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Taking radical responsibility to create a humanized world.

As the war in Iraq worsens, approval of George W. Bush fades, and criticism of his administration mounts, conservatives who supported Bush in 2000 are denouncing him today. Pat Buchanan, Christopher Layne, and Scott McConnell of the American Conservative, George Will of the Washington Post, Jeffery Hart of the National Review, and conservative political scientists such as John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, Stephen Walt of Harvard University, and Christopher Preble of the Cato Institute have all sharply criticized the Bush administration's handling of foreign policy. Hart and Mearsheimer, who both voted for Bush in 2000, have publicly announced their enthusiastic support in this election year not for Bush but for John Kerry. In October 2003 many of these prominent foreign policy conservatives helped form the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy (CRFP) as a direct effort to oppose the foreign policy of the Bush administration and the direction it is leading the country.

The impact these conservative intellectuals have had so far on the forthcoming elections is negligible. According to a Time/CNN poll conducted shortly after the revelations in May of the abuses perpetrated by U.S. soldiers on Iraqi prisoners, Bush's approval rating for the first time during his presidency sank below his disapproval rating (46 percent versus 49 percent). Nonetheless the same polls have Kerry holding only a marginal lead over Bush.

In concert with CRFP, the Bush administration has lacked resolve, creativity, and action to properly confront the global conflicts that now face Americans. His administration arguably has failed to diminish terrorism and is certainly unable to contain it--and should also be condemned for augmenting the resolve of terrorists. At the same time the issues are complex and the right action quite perplexing. The uncertainty and the lack of a viable alternative have Americans seemingly unable to completely abandon Bush. Of the three most publicized alternatives, none are a clear improvement. Wesley Clark and Richard Clarke have merely emphasized that attention and military might must be directed toward al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. Aside from his position on Iraq, it isn't clear that John Kerry's foreign policy will be much different than the current U.S. foreign policy. Worse, Kerry's "alternative" plan for Iraq (as published in the Washington Post) may be less defensible than Bush's. Kerry's plan calls for participation by the United Nations, which is unrealistic due to both UN unwillingness and lack of capability. What is most remarkable of all these policies is the lack of comprehensiveness. What these policies and the Bush foreign policy have in common is the reaction of violence.

Humanity finds itself in a desperately grave situation. Terrorism abounds and generates violent reactions to it. How are we to stop the repetitive cycle of human devestation, violence, war, and death? A more humanistic international order must be implemented. We must initiate an international policy that promotes humanistic principles, and we must make critical analysis of U.S. foreign policy and international economic policy over the last thirty years part of the public discourse concerning terrorism. According to several mid-June reports, the 9/11 Commission has made it clear that the hijack plot was in direct protest of U.S. policies in the Middle East and U.S. economic hegemony.

With respect to U.S. foreign policy there seems to be a particular historical amnesia, even in the most recent decades, and its record is far from peaceful. In 1975 the U.S. government began providing support to the Indonesian government's vicious campaign against the people of East Timor. In 1978 the Carter administration covertly sent arms to rebel forces in Afghanistan, arguably inducing Soviet military intervention. During the 1980s the Reagan administration participated in covert war throughout Central America. The first Bush administration continued military action in Central America with its invasion of Panama in 1989. In 1991 the U.S. invaded Kuwait and intensified its military presence in Saudi Arabia, constituting a major transgression for many Saudi Arabians, including Osama bin Laden. This isn't necessarily a condemnation of any of these particular overt or covert military actions. Rather the intention is to underscore the virtual absence of any acknowledgement by U.S. officials let alone rigorous debate within the public sphere of these interventions and their symbiotic relationship with the rise of terrorism.

With respect to U.S. international economic policy, it isn't merely historical amnesia but blatant ignorance and apathy that lie at the root of the severe uncertainty that plagues the U.S. citizens and their government on how best to develop a comprehensive response strategy. Economic crises characterize nations around the world. Poverty has worsened over the last twenty years. Debt of low-income countries grew by 544 percent between 1980 and 2000. Middle-income countries' debt increased by 481 percent during the same period.

Much of the international economic development is carried out by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. The failures that have manifested from IMF and World Bank policy aimed at promoting economic development have many leftist politico-economic theorists claiming that Western imperialism, which characterized much of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, continues today. Indeed the statistics are grim. Since 1990 the World Bank reports that the numbers of the world population living on less than two dollars a day has increased by nearly 100 million people, in spite of 2.5 percent increase in world income. The United Nations Human Development Report 1999 suggests that nearly 50 percent of the world population is living on two dollars or less per day. The same report points out that "the income gap between the fifth of the world's people living in the richest countries and the fifth in the poorest doubled from 1960-1990, from thirty to one to sixty to one. By 1998, it had jumped again, with the gap widening to an astonishing seventy-eight to one."

In the United States, based on U.S. Census Bureau statistics, income inequality had been shrinking from 1960-1980. Since 1980 this trend has dramatically reversed; the share of the poorest fifth has fallen by more than 11 percent, and that of the richest increased by nearly 20 percent. It was reported in Pensions and Investments (2001) that the compensation packages of U.S. executives increased by 535 percent since 1990. While at the same time, according to a 2001 article in Fortune compensation of U.S. CEOs increased by an alarming 12,444 percent. In 2000 the Institute for Policy Studies reported that of the largest one hundred economies in the world, fifty-two are now corporations. The concentration of economic power is also illustrated in a 1997 article in the Atlantic Monthly, which reports that "the world's top 200 corporations account for 28 percent of global economic activity; the top 500 account for 70 percent of world trade and the top 1000 companies control more than 80 percent of the world's industrial output." Today a relatively small number of giant conglomerates dominate nearly every socioeconomic sector and region of the world. This dominance is an effective attack on humanistic values; too often corporate dominance is at the detriment of workers, the poor and underprivileged, democratic politics, and nature itself.

Although the results of international economic development are indeed grim and seem to suggest imperialism, it would be a mistaken characterization. In fact international economic development is historically unique since 1970. The intention of international economic development since 1970 was to avoid a policy driven merely by Western interests and exploitative politics.

It is possible to divide international economic development into four phases over the past 130 years. From 1870 to 1917 resources of the underdeveloped societies were exploited and appropriated militaristically, by means of imperialism. From 1917 to 1944 arose a less militaristically driven form of exploitation and appropriation of the resources of the underdeveloped world. This phase can be termed the colonial phase of international development. Although the colonial phase was perhaps less overtly violent, it was nonetheless politically exploitative of underdeveloped countries and their resources. In 1944 two sister international economic institutions were created, the IMF and the World Bank. At the same time there were political efforts globally to reduce the colonial rule of the underdeveloped world.

During this period fixed exchanged rates came to characterize international economics, protectionist policy protected domestic economies, and political sovereignty was slowly being returned to local leaders. However, many of these leaders were merely "puppet" regimes put in place to promote Western economic, political, and cultural interests. Nonetheless, from 1944 to 1970 political exploitation and appropriation of underdeveloped countries greatly diminished. This was a significant political accomplishment, pivoting upon the roles played by the IMF, the World Bank, and the United Nations. Although in this neo-colonial (post-colonial) phase (1944-1970) of international economic development political exploitation had diminished, the flow of international trade also weakened. The economic weakness internationally was especially damaging for the underdeveloped world.

In the early 1970s there was a concentrated effort on behalf of both the IMF and World Bank to help the underdeveloped countries of the world develop and increase trade. However, this effort also came with conditions for the recipient countries. To receive a loan from the IMF to stabilize a currency (and hence the economy) or to receive a loan from the World Bank to encourage economic development and growth, the recipient country must both liberalize and privatize their domestic economies. Liberalization means that distribution of resources must be left to the market mechanism. Price policies such as the minimum wage or low priced food hence become forbidden. Liberalization also means that capital becomes much more mobile. In turn the rapid mobility makes a domestic national economy much more liable to economic fluctuations. Privatization refers to the required reduction of domestic governments in both their ownership and control of domestic resources. Privatization reduces the ability of a nation or monetary authority to steer an economy and manage an economic crisis. Consequently, and not at all surprisingly, during the last twenty-five years economic crises first became more frequent--and more recently have become deeper and more prolonged.

As chaotic as international order has become, the intent of economic international development was positive and guided by humanistic principles to improve human well-being and reduce suffering and misery. If the peril generated is acknowledged and abolished by a new system of redistribution--perhaps a type of new Marshall Plan--not only can the Western international economic financial institutions make good on a thirty-year promise but terrorism will lose its resolve. Terrorism doesn't flourish because of Islam but because of poverty and desperate and unjust human inequalities.

The new Marshall Plan must go beyond the so-called Tobin Tax and the redistribution plan proposed by George Soros. The Tobin Tax places a cost, via a tax, on capital transactions. The intent is to reduce the mobility of capital and diminish economic fluctuations. The Soros plan promotes a radical redistribution of wealth through "special drawing rights," (SDRs). The SDRs are essentially a currency pool that would be created by the IMF for countries in economic trouble. The main problems with the Tobin Tax are that it is unlikely it would stop fluctuations from manifesting and it offers no solution for resolving economic crises when they do emerge. The Soros plan only addresses economic predicaments after they have become critical, if not full blown crises. There needs to be a preemptive socio-economic policy that is capable of reducing the effects and affects of painful crises and poverty.

What is needed in addition to a tax and a system of radical redistribution is a new international constitution that promotes and supports humanistic principles as exemplified by the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence. This international constitution would aim to protect and promote freedom, self-determination, and the intrinsic and inalienable value and rights of all human beings. A new institution would need to be created to encourage, promote, and sustain the humanistic principles of an international constitution. This new institution would be a sister organization to the World Trade Organization and perhaps dubbed the World Community Organization. The WTO would be separate from but otherwise subordinate to the WCO. The WCO would be concerned with and consider the viability of trade policy promoting the flourishing of civilization and culture in the nations participating in trade. The WCO could determine the redistribution package required to protect and develop community growth for trade negotiations. Labor leaders, religious organizations, cultural liaisons, along with politicians and corporate leaders, would all be invited to participate in trade and development negotiations.

The neglect of humanistic values by Western-dominated institutions such as the IMF, World Bank, WTO, and private international finance have now manifested in a wide-held perception of Western morality. During the imperialist phase of international development, the West preached Christianity and practiced slavery and piracy of resources. In the globalization phase the West ideologically preaches human rights, faith in a god, economic prosperity, and political freedom. Yet too often the presence of the West in practice is affiliated with intensified economic exploitation, poverty, economic crisis, and political tyranny. In spite of the ideological drive, the effective values of the West have proven to remain profits, consumption, and political power.

If there is a sincere concern to help the underdeveloped world flourish, there must be a humanistic renaissance in not only our consciousness but also in our political foreign policy and economic international policy. In this sense the current crises pivot upon the Battle of Ideas. The George W. Bush/Tony Blair policy of preemptive attack and violent deterrence has not and will not create peace. Furthermore, such policy tends to defeat the very values the United States claims to defend. An alternative policy that promotes humanistic principles will require the United States to take its own universal idealism seriously. Namely, the humanistic values present in the founding documents of the United States must be internationalized. A humanistic-driven international constitution, along with institutions to support, it is urgently needed. At the moment a humanistic renaissance in the West, and especially in the United States, seems very unlikely. However, with no other alternative to perpetual violence, war, and death a humanistically driven strategy may seize the minds (and hearts) of human beings sooner than what currently may be expected.

A humanistic renaissance will necessarily depend upon understanding our responsibility--individually and collectively--in the current peril and crisis that plagues the globe. The United States has lacked as a nation of individuals the responsibility for, conscientious understanding of, and the imagination toward transcending conflict and crisis. Imagination only emerges through earnest discussion and sincere debate. We need a conscientious understanding of the symbiotic relationship between our personal action (or inaction) and its affect upon the world. Conscientious understanding pivots upon educating oneself. Responsibility of the world and its (dis)order belongs to each of us with the realization that our action and inaction makes a difference. Perhaps it is the myth of Oedipus that best illustrates this notion of radical responsibility.

The story of Oedipus is well known. As he travels along a narrow roadway to the city of Thebes, Oedipus is ordered to give way to another traveler of greater social status (the King of Thebes). Oedipus, not knowing the social status of the traveler, refuses to give way and the traveler lashes out at him with his goad. Oedipus's gut reaction is to strike back, killing the traveler. Oedipus enters Thebes and is able to rid the city of a murderous sphinx, whereupon he is rewarded with the job of ruler, along with the hand of the queen. Years later Thebes is terrorized by a vile plague and King Oedipus vows to rid the city of the terrorizing plague. However, King Oedipus not only fails to purge the plague from the city but the plague worsens. King Oedipus finally learns that the man he killed on the road into Thebes was his father and the queen his mother. According to the myth the plague terrorizing the city is caused by the actions and sins of Oedipus himself. Upon learning he is the cause of his city's peril and terror, Oedipus gouges out his eyes and relinquishes the crown.

The myth of Oedipus epitomizes the painful acknowledgement of one's mistakes and acceptance of personal blame. With the July 2004 press conference of George W. Bush and his regrettable inability to pronounce one single mistake by either himself or his administration, the lesson of Oedipus is one he is desperate for. However, the myth offers us a lesson of much greater importance. In a complex and uncertain world, to avoid a fate of terror and misery from our action we must proceed with caution, compassion, empathy, and humility. Had Oedipus not reacted toward the traveler with haste, arrogance, impatience, and violence, he wouldn't have suffered the fate he did. This is a lesson for all.

Americans are in need of a notion of radical responsibility coupled with caution, compassion, empathy, and humility--as underscored in the myth of Oedipus. U.S. international economic and foreign policy has often made life worse for other peoples of the world. Not only are many Americans ignorant of the economic and political international policies of their government but they are apathetic toward it. Very few Americans can articulate U.S. international political and economic policy, let alone its affect on other peoples of the world. It is widely assumed and preached by many political leaders that our "enemies" are haters of freedom and democracy. Certainly the degree of freedom and democracy in the Western hemisphere is historically remarkable. However, it is by no means clear that the condoned, promoted, and implemented foreign policy and international economic policy of these same countries uphold and encourage democracy and the freedom their citizens enjoy. On the contrary, Western policies have too often diminished freedoms and undermined democracies in countries around the world. Each American, in spite of benign or malignant ignorance, participates in this policy by his or her every day actions or inactions.

In this election year focus will be upon U.S. leaders. Focus should also be upon personal actions and subsequent affects. From the miles we drive our cars and the products we consume to the ways we love and hate. Upon each task we should ask ourselves, "How has my action or inaction affected the world?" and discuss and debate it with each other. All human beings, but especially humanists, must ponder the symbiotic relationship between a nation's foreign policy and its citizens' actions. The war on terror isn't just how we allow our leaders to engage the world, but how we engage each other as people of the world.

Hans G. Despain is an assistant professor of economics at Nichols College in Dudley, Massachusetts. He can be reached at
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Title Annotation:United States
Author:Despain, Hans G.
Publication:The Humanist
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2004
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