President George W. Bush took some heat during the campaign for not being up on his world geography or particularly astute in foreign-policy matters. I'd suggest that the major pillar of his domestic policy, education, become an important thrust of his foreign policy as well.
The greatest threats to peace today are poverty, illiteracy and disease.
These are problems not for armies but for educators. Secretary of State Colin Powell has said that ``America stands ready to help any country that wishes to join the democratic world.'' Most of Latin America already has joined this world.
However, it is not a simple equation: democratic, or not. In many countries, democracy remains fragile, too much control is vested in the hands of the military, and most of the population is still desperately poor.
If democracy fails to satisfy basic needs and to raise the standard of living of the impoverished masses, then it becomes all too easy for dictators to dismiss democracy and use force and deception to implement their own agendas. If we wish to keep democracy strong throughout Latin America and all over the developing world, we must make sure that democracy is delivering the goods. Our surest bet is to educate our children.
Along with education reform, Bush is committed to expanding free trade in the hemisphere, which is essential to strengthening our economies, thereby raising living standards and helping to consolidate democracy. For free trade to make good on these potential benefits, however, educational levels in our part of the world must be raised. Technology training must be drastically improved. The benefits of doing this would not be limited to developing countries but also would touch the United States in the form of stronger trading partners, new markets and an abatement of the endless tide of immigrants from our region who continue to seek opportunity in the United States after not finding any at home. To promote education abroad as well as at home, Bush should create an International Education Brigade as a special project of the Peace Corps. Attaching it to an already-existing infrastructure would mean that no new bureaucracy would be created and would keep the program streamlined. Through an International Education Brigade, Americans would be sent to the developing world to help improve our youth's education and our workers' technical skills.
The brigade would not replace local teachers but rather complement and enhance the instruction of vital topics such as English, computers, math, science, literacy and civics. If the developing world is to make a positive contribution to our planet's common future, we need the training and education to do so. Knowing of Bush's heartfelt commitment to education and his strong belief in the power of volunteerism and individual goodwill, I believe that this program would be a perfect complement to his domestic education initiatives.
The program's cost would be but a small fraction of the resources devoted to sending military aid during our civil wars of the 1980s. Given that we have silenced the guns and are striving toward sustainable democracy and free-market economies, is it not now time to invest in the lives, rather than the deaths, of millions of Latin Americans?
We do not expect the U.S. government to solve the problems that plague our region. That is our responsibility. We do, however, ask that the American people and government never forget that our problems are also their problems. Our future is also their future. We are interdependent as never before, and sharing the precious resource of education would be an investment in a much-brighter future for all.
Oscar Arias, a former president of Costa Rica, is the 1987 Nobel Peace Laureate.
Copyright 2001 Miami Herald