Today's date:
Summer 2001


Wanted: Statesmanship for the New Century

Oscar Arias, the former president of Costa Rica, won the Nobel peace prize in 1987.

San Jose-As the world turned over into a new century and a new millennium, we experienced successive waves of doomsday predictions, giddy optimism, y2k computer alerts and even hysteria. Now that the dust has settled, and the new millennium has dawned (it doesn't seem to matter anymore whether that happened on 01/01/00 or 01/01/01), the world has gotten back down to business as usual.

Let's take a moment to think. Now that the hype is over, do we really want to go back to business as usual and simply continue the paths that we were on at the end of the 20th century? Why not take advantage of the significance attributed to this particular point on the Gregorian calendar to undertake some serious reflection about the direction in which the world is moving?

We might be tempted to congratulate ourselves for ending the bloodiest century in the history of the world with more safeguards in place to protect human rights, more democratic governments than ever before and higher standards of living for much of the world's population. However, we are also beginning the new century with ongoing armed conflicts in Chechnya, Congo and Colombia, to name just a few. We are beginning this century with 1 billion people not knowing how to read, more than 1 billion living on less than a dollar a day, and 1.5 billion having no access to safe drinking water. We are beginning this new century with more than 30 million refugees and internally displaced persons worldwide and with some 40,000 children dying every day from malnutrition and disease. We are beginning this new century with record high temperatures and rising water tables due to global climate change, and our planet is more polluted than it has ever been. The number of countries with nuclear weapons has increased, and ever larger amounts of money are being invested in developing new high-tech weapons for sale on the international market. Today, despite our rhetoric about protecting human rights and promoting democracy, it is exceedingly easy for oppressive regimes and human rights abusers to acquire whichever weapons of mass destruction or instruments of torture they desire.

The world does not lack the resources to solve these problems. What is lacking is the vision and the statesmanship necessary to make that vision a reality. Where in the last century world politics were dominated by greed, cynicism and flawed theories of moral superiority, this century we need to institute their opposites: generosity, faith in humanity and mutual respect and tolerance. Unfortunately, political leaders willing to carry the banner of these humanitarian values seem to be few and far between.
The lack of leadership encompasses the developing and developed worlds alike. With 80 percent of the world's people today living in the developing world, it is especially incumbent upon leaders of poor countries to ensure that basic human needs are met, and to strengthen democratic institutions, transparency and the rule of law in their countries. Yet, in many poor countries around the world, governments are spending more on their militaries than on health care or education, condemning their growing populations to continued poverty for the sake of having state-of-the-art armed forces. To give just one example, in Pakistan-a country in which more than half of adults and nearly 40 percent of youth cannot read-the education budget amounts to only 64 percent of the military budget. Compare that to a country like Denmark, which spends five times on education what it does on its armed forces, and enjoys universal literacy.

Many African countries are also suffering a crisis of leadership. The corruption and bloodshed have become so unbearable in a few countries that some people long for the return of the old colonial powers, that now seem to be the lesser of two evils. In the face of the AIDS epidemic, which is orphaning children and bringing misery to millions, the government of Burundi, whose people have a life expectancy of only 42 years, spends more than nine times on its military what it spends on health care for its people.

The industrialized countries have no room to gloat. Leaders of developed countries may be tempted to wash their hands of the problems of the world's poor countries, yet they are contributing to those problems every day. The greater strength and frequency of hurricanes that affect poor tropical countries has been traced to the higher ocean temperatures that have resulted from global warming-a product almost entirely of industrialized nations' greenhouse gas emissions. First World weapons manufacturers such as Lockheed Martin (USA), British Aerospace (UK) and Thomson (France) have gone looking for customers in the Third World, as military spending is falling in the developed countries, while cash-strapped former Soviet republics such as Belarus and the Ukraine willingly sell arms to totalitarian governments and rebel groups.

The policies of US President George W. Bush to promote a national missile defense system and to reject international agreements such as the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the Kyoto Protocol on carbon emissions together make for a very worrisome picture of US influence in global affairs. As the world's greatest military and economic power, the potential for the US to exert a positive influence toward peace and prosperity in the world is great. It is that much sadder, then, that this country continues to search for an enemy to justify its astronomical defense budget, instead of placing more emphasis on diplomacy and socioeconomic development initiatives that could truly foster peace.

So many of today's political leaders have blinders on. They see only as far as the next election, and choose only those actions that are likely to increase their popularity, most often by increasing the economic well-being of those who might vote for them. Where are the courageous leaders who will tell people not only what they want to hear, but what they need to know? Where are those who will act for the well-being of all, not just that of their biggest campaign contributors? Where are those leaders who hold a vision for the future and are willing to act to make it a reality? And, most of all, where are the voices of that silent majority-the individuals who want what is right in the world and know that their leaders are not providing it, but who never speak up, and who stop voting because it's just too discouraging? If there is anything that we need at the beginning of this new century, it is renewed hope and dedication to the principles of freedom, democracy and solidarity with each other. Our population is growing larger and our planet is growing smaller. There is no time to lose.

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