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Might, Right, and Disinterest

Ken Nesmith

Our war on terror has been successful. We quickly and effectively dismantled the Taliban government, and though the daunting task of laying the foundation for a functional nation lies before us, by most measures we’ve been exceptionally successful in Afghanistan.

In our response to the attacks of Sept. 11, we’ve acted forcefully and decisively in punishing those who attacked our society. In doing so, however, we’ve perpetuated a framework of international relations that can be described concisely as “might makes right.” The infrastructure existed for the United States to judiciously and deliberately pursue justice through a system of international law and trial, and the means to prosecute those involved in the attacks were available to us. We chose not to do so.

In this case, the identity of the guilty parties was not ambiguous. With that information and the indisputable fact that our country had been attacked in hand, we did a perfectly understandable and arguably rational thing: we struck back, hard. In primitive terms, we, the king of the global jungle, responded to the vicious pecking of a small, angry animal by swatting it firmly away. We affirmed our role as a powerful figure not to be attacked or questioned.

That violent, reactionary behavior is simple, fundamental to social dynamics, and is consistent with the history of international relations. Truthfully, it doesn’t pose many practical problems for me right now. I am, after all, an American, and therefore on the side of the might, and the corresponding right.

Worrying about the cesspool of primitive moral standards in which we are standing is little more than a whimsical thought exercise for me and most Americans. When I rise from my desk and step into Boston, I will still live in a local world of abundance and comfort as a student at an elite university in a nation that exists at the apex of materially defined standards of living. I have the luxury of pursuing whatever life I wish as well as the freedom to think of nothing more than where to go for dinner and what shirt to wear.

The conclusions and ramifications drawn through discussing and contemplating the pain of a world living, in majority, in a state of struggle, pain, and poverty dissolve as soon as my mind allows it. Nothing in my life, and nothing in the lives of most Americans, provides them any cogent argument for sincerely worrying about such things in the same way that that eternally masterful debater, reality, does for those whose role in the new global economy is to do little more than exist in the face of vicious obstacles to that simple goal.

Having been so blessed, reason would suggest that we Americans are pretty much set for life. In the near term, this is probably the case. It seems unlikely that some fundamental, global shift in international political, economic, and military power structures will unseat the United States and us, its citizens, from this comfortable throne. Barring some disruptive global disaster, the real threat lies quite a ways down the road, when our vision of global freedom and capitalism becomes a reality.

The mess of corruption, dictatorship, oppression, and warfare that still wracks much of the world will eventually be cleared -- so goes the optimistic theory -- by the uplifting hand of economic exchange based on personal freedom. By pursuing an international policy designed to promote democracy and free trade, even if our means sometimes obscure our aim, we seek to achieve a new era of American as well as global prosperity.

However, as potential powers that currently lie in various states of disarray experience a revolution in growth and prosperity, harnessing their tremendous human and natural capital efficiently and effectively, we will slowly come to find ourselves, a model to the world for freedom and economic strength, not the exception, but the rule. Our power will be matched, and perhaps matched many times over, by nations worldwide.

Conflict, obviously, will always be a part of human relations, and even if we attain that global prosperity, conflict will still occur. The important question is how it will be handled in that new age. Nothing in history, especially recent history, suggests that any other method of dispute resolution than “might makes right” will take hold.

In the past year, after we shunned the opportunity to validate a new framework of international law and order, our embrace of bloodlust instead took us further down a bleak path of violence and destruction. Though some laud the controlled, purposeful manner in which we built a tenuous coalition before striking back, others realize that this coalition is neither significant nor powerful in its resolve.

Currently strained by our treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, as well as our haphazardly evolving plans to attack other nations we don’t like, the most powerful bond uniting this coalition has been Bush’s thoughtful decree that “you’re either with us or against us.”

Sadly, though we will someday not be the mighty, might will continue to make right. We are doing nothing to shift away from that hopeless paradigm. Someday, our newspapers will indignantly editorialize about the atrocious, arrogant behavior of other nations that pay no respect to our sovereignty or dignity, and we will have no recourse.

Should we lose our status as the world’s leading superpower, our complaints would suddenly carry no more weight than the ones we ignore now. It would be a new experience for us to not have our way, and have nothing to do about it but stomp indignantly as we succumbed to the interests of more powerful nations, just as others must do now when faced with our pressures.

No longer would we worry about which neat weapons to use and how close we could keep our casualty count to zero in conflict; we’d worry if we could do anything at all. Such a loss of power would mean quite a different role for us in the global jungle.

The primeval precedent that we’ve reinforced and our failure to create a new, more civilized one has wrought consequences more immediate than vaguely predictable future conflict. Now, virtually any time any military action is to be justified, it is done under the pretense of responding to terrorism. India and Pakistan are at each other’s throats, each armed with nuclear weapons. Israel and Palestine are as pathetically at violent odds as ever. Arms are flowing freely, destabilizing theaters worldwide. We’re looking for new nations to attack after our cakewalk in Afghanistan, even as the task of rebuilding Afghanistan defies easy solution.

As our attentions continue to shift towards predictable domestic partisan quarrels, the war on terror shrinks in prominence. A recent poll stated that Americans prefer that our politicians focus on these domestic issues rather than international conflict by a ratio of three to one. Unfortunately, we’ll one day lose the luxury of casual disinterest and will instead face the long-term consequences of the simple philosophy we refuse to abandon.

Right now, we’re still quite mighty, and all else is of little genuine concern to us. I’m off to grab dinner and catch a film. That was a fun thought exercise.