Let's set a moral example for the world

March 20, 2002|By Thomas L. Friedman

WASHINGTON -- The last time America dominated the world as overwhelmingly as it does today was in the wake of World War II.

So why did that America not inspire the sort of global anger that today's America does? Partly it's because the rest of the world was flat on its back then. But more important, it's because America after World War II took responsibility for making the world both a more secure place to live and a better place to live. And it expended a lot of resources, as in the Marshall Plan, to do both.

Since Sept. 11, the Bush team has focused on making the world safer, but has shown little interest in making it more healthy, less poor and more environmentally sound. As a result, there has been little chance that it was going to end up safer for Americans.

Therefore, President Bush's speech last week announcing a $5 billion increase in foreign aid for poor countries is important -- not only as a substantive breakthrough for this administration, but also, one hopes, as a psychological one.

Since Sept. 11, Mr. Bush has often noted that the world has fundamentally changed. Yet time after time he has exploited the shock of Sept. 11 to argue why his same old, pre-Sept. 11, policies were still the only way to proceed -- only more so.

Because of Sept. 11, he has argued, we need even deeper tax cuts for the wealthy, even more money for a pie-in-the-sky missile defense that would have been of no use on Sept. 11, an even bigger defense budget and even more drilling for oil in wilderness areas.

The most obvious conclusion from Sept. 11 -- that fighting terrorism around the globe will require a new, multidimensional strategy, not just a defense strategy -- was the one Mr. Bush seemed least inclined to draw, and that's why his speech should be welcomed.

It will be relevant, though, only if it really signals an understanding by the Bush team that there are no walls for us to hide behind anymore, that everything is connected to everything else and that we cannot win a global war against terrorism without global allies, but we will have those allies only if we practice what the architects of the Marshall Plan practiced: enlightened self-interest, not just self-interest.

Those postwar wise men persuaded others to follow us because they not only respected our power but also our wisdom and moral example.

The Sept. 11 terrorists did not hit us because they were poor. But millions of poor people gave passive support to those terrorists because they resented our greed or our support for their bad regimes. That's why it was important that the president said our increased foreign aid must be conditioned on countries' improving their governance, rule of law, social safety nets, investment climates and anti-corruption practices.

We can't force elections, but we can use our aid to pressure developing countries to give their people more voice, more rule of law and a fairer slice of the pie, which are the people's real priorities. Here's a tip: The reason Islam seems like such an angry religion today is that so many Muslims are angry. The reason so many Muslims are angry is that most of them live under anti-democratic regimes backed by America, with lagging economies and shrinking opportunities for young people.

Beyond just aid, though, we should also be forging free trade accords with as many Muslim nations as possible (instead of throwing up insane protectionist walls around our steel industry). At the economic forum at the Swiss ski resort of Davos, one expert noted that Muslim countries make up 20 percent of the world's population yet only 4 percent of the world's trade. Trade in goods brings trade in ideas. The most open, tolerant places in the Muslim world today are all trading centers: Dubai, Istanbul, Bahrain, Amman, Beirut, Jakarta, coastal India.

But enlightened self-interest is not just about generosity; it's also about self-restraint. We need to find a way to ratify the Kyoto climate change treaty. It's not only the right thing to do, but it would also send a hugely positive signal to the world -- that America understands that if it's going to have lasting allies in a global war on terrorism, it has to be the best global citizen it can be. The attitude that we are entitled to consume 25 percent of the world's energy while we're only 4 percent of the world's population is obnoxious. Selfishness and hubris are a terrible combination.

Mr. Bush has repeatedly told the world: If you're not with us, you're against us. He needs to remember this: The rest of the world is saying the same thing to us.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.

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