In the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority Harvard Square station, the printed motto of the United Services Organizations, the “bridge” between the American public and its military overseas, demands attention with its simple message: “USO: Until Every One Comes Home.” For decades and for the foreseeable future, this motto will remain. In today’s political reality, if you serve a world power, you can’t go home again.
The “War on Terror” marches on—and so do American soldiers. The United States has currently transported only a small amount of the 30,000 troops reassigned to Afghanistan from duty in Iraq. While one may find comfort in the simple fact that the situation in Iraq remains stable enough that American withdrawal can continue, the situation in Afghanistan provides no such cause for even cautious optimism. With President Hamid Karzai, the United States has likely created a monster it can neither easily control nor destroy. One cannot reasonably expect a day without U.S. troops in Afghan territory to come soon. As a global superpower, the U.S. will also continue to maintain personnel in Europe, Central America, and East Asia.
Yet, the United States has company in its overseas efforts. Scan the U.N. Security Council and one will find that the leaders of global security are also the leaders of messy military operations outside their borders and violence at home. The usual suspects are the Security Council’s permanent members: the United States, Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom. Each nation has troops serving as occupying forces outside its borders, and each has faced internal violence.
A week ago, Moscow was rocked by two suicide bombings—one, at least, carried out by a militant’s widow only 17 years old. The reactions of Russian citizens to these bombings remind me of the conflicted emotions New Yorkers like myself experienced in 2001. Unlike 9/11, however, these recent attacks appear to have been carried out by rebels in an ongoing war. For long, bloody years, Russia has deployed troops and fought Muslim insurgents in Chechnya and the other states of the north Caucasus region (the southernmost part of Russia). In the fallout of last Monday’s attacks, Russians spoke bitterly of the state propaganda that had informed the Russian public that fighting in the Caucasus was lessening and confined to that territory alone. Instead, bombings returned to Moscow, and the situation in the southern republics was exposed as less stable than claimed.
Russia is only the latest in a string of Security Council members facing such bombings. France, mocked at Harvard for its impotence in geopolitical debate and rugby practices, actually maintains a strong and active military—which perhaps flies under the radar because its main activities occur in Africa. France remains heavily involved in peacekeeping in Africa, as well as in shocking activities such as possible rapes by French soldiers during the Rwanda genocide. Within France’s borders, an African terrorist bombed the Paris Metro 15 years ago.
The United Kingdom supports NATO operations and the United States’ war on terror, with its military operating throughout the world, albeit on a smaller scale than its American allies. In 2005, the bombings ,known to British citizens as “7/7,” rocked London’s underground transport system and one bus, injuring hundreds.
China has not experienced underground bombings, but its troops maintain an active, violently opposed occupation in Tibet. Of the current non-permanent members, only one nation, Gabon, does not have a legacy of external and internal violence. Notably, Nigeria has played an active role in military operations throughout Africa, even sending troops to the Balkans, while Bosnia and Herzegovina and Lebanon have faced crippling internal violence. India, arguably the most powerful non-Security Council state, experienced the horror of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. South Korea remains locked in its military faceoff with its northern neighbor, and it appears North Korean forces sank a South Korean ship with a torpedo two weeks ago.
Right down the line, the nations of the U.N. Security Council seem bound by a commonality of violence. Include India and South Korea, and one must face a grim realization: Global power does not come peacefully. Once could attempt to explain such a disturbing pattern by arguing that power inherently causes, or resolves, conflict. Yet, a Security Council to maintain global peace could perhaps serve its mission better if its members did not actively occupy and carry out military actions outside their borders.
One cannot reasonably expect Russia to surrender its stake in the Caucasus, or American and Chinese troops to simply walk away from Afghanistan and Tibet. But, the accounts of the survivors of the Moscow bombings serve as a stark warning for we the citizens of the Security Council powers: As long as the militaries of the security powers fight outside their borders, their homelands cannot be safe from retribution within.
Alexander R. Konrad ’11, a former Crimson associate editorial editor, is a history concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.