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How to Join the Family of Nations

Nearly two out of three Americans believe U.S. international relations are on the wrong track. But here's what some are doing to turn that around.

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Superpowers rise and fall. Under better management, ours might, perhaps, have risen for longer. Under visionary leadership, it might even have been a force for shared prosperity, genuine democracy, and peace.

Regardless of what might have been, it’s now becoming clear that our brief time as the world’s sole superpower is drawing to a close. Global power is dispersing among China, the European Union, and smaller power centers, each of which is pursuing its own alliances and interests, often ignoring U.S. wishes.

The invasion and occupation of Iraq cost the U.S. much of its moral standing in the world and left our military stretched thin and increasingly unwelcome. Our reputation has been further damaged by our failure, thus far, to take responsibility for the climate impact of our wasteful ways.

Our dollar is tumbling, our federal budget is deep in the red, our trade deficit keeps mounting. The economic expansion, largely driven by consumer debt, is hitting the post-subprime wall; the problem is exacerbated by skyrocketing food and energy prices, and stagnant wages. Cash-strapped state and local governments are cutting vital services.

The question now at hand is how—not whether—our reign as the world’s sole superpower will end.

Given all that, there are surprisingly good options available to us—especially if we choose to gracefully relinquish the top-dog position. Instead of developing a new generation of nuclear weapons, for example, we may be nearing a tipping point in support for nuclear abolition, as former Secretary of State George Shultz suggests in our interview.

A coalition of candidates for Congress is offering a new plan that spells out how to get out of Iraq. And instead of attacking Iran, as some are advocating, sitting down to talk with that nation could help the U.S. out of our quagmire in Iraq and move us toward solutions elsewhere in the region.

Joining the community of nations is a remarkably plausible option for us, and it won’t require new spending. On the contrary, we would save billions by returning the military to its traditional role as a defender of the United States instead of a defender of global superpower interests. In addition to abolishing nuclear weapons, we could scrap other unneeded weapons systems, and close foreign military bases as demanded by many citizens who live near them.

The American people are still generally liked and admired around the world, even while our official foreign policy is widely rejected. Perhaps that is because so many Americans act as though we already are a member of a family of nations, not a global bully, even while our government does the reverse. Some Americans are involved in DIY (do-it-yourself) foreign policy—adopting town council resolutions for peace, pressing for Third World debt relief, exchanging music and scientific know-how across borders.

These actions are good, but not sufficient. We need to transition our country from a militaristic superpower to a post-empire partner among a community of nations. Our elected officials can only depart from the old superpower script if they have our support and vision. We need to bring our communities into the national dialogue on our place in the world. We need to communicate with elected officials and the news media.

This is a moment when many are prepared to consider fresh approaches. The good news is that, as the contributors to this issue demonstrate, there are already some great ideas out there about how to make the change.


Sarah van Gelder wrote this article as part of A Just Foreign Policy, the Summer 2008 issue of YES! Magazine. Sarah is Executive Editor of YES! Magazine. Photo of Sarah van Gelder
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