On Sunday, President George W. Bush stood silently alongside representatives of the 86 countries and regions that lost citizens at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. That was powerful symbolism, but even more important was the substance of Bush's speech to the United Nations General Assembly the day before -- in which he reminded the 189 member-states that they were there to affirm "the basic commitment of civilization" by fighting terror. Bush was well received, but if the United States wants to preserve that spirit of international solidarity, it will have to back up those good words with good works.
The speech, shifting the president and his party further away from isolationism and closer toward multilateralism, makes perfect sense in the post 9-11 world. After all, the United States has the most to lose from any disruption of the world order; under the current system, our 5 percent of the planet's population accounts for a third of the world's wealth. And while Americans can say that we earned all that money fair and square, the practical imperative is that we will have to spend more of it on others if we are to guarantee the survival of the status quo system that made us rich.
To be sure, Bush, the man who chose Colin Powell to be his secretary of state, was never the unilateralist yahoo of his critics' rhetorical ventilations. But any doubt about where the United States stood was eliminated by his first speech to the United Nations, in which he cited Security Council Resolution 1373, adopted on Sept. 28, calling for international cooperation against terror. Sounding like an international lawyer as well as a leader, Bush reminded his listeners, "These obligations are urgent, and they are binding on every nation with a place in this chamber."
At the most basic military level, the United States must hope that the nations of the world continue to feel bound to that commitment. After all, landlocked Afghanistan is some 12,000 miles away; for American forces to engage the Taliban foe requires the cooperation, formal or informal, of a dozen sovereign states. Moreover, since the al-Qaida terror consortium has "franchises" in perhaps 60 countries, international cooperation on surveillance and policing will be needed for decades to come.
But Americans need to recognize that cooperation must go both ways. Currently Congress is working on a foreign operations bill allocating approximately $16 billion in aid to countries and international organizations. A lot of money? It's about 1/700 of the United States' annual gross domestic product. Moreover, it's a pittance next to the cost of "911," measured in terms of direct damage, lost economic activity, and military endeavor. And, of course, the cost in human lives, past and future, is immeasurable.
But doesn't this argument make foreign-aiding sound a bit like paying "protection money"? Sure it does, and that's a great argument for paying it. In a world full of crazies and WMDs -- weapons of mass destruction -- it's a smart investment to explore every possible avenue for political pacification. But will a lot of aid money be wasted? Of course. Income transfers are inherently sloppy. But in this case, it's the thought -- the thought that the United States is trying hard to be a member of the international team -- that counts as much as the effect.
Indeed, the United States should be looking for other opportunities to reach out.
For example, there's the matter of rejoining UNESCO, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The United States withdrew in 1984, when the Paris-based organization was run by an anti-American Third World radical. But today UNESCO is changed. Led now by a Japanese diplomat, UNESCO issued its own declaration supporting the United States and denouncing the terrorist attacks. Noting these improvements, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, urged on by such Reaganite luminaries as former Secretary of State George Shultz, has voted to rejoin UNESCO and pony up $60 million in annual dues. Yet funding has stalled in the Senate, and the Bush Administration has so far been passive on the question.
UNESCO is a small matter to the United States, but it is a big deal to a global community that is even now suspicious -- and jealous -- of this embattled superpower. But now that the United States knows that it must mind the world, it must also bind with the world. Whatever that costs, it will be cheaper than the alternative.