`We Are the United States' Is Call to Moral Leadership

Senator Dole's quote struts US might; but for one writer it stimulated a rethinking of America's role in the post-cold-war world

AS Sen. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas intoned these words recently - ``We are the United States of America'' - I was struck by the complexity of my reaction. Senator Dole was calling upon us to break the unjust arms embargo in the former Yugoslavia. We should act on our own, he said, and be proud of it. We are, he repeated, the United States of America.

First I felt my habitual distaste for the patriotism of the right. Too often I'd seen such patriotism draped as a righteous cloak over the unprincipled pursuit of national interest. ``The leader of the free world,'' but often in league with tyrants and killers. Hey, Dole, get off your high horse; our hat isn't so white.

But another part of me resonated deeply with this flat Kansas voice calling us to pick up the neglected mantle of world leadership. We are the country that stood up to the Soviet Union and saved the world from what might have been a dark fate. From our inception, we have held up for the world the banners of democracy and human rights.

As imperfect as we are, as hypocritical as our posturing often is, we are the most powerful force for right in the modern world. It may be a sad statement about the world, in the perspective of suffering humanity's profound and unmet needs, but it is nonetheless true that if there is to be moral leadership in the world, it will have to be provided by the United States of America.

But there is uncertainty in America about what leadership means in the aftermath of the cold war. The cold war was about survival as well as about values: When other nations understood that they depended on us for their very existence, of course we were the leaders of the free world. But the end of that threat necessarily reduces the authority that armed might alone confers on America. Our leadership in a post-cold-war world must depend more on moral authority. People who used to follow because they knew they must will follow now only if they feel they should.

The fall of our giant rival also liberates America to develop such moral leadership, for it has freed us to separate the question ``What is right?'' from ``What is in our own interests?'' It was the nature and the tragedy of the cold war to conflate those questions, and the result was the moral confusion and the cultural division we have experienced over patriotism as a value. With our survival threatened, the ``defense of liberty'' against ``godless communism'' was often hard to distinguish from simply playing the power game to win. Human rights and democracy required that the US survive the cold war, but in the pursuit of that survival we often betrayed those very values. It was difficult to tell when this was hypocrisy and when a tragic necessity. So the nation broke into a patriotic right wing - ``America love it or leave it'' - and a critical left - ``Amerika out of Vietnam.''

But the world is no longer a chessboard for our own struggle.

Now in trouble spots like Bosnia it is not our interests but only our values that are urgently at stake. Our passion for justice, being disinterested, can provide the foundation for truly moral leadership.

But Dole's is not the way to exert this leadership: It dramatizes the wrong side of our role as the ``force for right.'' His call to go it alone makes ``We are the United States of America'' sound too much like ``We are mighty, and we will do as we please.'' This assertion of our specialness hearkens too much to an old world order, where power rules.

The creation of a genuinely new order demands a different voice, one in which ``We are the United States of America'' means ``We have special authority to call the world to do what is right.'' Do we want to create a world where the law will restrain a Serbia from using its superior power to brutalize its neighbor? Then let the US show that - despite possessing a power that none could resist - it is extremely reluctant to act contrary to the legal framework of United Nations resolutions.

Do we want the community of nations to uphold important values even when the sufferings and injustices do not injure the narrow self-interests of those who come to the rescue? Then let us exhort the other nations of the world to join us in sacrificing some treasure and comfort to protect the unprotected.

This is the American leadership that has been lacking in the Bosnian crisis: a strong, insistent voice demanding that the world uphold justice, willing to raise the rhetorical ante until the others agree to follow. Our voice has been tentative, inconsistent, almost asking to be disregarded. Only after we have trumpeted a powerful and righteous moral call, and the world has still refused to follow our lead, would it be appropriate to decide whether it is better to act alone in the name of right, as Dole now prematurely bids us do, than to acquiesce in the will of a morally craven world community.

When our vital interests are at stake we should not hesitate to use our status as the world's one remaining superpower to defend them, whatever the world's opinion might be. But where our interests are not at stake, we should support in the international system that long-held American ideal, the rule of law, which represents the best hope for the rule of right in the world.

There is grandiosity in Dole's stirring call. Is it arrogant to suggest, as did Abraham Lincoln, that we are the last best hope on earth? Maybe so. But then again maybe not. We are, after all, the United States of America.

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