Good neighbor policies

After Sept. 11, we are of the world, not apart from it. So maybe we'll stop saying no to vital international agreements.

By Bill McKibben

Published September 28, 2001 10:06PM (EDT)

Everyone I know has been saying "the world is different" since the unbearable attacks of Sept. 11, and though they mean it in some indefinable psychological sense, they are also literally right. The world is different because now the United States must join it. The ecological intuition suggested by those Apollo shots of the Earth is now rock-hard realpolitik.

For the first time in a generation, we have a truly urgent national project: to track down the vile men who directed the suicide raids and, more broadly, to sap the infrastructure of terror. As the most likely and most vulnerable target of terrorism, we have no choice if we are to protect our future, and so we have asked the rest of the world to help. And they, thankfully, have responded -- governments big and small have pledged their cooperation, signing on for tasks big and small.

"Some have been able to do more than others," Secretary of State Colin Powell said a week after the attack. "With some it is rhetorical in nature, and they really don't have much else to give us other than words of support and encouragement. Others it is far more than that, to the point of if you have to do something militarily, ask us if we can participate." To take about the smallest possible example, here's Maumoon Gayoom, the president of the Maldives, an island archipelago in the Indian Ocean: "We extend our deep sympathy and support to President Bush and to the Government and the people of the United States." (And who knows -- it might come in handy. The Maldives are one of the most distant corners of the Muslim world, as remote a burrow as a fugitive might hope.)

In a world no longer divided by an ideological chasm, such cooperation could be standard practice -- every mainstream nation working together to solve the most pressing problems faced by each. "I got your back."

But it hasn't been the norm recently, and the reason has been us.

On one issue after another we've chosen to go our own way. At Bonn in July, 178 nations signed a global warming treaty. There was one dissenter. Soon thereafter, more than 140 countries moved to strengthen enforcement of germ warfare laws. Again, a solitary nay. We broke up international attempts to control trafficking in small arms, and demanded that if we consented to an International Criminal Court it first agree to exempt Americans, alone of all people, from prosecution.

We have reasoned that such global efforts are not in our national interest -- President Bush, for instance, charged that a global warming treaty might cost Americans money. His envoy said a germ warfare pact might require biotech entrepreneurs to reveal "commercially sensitive information." We couldn't ratify the land mines pact that everyone else signed because we wanted to use them in Korea. None of the treaties would be foolproof or perfect. We always have a reason.

Those reasons are rarely very strong. In the long run, for instance, climate change will cost us far more than shifting away from coal. But even if we were somehow immune, it's destructive to ignore everyone else's concerns. We produce a quarter of the world's carbon dioxide -- the rest of the world can't tackle global warming without us. We sell more small arms than anyone. We have the biotech expertise.

Just as we want Pakistan to ignore its natural tendency to duck the fight with bin Laden, we need to be willing to sacrifice a certain amount of our own convenience for the sake of other places, other peoples. And not merely as payback or a bargaining chip, but in the interest of building a world order that runs not only on national interest but on some sense of shared common values. It's this same sense of shared common values that in the current crisis we depend on as much as we depend on our economic and military might -- maybe more so, since it is harder and harder to see how firepower alone is going to win the battle against terrorism.

The oceans that have protected us since the War of 1812 protect us no longer. They don't stop men with knives, they don't stop microbes, they don't stop carbon dioxide. We are part of the world now, not just in trade but in every other way. Our safety against the scourge of terrorism is therefore only really guaranteed in the same way that Holland's, or Argentina's, or Japan's safety is guaranteed: through full membership in the community.

And that means recognizing that other countries have their crises too, their own urgent national projects. Again, take the Maldives as one tiny example. At its highest point, the country is only a few meters above sea level. Unabated, global warming seems likely to raise the ocean past the point where the Maldives will be habitable. Its government has begun to draw up evacuation plans, preparing for the day when its 310,000 people might have to leave their homeland forever. If and when that happens, their world will be excruciatingly "different," too.

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, and founder of the global climate campaign His latest book is "Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.".

MORE FROM Bill McKibben

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Global Warming