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The year 2000 was marked with flamboyant, highly symbolic peace accords. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited North Korea; U.S. President Bill Clinton visited Vietnam. Most symbolically of all, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak visited Washington, D.C., only to see their tentative, media-cheered steps toward peace end in a tragic, violent stalemate.

In fact, the Jerusalem stalemate is symbolic of the international efforts of the Clinton administration since its inception. During the Cold War, Americans always seemed to understand that their future depended on their interactions with the other powerful nations of the world, particularly the Soviet Union, Japan and the nations of Western Europe.

During the past eight years, however, U.S. attention has shifted away from these fundamental relationships and focused on “trouble spots” where a little bit of American intervention would seem at first glance to go a long way: Northern Ireland, Haiti, the Middle East, Yugoslavia, East Timor and North Korea. A half-dozen Nobel Peace Prize laureates have come to light in these highly visible trouble spots, often with a news-bite-worthy symbolic statement of reconciliation to offer the press. And the impression has grown, as a result, that Pax Americana is stable and that large-scale wars will be a thing of the past.

But what kind of progress has really been achieved toward a lasting world peace? The answer is far more worrisome than it would appear at first glance. We have enjoyed an eight-year “era of American superficiality.” There have been many token peace moments, but not much substantial progress in any of the world’s trouble spots. In many of these regions, the reality is probably worse today than it was a decade ago.

For example, North Korea will not, or more precisely, can not, dismantle its time-honored totalitarian regime, even with the solar heat from South Korean President Kim Dae Jung. This is because the people of North Korea will not tolerate the oppressive dictator once they know what is happening outside of the long-isolated country.

For another example, now that ground troops are sorting out the war crimes of the former Yugoslavia, we are learning that the “massive ethnic cleansing” that took place in Kosovo was only one-tenth as severe as NATO had claimed. By initiating air raids on Kosovo without a declaration of war, the United States and NATO declared that they destroyed 120 enemy tanks and 220 transport vehicles, but in reality, a ground survey revealed that the casualties were only 14 and 18, respectively, according to Newsweek.

Among superpowers, the gap between glorious superficiality and cold reality is even worse. For example, despite the highly visible diplomatic visits by top officials of China and the U.S. to each others’ countries in recent years, the U.S.-China relationship closely resembles its condition at the beginning of the Cold War, according to various reports written by defense specialists who seek to boost military spending by elevating tension with forged enemies. Should the U.S. relationship with China harden even slightly, Russian leaders — coming off their disastrous military misadventures of the last few years and their disenchantment with the “American system” as they perceive it — would have great incentive to side with China. That, in itself, would make the last 15 years of efforts since the emergence of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev futile.

Another fundamental, but largely unnoticed geopolitical shift is the delegitimization of the United Nations and its Security Council. The American battle over paying U.N. dues was just the visible, superficial struggle. Far more serious are the nuclear-weapons tests and subsequent missile launches by India and Pakistan.

For the past 50 years, global security has rested on the assumption that only the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council have nuclear capability. Their collective presence acted as a deterrent, preventing other countries from developing their versions of the ultimate weapon. But India and Pakistan’s tests and launches seriously weakened this deterrent factor; if these two nations can get by without a rebuke or serious sanction, so can anyone else. The U.S./ NATO air raids on Kosovo further weakened the U.N. because they took place despite a resolution of the U.N. General Assembly — demonstrating how weak that body is.

Much of the blame for this can be laid at the feet of the relationship between the Clinton administration and the U.S. press, particularly the new global cable-channels: CNN, CNBC and Fox News. Ever since CNN covered the Persian Gulf War, these networks have tended to overdramatize and trivialize the international stories they cover. American politicians, in turn, base their decision on the reactions that they get from citizens who follow this sort of news. Quick turnarounds, happy endings and the demonization and punishment of purported villains get coverage. The slow decline and gradual buildup of malevolent forces get ignored.

The next U.S. president has an opportunity to turn this around. That would require a foreign policy of substance, not superficiality. To do this, America must choose one of two basic attitudes in foreign policy: The first is that it is one of 189 countries and therefore behaves as such. It has no more responsibilities nor authorities than any other large and advanced countries. It has no right to dominate global security or force its doctrines, dogmas and beliefs over other sovereign nation.

This would mean that it would work closely with the U.N. or other international organizations to resolve issues beyond its borders. Launching cruise missiles on Afghanistan and Sudan and ignoring a U.N. resolution in its attack on Kosovo would be out of bounds under this scenario.

The second attitude the U.S. could take is to assume the role of sole global superpower. This, of course, has to be endorsed by the rest of the world in an amicable manner. After all, America is the only country that the rest of the world would agree is a country created jointly by all the people of the world. Practically speaking, it is the largest economy and the most powerful military force on earth. It is the most open country in terms of immigration, investment and information access. It is the most intertwined with other countries in trade. It is what the whole world should be like in the distant future. If this model is adopted, then such a position of esteem has to be earned, not assumed a priori. It has to be named as such by others in the world, as opposed to the U.S. pronouncing as such.

The problem of U.S. diplomacy stems from the ambivalence and ambiguity of its own selection of the implicit model. America tends to crisscross the distinct lines between the two models. Lacking firm beliefs, its diplomacy has fallen victim to populism and sound bites, primarily as a result of the limited number of cameras on Earth and the lack of in-depth experience of jet-set reporters deployed by the global media networks.

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