“What’s the point,” once bristled West Wing president Jed Bartlet, “in being a superpower anymore?” In light of our continuing security and diplomatic struggles in Iraq to take just one example it’s an excellent question. Political leaders and citizens alike should be asking it more often. And it might soon be that we can look past professional politicians and pundits, and to young people instead, for a clue to the answer.It’s clear that America’s military supremacy cannot alone deter the new threats we face. Dangers like religious fanaticism, weapons proliferation and epidemic disease will never lend themselves to military solutions. While there is much we can do at home and abroad to protect ourselves, then, absolute security is a chimera.
Yet we have a greater national purpose than mere self-protection.
The point in being a super-power now lies in meeting human needs. America can champion international efforts to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and give voice to the voiceless. We can help to build a better world. The key is to convert the threats of globalization into opportunities.
“The great paradox of our time,” write economists Jeffrey Sachs and Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, “is that the massive suffering of the world’s poor from disease, hunger, unsafe water and more could be readily overcome with just a modicum of help from the richest countries.” Compared to other industrialized nations, the United States does not fare well on this count, devoting less than one-half of one percent of GNP to foreign development assistance.
But the line separating governments from regular people who want to make a difference is steadily being erased. You no longer need a presidential mandate or the congressional power of the purse to change lives half-way around the Earth. In an age of globalization, you need only ideas and energy.
Young Americans have plenty of both, and what a chance awaits them. Supplementing government aid and the work of nongovernmental organizations, they can form the vanguard of a new humanitarian movement that might fundamentally reshape in-ternational relations. Think of it as a rapid-reaction force of idealists deployable anywhere, anytime a peaceful counterpart to the Army’s Delta Force.
Blending a superpower’s trade, travel and technological tools with an old-fashioned desire to help others, young people can export hope to the forgotten places of the world while importing the same spirit of international solidarity that followed 9/11. They can harness the same forces of interdependence that make the threat of terrorism so ominous, using them instead to share our good fortune with the most disadvantaged. Lives can be changed. Hearts and minds can be won over.
Sound ambitious? Good nothing less stands a chance to bridge the growing gaps between rich and poor, powerful and powerless.
Some have already turned ambition into results. Voices of Young Americans for Global Engagement is a team of youth working to bring a fresh voice to the national debate on America’s role in the world. The group’s first major initiative, an impromptu August visit to Ethiopia, was arranged through Expedia.com with an ease that would have been unthinkable five years ago. Now the story of that country’s public health crisis is ready to be told from a compelling new perspective.
Individual members have also done the improbable on their own. One, a U.S. Marine, has established a medical clinic, nursery school and soccer league in Kibera, Kenya, East Africa’s largest slum. Another has helped free bonded laborers in India. A third has mediated peace talks between the Sudanese government and rebel leaders in the bush. The list goes on. All are under 25, and all are shining examples of what the rising generation can do to give America’s superpower more than military meaning.
Idealists know that by serving others we ultimately serve ourselves. “In the twenty-first century, ethics is power,” says James Joseph, former U.S. ambassador to South Africa. “The private virtues which gave us our moral strength at the dawning of independent nation-states must now be transformed into public values appropriate for an interdependent world.” The soft power of humanitarian outreach can and must fill the security void left by the limits on our use for military hard power.
This is America’s historical moment. It comes at a time of great danger for some of us, utter deprivation for others. Young people, applying their unique energy and ideas, can play a significant part in converting the dangers we face into opportunities for the deprived. They can make America’s moment count.
Nate Olson and Gary Hart are students at the Centre College of Kentucky.