capable of holding long-range cruise missiles, developing "unmanned aircraft" that have the ability to perform combat missions like those of the Joint Strike Fighters, and establishing military bases along an arc from Central Asia to Southeast Asia.

While there is not much, if anything, objectionable about the desire to defend oneself, it is questionable whether military exploits (what the military was ostensibly built up to engage in and what it did engage in) always aid one in this goal.

Upon al-Qaeda's announcement of its culpability for the attacks, the administration announced that the US would be embarking on "a new kind of war," a war wherein the revamping of the military would prove most useful. Bush announced that the US would "take the battle to the terrorists" and would create a "forward defense," one that would include preemptive strikes if it was sensed that they would aid our ability to protect ourselves.

In "The National Security Strategy of the United States," a document prepared by the former administration and issued a year after the attacks, former President Bush states, "The United States can no longer solely rely on a reactive posture as we have in the past," and furthermore, that, "As a matter of common sense and self-defense, America will act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed."

Thus, the building of the military was supplemented with justification for preemptive strikes, and, moreover, a disregard for differing cultures and worldviews -- i.e., the prime recipe for disaster. And perhaps the most evident manifestation of this was the war in Iraq, which has thus far cost us nearly 1.3 million lives, the vast majority of them Iraqi civilians.

What worsens the situation is that we have failed to grasp one of the most important lessons we could have learned from September 11th: that we, as strong and as great as we may be, are human and are susceptible to harm, harm inflicted by others. Without acknowledging this, we put ourselves in even greater danger than before. In "Revamping American Grand Strategy," Sherle R. Schwenninger, a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, stated: "Thus, the end result of America's war on terrorism may be to increase the range of threats to American lives and interests well beyond the al-Qaeda network, almost ensuring that the number of terrorist acts will increase in the year ahead." The number of attacks by masked gunmen and suicide bombers in Iraq and Afghanistan bears testimony to these words.

In the same report, Schwenninger continues on to make several suggestions for improving the war on terror, i.e. moving towards a more intelligent foreign policy. He suggests targeting the financing for terrorist networks, and cooperation of the intelligence agencies of the US, Britain, France, and Germany, and their collaboration with local authorities from Thailand to Pakistan. However, moving towards a more effective foreign policy, a wiser and, yes, a nobler one, requires more than this.

Schwenninger's suggestions, important though they are, treat the symptoms of terrorism (terrorist ideology being of the greatest of our current adversaries) with increased accuracy but not the cause of the malady itself. Combating terrorism requires taking a more encompassing and considering view of our history in terms of our relations with other peoples, our actions today, and what would be most advantageous for us tomorrow. This should guide us in shifting the national mindset such that it acknowledges this interconnectedness and advocates corresponding action. It is the responsible thing to do, for us and for others.

With that in mind, there are a few principles I think would be worthy to bear in consideration. We Americans make up only 4.5% of the total world population. I am inclined to think that truly recognizing this would entail treating the rest of the world population justly and humanely, both in terms of our words and our deeds. Antagonizing, condescending words, then, have no place in our ideal interactions with other peoples, and rather, reassuring words go a long way in facilitating cooperation and understanding.

Thus, President Barack Obama's recent gestures to the Muslim world, particularly significant in today's environment, are laudable: "The United States is not at war with Islam," and "We will convey our deep appreciation for the Islamic faith, which has done so much over so many centuries to shape the world for the better -- including my own country," being two such statements. Words such as these combat the effects of ideologues who spout hatred and increase enmity; indeed, words such as these were exactly what much of the Muslim world had been waiting to hear. On the other hand, belligerent and antagonizing words and gestures serve to drive people towards ideologues who assert that "the West" will never understand "the Muslim world" and is out to destroy it.

In the preface of his book Unholy War, John Esposito addressed the former administration, stating: "The Bush administration remains challenged to remember that this is as much a political war as a military war...[that] in the long term, the most effective weapon will be public diplomacy... America will need to join with its partners in the international community, addressing the root causes of terrorism." He continues on to urge Americans to become educated about Islam, and become more familiar with its basic tenets and history -- it would not be surprising to find that there is much in common. He also encourages people at large to explore what the roots of terrorism truly are, stating that the actions of terrorists, who may be Muslim, do not reflect Islam and do not reflect the vast majority of Muslims. Rather, Muslims who turn to terrorism are products of deeply malignant social conditions, many of which can be traced back to treatment by Western countries. Compound that with the influence of ideologues who are bent on presenting "the West" and what it stands for as being wholly antithetical to Islam, and who assert that the two are and will be at war until one wins, we are presented with the trouble we have now. (Incidentally, both are false assertions--the existence of Western Muslims, who comfortably straddle both identities, illustrates this).

Esposito insists, "Never before have soft phrases like 'building bridges of understanding' been more critical in a war that ultimately cannot be won simply by military power." The seeds of hatred spewed by ideologues can only find fertile soil if we, as Americans, cultivate that soil with unjust and antagonizing words and deeds.

Because our actions are not conducted in a vacuum, it is important for us to inculcate a certain amount of foresight, intelligence, caution, and responsibility, and use those effectively in our dealings with others. President Obama is preoccupied with healing the wounds of yesteryear. This is a challenging task, and it would do President Obama well to think over the mistakes of his predecessors and seek to avoid them. As such, actions like the drone attacks over Pakistan may antagonize more of the population and will prove to be counterproductive.

According to Foreign Policy, eighty-two drone attacks undertaken by the United States in the past three years have resulted in 760 to 1,000 deaths, and only twenty of them had been leaders of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated groups, i.e. somewhere between 2% and 3%. Has it been worth it? On the other hand, the number of people who will be pushed towards such alliances out of anger or desperation will predictably multiply.

At the moment, the United States stands at a point where its future is not fully determined. Two roads stand before us: one towards greater strength and power, and the other towards a decline, like so many before us. The great irony is that we can only retain our power and privileged position in the world through adopting a nobler, more magnanimous attitude--the harder of the two courses, and one that will require wisdom. I am certain President Obama is capable of this. And while it is said that the most the President can do at the moment is work solely towards healing wounds, i.e. move from negative to zero, in order for us to move towards the positive, we need to actively enact change in some other critical areas, ranging from our unfortunate and prolonged abuse of the environment to conflicts that are taking the life, limb, and conscience of too many. Our myopic undertakings in many of these areas fuel feelings and actions of hostility; in addition to addressing the external manifestations of these problems, it is incumbent that we understand the root and strike at it, or risk creating more of our own adversaries.

On the part of us Americans, this all means we need to be informed of where this country is going and what it is doing and take a greater role in its decisions. Adjunct professor at Loyola University Omer Mozaffar states: "Because it is a democracy, what the country does is an extension of you. Thus, you wash your hands with the blood of each person who dies in war."

It is up to us to seek to be informed: What is our government doing? What are the consequences of these actions? Where are our resources going? What are they being used for? Are they being used efficiently? Who is in need of aid? What about needy Americans? After seeking information, the next step would be to work towards influencing policy through writing, contacting people, and, simply, voting. As citizens, we have to play a larger role in what this country does and where it goes. We have to work for the establishment of an active citizenry that is concerned, learned, knowledgeable, and prepared to fight for our security and for our future.