Column: For America, having power is no excuse to act like a bully

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 30, 2002

There’s no point in denying the truth: the United States is the most powerful nation in the world. It may even be the single most powerful country the world has ever seen at any time in human history, with the means to strike at enemies anywhere in the world.

But military might only goes so far. Being powerful does not make everything we do the right thing to do, even though our government often acts that way. As the Romans and the British found out, one nation cannot rule the world for more than a little while; even with the most impressive weapons money can buy.

Our relations with the rest of the world have always been complicated, since Europeans first settled this continent. Since the United States gained its independence, we have always been more than a bit &uot;standoffish&uot; in our relationships with foreign powers. But since George W. Bush became president, we have gone out of our way to demonstrate just how much contempt we feel towards the rest of the world’s nations. The unilateralist message the Bush administration repeats to audiences both foreign and domestic is &uot;do things our way or get out of the way.&uot;

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Think of it as if we were talking about a schoolyard. What would we call the biggest kid on the playground, who ignores the ways that the other kids have decided to do things, and only plays games according to his rules, when he feels like it? What would we call a kid who threatens those weaker than he is whenever they don’t do things his way? That kid is a bully by any definition I’ve ever heard. Why can we see that when we teach our own children right from wrong, but are willing to overlook it when it’s our government?

In the two years since Bush took office, we Americans have turned our backs on treaty after treaty, despite years of negotiation and international consensus on the issues involved. We’ve withdrawn from efforts to control ozone depletion, abrogated treaties on arms control in order to create a missile defense shield we can hide behind, and tried to undermine efforts to deal with war crimes out of fears that Americans might be prosecuted.

Through our reliance on solving problems through force (and letting others to do the same), we’ve turned a just war on terrorism into an excuse to imprison or kill anyone who looks suspicious or who has suspicious-looking friends. What about the conditions that lead to terrorism in the first place: poverty, corruption, and injustice?

We Americans claim to be a democratic nation, ruled by law, but the Bush administration is ignoring both domestic and international legal restrictions on the treatment of prisoners, depriving the accused of the right to legal counsel and blocking independent assessments of our procedures. In the search for enemies, we’ve managed to undermine democratic reforms in more than one nation &045; most significantly in Iran &045; with our misguided accusations.

One gets the feeling that there is nothing that the Bush Administration likes about agreements that ask the United States to act as if we were part of the world instead of above it. They would rather operate unilaterally, with an &uot;us vs. them&uot; mentality.

But we don’t always have to be in charge of everything we participate in, whether we’re talking about the United Nations or military operations in Afghanistan. Coercing others to act solely in our interest will require increasingly large bribes and more and more threats. Acting like a bully just makes people mad, and those who could be our friends will find fewer and fewer reasons to be friendly.

Unfortunately, it will probably take awhile for us to learn the lesson about the dangers of acting &uot;unilaterally.&uot; Current policies are popular with the &uot;we’re number one&uot; and &uot;America first&uot; crowd. If we continue to alienate our allies and antagonize our enemies, however, we will eventually find out that being a truly &uot;great&uot; nation requires more than just having more guns, bombs and soldiers than anybody else. Sometimes being &uot;great&uot; means setting aside our own greed and acting for the welfare of everybody on the planet.

David Rask Behling is a rural Albert Lea resident. His column appears Tuesdays.