WILTON, CONN. — Suddenly, there is an obsession with defense - emphasis heavily on hardware such as new rockets to shoot down incoming missiles. Lost in the heavy breathing about national security is the most obvious recourse - you might call it the software of protection - that comes naturally to America. The urge to win friends and influence people is our way of life. It is also the most efficacious way of forestalling enmity.
No one would discard US military power in this disorderly world. A violent enemy must know he courts disaster. But seeking weapons to deal with every fantastic contingency is closer to panic than vigilance. It can be financially ruinous, and raises doubts in those whose respect is essential to US security in the broadest sense.
The US has become rich and powerful beyond anyone's wildest dreams. It is human nature that we should be not only admired but also envied. When the US doesn't solve its problems and right its wrongs, people are easily persuaded that Washington can't be bothered. Uncle Sam is widely caricatured as a ruthless megalomaniac. This can arouse murderous hate, and terrorism becomes a real danger. The remedy isn't rockets, nor a foolish presentation of the US as world philanthropist, but a wider understanding of our complex society.
The Marshall Plan revived war-torn Europe, and the American occupation implanted democracy in Japan. Much smaller people-to-people exchanges have kept up the work, but increasingly - and incredibly, given our wealth - they have felt budgetary pressures. The greatest bonder, as the enormously successful Fulbright experience shows, is education. The US Agency for International Development's ASHA program (American Schools and Hospitals Abroad) currently gives grants to 40 schools, libraries, and hospital centers overseas that are founded and supported by Americans. They include the famous American Universities of Beirut, Lebanon, and Cairo, as well as smaller institutions like Anatolia College in Salonika, Greece, whose quality has survived a century of war and revolution. They provide not propaganda, but a liberal arts education of the highest American standard. About 1 million people on four continents benefit from this and from health-training research and services each year.
Since the end of the cold war, available funds have shrunk drastically - as though it were less important today to expose young people to the values of private education, free inquiry, and innovative problem-solving that mark American scholarship. This money is intended primarily for infrastructure, and thus may cover the paving of a parking lot, rather than a new electronic library more likely to attract potential leaders.
This is not the only official outreach effort in strained circumstances. The venerable Fulbright programs are described as under threat, also not by direct opposition, but because of dwindling support in Congress and the administration. Where budgets may not be shrinking, they're not growing, and inflation cuts them slice by slice.
Another old cultural enterprise - Arts America - gave up the ghost five years ago. This US Information Agency program sent theater companies, dance groups, musicians, artists, and writers to foreign cities. Some may have had direct political impact. But in the main, Art America sent the message that this country is alive to old values and searching for new forms of expression, that it is not the money-grabbing materialist whom its critics hold up for target practice.
That so many people from so many countries want to live here indicates that knowing the US is the antidote to the anti-Americanism from which real danger springs. It is a prime aspect of security.
*Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society