It took three weeks for President Obama to publicly address the crisis of more than 250 Nigerian school girls kidnapped on April 14, and to pledge to send modest support. That is 22 days of unfathomable cruelty to vulnerable girls, and 22 days of panicked parents wondering about the fate of their daughters – and whether an education could possibly be worth such a price, and why the international community has not vocally condemned the treacherous act.
That the United States and other nations are stepping forward with offers of assistance is welcomed, but the fact that such action came after more than three weeks, and in response to great pressure and international outrage, raises a fundamental question: What, morally, does the United States stand for?
It is naive to ignore the mounting evidence that, beyond considering its own strategic and national self-interest, the United States does not have an operating philosophy when it comes to defending human rights. Its decision to remain silent after Egypt’s democratically elected president was overthrown in a coup last year and its long-standing engagement with countries like Saudi Arabia, whose cultural ethos/philosophy in many respects runs counter to American beliefs, underscore the schism between what America claims to stand for and what it actually does in practice.
Indeed, these choices are a far cry from America the brand – the moral torchbearer and defender of human rights, of fairness and justice, and above all, of what is good and decent. That was the America I was taught to believe in when I, myself, was a young girl in boarding school in Africa. But it is not the one I recognize today.
To be sure, America faces a host of its own economic challenges – an anemic economic recovery in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, widening income inequality, political gridlock, significant demographic headwinds with the aging baby boomers, and dilapidated infrastructure. No doubt these seemingly intractable challenges feed into the American psyche to retreat from the international stage, and are at least in part responsible for the reluctance of Americans to wade into foreign affairs. An April 2014 poll found fewer than 20 percent of Americans calling for more active engagement in the world, and nearly half demanding less.
Against such a backdrop, the fact that international crises will increasingly find it difficult to top an already crowded US policy agenda is abundantly clear, but the message that America will not come to the rescue when injustices occur elsewhere in the world may only now be sinking in.
Thus the rest of the world should no longer expect the United States they imagined to come to their rescue. Nor should they expect the US to be willing to underwrite global public goods, whether it’s policing sea lanes or defending the downtrodden. Doing what is right, simply because it is right, seems no longer the American posture.
Yet, the US should carefully consider whether a hasty retreat is actually in its interest. Those who believe that events like those unfolding in Nigeria are not particularly relevant to their future are wrong. As are those who view such destabilizing acts as isolated, or as events that can easily be contained.
Nigeria does have a unique confluence of characteristics that make it particularly incendiary – a population skewed to the young, notable commodity dependence, religious fervor and extremism – matched only in other volatile places such as the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Yet, America’s stance in the world needs to be evaluated in what is likely to become a much more uncertain and dangerous world.
Already, for 2014, the Economic Intelligence Unit has identified 64 countries that face a high risk of social and/or political unrest, the highest measurement of its kind in more than a decade. And according to Horizon Report, by 2025 more than 80 percent of the world’s poor people will be living in fragile, mainly low-income and African states. The slow, and slowing, economic growth prospects of the broader emerging world, home to 90 percent of the world’s population and where 70 percent of the population is under the age of 25 years old, will only lead to a more tumultuous and dangerous world.
This is not a world in which America can thrive. Nor is it a world that America, the largest economy in the world and ostensibly leader of the free world, should ignore.
Even if morality had not been sufficient to mobilize the US to action in Nigeria sooner, surely economic, political, and security considerations should have done so. After all, Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy by GDP, and among the top 10 largest oil exporters to the US. With more than 150 million citizens, it is sub-Saharan Africa’s most populous nation and, in the interest of economic development, children’s access to education should be protected.
Moreover, the fact that Boko Haram, a well-known terrorist group affiliated with Al Qaeda, has proudly claimed responsibility for the abductions should have raised serious security concerns for the US. Clearly, destabilizing Nigeria has direct and dire economic and political consequences for American living standards and way of life.
Herein lies the question: If the US has been so slow to respond to, or even acknowledge, Nigeria’s crisis, what hope do smaller, less relevant countries – countries without oil or minerals or strategic importance – have?
The American people should think about this question, care about this question, and act upon this question. If not, no one should be surprised when trouble ripples – if not rips – through the world, and affects all countries, even those that choose to stand on the sidelines.
Dambisa Moyo is the CEO and founder of the Mildstorm Group and the author of “Winner Take All: China’s Race for Resources and What it Means for the World” and “Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa.”
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