What You Can Do For the World

Harvard In Mind

Some historians speculate that the Cold War contributed to the rise of the Civil Rights Movement. During the Cold War, America cast itself as the champion of liberty and democracy in contrast to repressive communist regimes. In doing so, America was charged for its hypocrisy in allowing the continued oppression of African-Americans in both the North and the South.

The Cold War ended in our lifetimes, and in our lifetimes, another global polarization has begun. This time, America contrasts itself to regimes who harbor terrorists, regimes like the Taliban in Afghanistan. This time, the rhetoric does not clearly divide the world in two. Yet on Wednesday President George W. Bush reiterated his message, “You are with us, or you’re with the terrorists.” Ever since the attacks, Bush has spoke in the language of a world divided, though the division is drawn in less ideological terms than the division his father made during the Cold War. Again, we find ourselves pitting ourselves against an evil world power—even if that power is a ubiquitous terrorist network known as Al Qaeda.

And again, we are forced to look within our own nation and to our own actions in order to root out any hypocrisy that may weaken our international position.

As much as Bush speaks in a world divided in two, he speaks of America as a compassionate country who cares for the oppressed and impoverished people of Afghanistan. Part of our military action against the Taliban has been food drops to its people. But these food drops are mere hypocrisy if they are unaccompanied by meaningful action to help Afghani people and poor people battling repressive, terror-ridden regimes worldwide. In an editorial from the New York Times this week, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) wrote, “Today, confronted with a challenge no less daunting than the Cold War, Americans again are eager for ways to serve at home and abroad. Government should make it easier for them to do so.” McCain and Bayh are asking America to again rise to the Cold War challenge, to prove that our hearts are in the right place, and that we stand for both justice and generosity, understanding and compassion.

In their editorial, Bayh and McCain went on to talk about expanding Clinton’s AmeriCorps program and encouraging military service abroad. However, while they mentioned the Peace Corps vision of President John F. Kennedy ’40, a former Crimson editor, as an example of the types of public service initiatives that have come before, they had noticeably little to say about Americans’ service abroad beyond encouraging larger compensation packages for servicemen.

In a time when we are claiming to fight with, not against, some of the world’s poorest civilians in Afghanistan, at a time when America’s international social capital is at an all-time low, McCain and Bayh should have devoted the bulk of their article to a proposal to get more Americans out of America and into volunteer positions worldwide. It is only through meaningful, effective and generous interaction with other nations that we will be able to combat our negative image without compromising our national policy.

Again, we have to look at our actions and compare it to our rhetoric. If we claim to be on the side of the poor Afghani civilians, and indeed the poverty-stricken victims of repressive, terrorist-harboring regimes world-wide, then we must be making a concerted effort to help the people most consistently brutalized by those regimes. Once we have helped them throw off the bonds of terror, we must be committed to helping them improve their quality of life. Otherwise our assistance will seem merely self-serving, hollow words from a hollow, self-interested nation. One of the best ways to prevent this conclusion is by increasing Americans’ direct service and volunteer presence abroad. As McCain and Bayh wrote, some of the best people to provide such service are young people. It is a great thing that Bayh and McCain have advocated the expansion of AmeriCorps, for which House Republicans tried to eliminate funding last summer. However, the two Senators should also advocate for an expanded Peace Corps, especially one with more flexible volunteer options which would allow more people to participate in more creative and empowering ways.

All our international programs must display the utmost sensitivity and respect for their host nations’ culture and people. If America is to be seen as a protector of democracy, not a cultural imperialist, its presence abroad must reflect this image in reality. This is why it is so important that Americans participate in global development in a non-military capacity.

Just as Kennedy dedicated us again to the cause of justice within our country, today we must be dedicated to the cause of justice out in the world. Only if we stand for honesty, uprightness and generosity of spirit can we expect the world to bear our standard against terrorist-supporting regimes. Bayh and McCain were right when they wrote, “Public service is a virtue.” Now, more than ever, it is a virtue to do public service abroad.

Meredith B. Osborn ’02 is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.