Conjuring past policies won't fix chaos of today

Edward Goldberg

Published on December 10, 2002
© 2002- The Baltimore Sun

NEW YORK - Unlike Churchill's inspiring leadership in the spring of 1940, is America's leadership of today - blinded by the horror and audacity of terrorism - misinterpreting history?

Or is America's leadership overwhelmed by hubris, viewing the globe as a Cold War chessboard that just happens to lack the Russian queen? The rapid global distribution of information technology during the past decade is undoubtedly the transforming historic event of our time. Yet our foreign policy appears to be based more on a desire to play the great games of the 19th century than to subtly manage the forces that have been unleashed on the world by the technological revolution.

In one of the grand ironies of our new high-tech world, America has gained supremacy at a time when the competition for power is not necessarily other nations but the explosive troika of globalized technology, individual empowerment and global economic forces.

The globalization of information technology has put in doubt the basic concept of order and structural balance within the international community. The world's political environment has become chaotic. We have moved beyond ideology into a world where randomness rules.

Historically, political power has moved up from the village to the province or state to the nation. But now, technology has enabled political power to flow down. Louis XIV's famous maxim, "L'etat c'est moi," has been turned on its head. With a mixture of estrangement and a misunderstanding of Jeffersonian freedoms, the individual can now become the state.

And, like nations, humans need a sense of legitimacy and connectedness to justify their being - a connectedness often sought by the disaffected through the denial of universalism and the search for nationalism, whether in the clan, church, mosque or synagogue.

Although the world's political environment has been radically transformed since 9/11, America's foreign policy in many ways seems to be ignoring what Star Wars' Obi-Wan Kenobi surely would have called a change in the force.

We have fallen from the zenith into a world in which technology has enabled alienated individuals and groups to separate their concepts of independence and freedom from any sense of universal or moral law. Yet our foreign policy appears to be wallowing in the mistakes of Neville Chamberlain, while any attempt to compare the late 1930s with today is nearly irrelevant.

We must develop a foreign policy that deals with the world as it exists in this new era, not as we would like it to be. It should be a foreign policy that gives as much credence to the practical as the ideal. In short, President Bush is chasing Iraq's Saddam Hussein when he should be both pursuing Osama bin Laden and developing an approach to prevent further bin Ladens.

Americans must understand that when our Jeffersonian and Reagan ideals - Mr. Reagan's being the aggressive city on the hill - are shoved on cultures and regions under attack by the technological revolution, we are creating a catalyst for chaos. If we believe that, with the proper pressure or intervention, democracy will blossom in these regions, we also need to believe that thousands of years of cultural memory can be instantly eradicated.

This is not to imply that America should not continue to be the beacon for democracy and freedom, but we need to be absolutely certain that our ideals are viewed as an inspiration and not a threat.

In order to preserve our country and our liberties, America's foreign policy must be geared to managing randomness, not creating it.

Our goal needs to be to try to alleviate the tensions in the world caused by the alienation of empowerment. Certainly a foreign policy based on a cocktail of cultural arrogance, unilateralism and ideology is not the way to manage chaos. Bin Laden is not an anomaly; he is the dark political side of the technological revolution.

We cannot underplay the threats and damage to America caused by the newly developed chaos in the world order. But it would be truly reckless to view these threats like a school child, who sees history only as past headlines without being able to understand the forces and changes that lie behind those headlines.

Edward Goldberg, who studies international markets and economic conditions, is president of a New York-based division of a worldwide trading company.

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