This generation of Americans must make a choice of awesome proportions about the future of civilization on this little blue planet.
For months, debate has raged in government circles about whether to extend the war against terrorism to Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, the Philippines, Yemen - using military power to rid these countries of terrorist elements.
We can do that if we choose. We are so overwhelmingly superior militarily that for the next couple of decades, we can do pretty much what we please. But behind the intense debate about whether to invade Iraq, etc., lies a crucial question: What kind of world does America want to use its power to promote?
There are two options. We can use our power unilaterally to promote the shorter-term economic and political self-interest of America (always, of course, with a veneer of moral appeal to freedom, justice and democracy for all). Or we can seek genuinely to implement the moral principles we claim to embrace and take the lead in creating a better world for all.
The unilateral approach is tempting. If taken shrewdly, and with a heavy dose of moral rhetoric, it could probably be effective for a decade or three. In fact, by unilaterally abandoning the ABM treaty and by defying the near-global consensus on the Kyoto Protocols, we are already well down the unilateral path.
Long-term, however, that way lies disaster. Widespread poverty will breed ever more desperate terrorists. China, India, and the Muslim world eventually will build the technical and military power to fight back. A global arms race with the almost unimaginably powerful technologies of the 2020s and 2030s will make the Cold War look like child's play.
To choose the second, multilateral, cooperative choice, we must launch a global Marshall Plan against poverty, strengthen multinational institutions like the United Nations, and join in a sustained global cooperative effort to preserve the environment.
Persuading the American people to embrace British Prime Minister Tony Blair's call for a global Marshall Plan is the place to start. In the contemporary world, our ability to tolerate conditions under which half of the world's people must try to survive on $2 a day is not only a moral outrage but also contrary to our long-term self-interest. We can and must offer the poor hope for a better future. Nurturing even a few economically successful Arab countries would demonstrate that Islam is compatible with the modern world of science, technology, and freedom.
How much would a Marshall Plan cost? Blair suggests that an additional $50 billion a year spent by wealthy nations to improve education and health care for the poorest would produce dramatic improvement. That is only about 1/40 of the present annual U.S. federal budget! Nobody is asking us to do it alone, but we could - with only very modest, short-term economic sacrifice.
Second, we must be willing to temper our proud American inclination to go it alone. Instead, we need to cooperate much more with multinational institutions like the United Nations and the World Court, respecting their decisions even when they frustrate immediate national advantage, and build by persuasion a global community committed to freedom, democracy and justice. That means not attacking other nations including Iraq unless we can persuade the global community that that is wise.
Finally, we must cooperate with global efforts to nurture a decent, sustainable environment for all the world's grandchildren. In fact, a good way to raise the money for the Marshall Plan against poverty would be to impose a carbon tax on fossil fuels (e.g., a $2 tax on each gallon of gasoline) so the market will create strong economic incentives for alternative energy sources. It is morally outrageous and, in the long run, even contrary to our own self-interest, for our politicians to operate as if American drivers buying ever larger gas-guzzling SUVs have the inalienable right to gasoline prices two or three times lower than those in Europe.
Which will we choose? A short-term unilateral policy to protect our present advantage - or a cooperative, multilateral path that in the long term will truly benefit everyone? If we want our grandchildren to live in a world where hopeless terrorists constantly devise new ways to penetrate the ever more complicated defenses of our affluence even at the expense of freedom; if we want our grandchildren to experience a global arms race that threatens the very survival of civilization, then let us choose the easier, unilateral path.
But if we long for a more peaceful, cooperative world, then American leaders of moral vision must commit themselves to a long, tough campaign to help the American people understand what path leads to genuine happiness and security.
Like Moses of old, we must help American voters see that they cannot avoid choosing between life and death, not just for themselves but for people everywhere. Imitating Moses' plea, we must urge: "Choose life that you and your descendants may live."
Ronald J. Sider (firstname.lastname@example.org) is president of Evangelicals for Social Action and a professor at Eastern Seminary.
© 2002 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc