Today's date:
Winter 2003


United States Should Lead, Not Dominate

William J. Clinton is the former president of the United States.

New York - The United States stands at a unique moment in human history, with our political, economic and military dominance. But within 30 years the Chinese economy could be as big or bigger than ours. The Indian economy could be as well if they stop fighting with Pakistan and wasting money on armaments. Within 30 years, if the European Union continues to become more united politically and economically, it will in turn grow more influential politically and economically. Then, in an interdependent world, we can lead but not dominate.

The US will be judged based on how we used this "magic moment." Did we try to drive the world into the 21st century? Did we try to force people to live by our vision? Or did we instead try by leadership, example and persuasion to build a world in which people will treat us in the future the way we'd like to be treated because of how we acted at our moment of ascendancy?

My mentor, Sen. J. William Fulbright, once said the best thing America could do was to be "an intelligent example of the world through material helpfulness without moral presumption"; that "we should make our own society an example of human happiness, make ourselves the friends of social revolution and go beyond simple reciprocity in the effort to reconcile hostile worlds." He said he would far prefer to see us be a "sympathetic friend of humanity rather than its stern and prideful schoolmaster."

Now, of what relevance is that in the present day? Does that mean America should not have a strong military? No Does that mean we should never use it? When force is required to save massive numbers of lives? No. But it does mean that we should be humble enough to remember that there are rarely any final solutions in human affairs. Therefore, quite often the way we do something is as important as what we do.

We must recognize that our global interdependence, while a wonderful thing for those of us well positioned to take advantage of it, is still very much a mixed blessing. Our openness to one another in a world full of political, religious, economic and social divisions also increases our vulnerability and intensifies the pain and alienation of those who feel shut out from the blessings of interdependence. After all, on Sept. 11, Al Qaeda used the same open borders, easy travel and access to information and technology that we take for granted to kill 3,100 people from 70 countries, including more than 200 Muslims.

So the question is: What is America's responsibility at this moment of our dominance?

I believe it's to build a world that moves beyond interdependence to an integrated global community of shared responsibilities, shared benefits and shared values.

We must support the institutions of global community, beginning with the United Nations. The UN is an organization still becoming, still imperfect. We have not always done our part in it, but it is all we have, and now that we live in an interdependent world, it must have our full support in building an integrated global community. We must have a sound security strategy using the power of America to prevent the actions of and punish the people who mean us harm. And we must also remember the example of Gen. George C. Marshall and the Marshall Plan, of Sen. Fulbright and the Fulbright Program, and build a world that has more friends and partners and fewer terrorists. That is the purpose of foreign aid and debt relief, of fighting AIDS and putting all the world's children in school. We should not be too utopian in our expectations, but always utopian in our values and vision.

From the dawn of human society up to the present time, we have been bedeviled by a persistent curse: the compulsion people feel to define the meaning of their lives in positive terms with reference to those who are like them racially, tribally, culturally, religiously, politically, and by negative reference to those who are different. People then feel compelled to oppress those who are different when they are small and powerless enough not to prevent it. Increasingly wider circles of interdependence, however, have taught people to accept the humanity of those they once degraded.

Indeed, the whole course of human history can be seen as a constant struggle to expand the definition of who is "us" and shrink the definition of who is "them." From the dawn of time until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, it was never really possible to build a global community of cooperation, in which we celebrate, not just tolerate, our diversity, on the simple theory that our differences make life interesting, but our common humanity matters more.

When the UN was set up, global community was not possible because of the Cold War. Then, in the '70s, China started moving toward the rest of the world. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. So we've had just 13 years to work on finding practical expressions of the dream of an integrated community of nations.

To further that goal, we ought to be working with other countries on banning nuclear testing, reducing global warming, establishing an International Criminal Court and strengthening a convention against biological weapons. I am disappointed that the current administration has withdrawn from, or failed to strengthen, agreements in each of those areas. It sends the wrong signal to the world just at the time when we need more and stronger alliances to help us target terrorists and defend our nation.

But despite these setbacks, I remain an optimist. In the last 13 years, the EU has grown together, the UN has proved to have greater capacity to deal with problems in the Balkans and elsewhere; Russia and China have moved closer to the West; the Good Friday Accord was adopted in Northern Ireland; we had seven years of progress toward peace in the Middle East before Yasser Arafat rejected my last proposal, which he now agrees all parties should embrace; and the world's wealthy nations began to do more, with the global debt-relief initiative and increased funding to fight AIDS.

We have no choice but to learn to live together, to choose cooperation over conflict, to give expression to our common humanity by following simple rules: everyone deserves a chance, everyone has a role to play, we all do better when we work together, we're not as different as we think.

We do not yet have the institutions to run that kind of world. That is the work of politics, and in that work there will always be differences of opinion, conflicts of interest and values, and as we see today even in the simple evaluation of the evidence.

But, on balance, I think the world is moving in the right direction because it has become inconceivable that we can solve the problems of the world without solving them together. All of us should do our part to see that it happens as soon as possible.