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  • Writer's pictureRichard Murff

The Humanitarian Superpower

It couldn't hurt...

Benghazi, Libya. Murff trying to stay out of the way

When I started traveling to some the world’s livelier spots, it wasn’t in any military or, strictly speaking, economic sense. I was attached to a couple of medical aid missions and a decade later I’m still working with a few of them. It’s the sort of work that attracts idealist, but quickly hammers them into realists. You’d be surprised at how practical you get when workable solutions to the world’s actual problems refuse to fit into clever social media hashtags.

So my experience with American power projection has been, more or less, the power of humanitarian engagement to shape the world. Not necessarily in our image, but to complement our interests within an existing cultural framework. And it’s ignoring that warp and woof that has led to potholes in Afghanistan, as well as every nation we’ve attempted to “build.” Our latest fiasco in Kabul was not our finest hour. But American is a country that simultaneously enshrined the idea that all men are created equal, the institution of slavery and the 3/5 Compromise – so it isn’t our worst hour either.

Nor is it our last. The United States is still a super-power whether we want to be or not, and we can’t exactly to step away from the role no matter how spooked the voters. Our sources of strength are still intact, like a dynamic economy that accounts for some 25% of the global total. Aside from hitting the geographical and historical jackpot, American power has always come from a knack for harnessing personal individual ambition for something more. Even if some politician as wearing their opposition to this on their fanny. The problem is that, along with the success, it makes us a target.

If the US is notorious for getting it wrong, we are also known for reinventing ourselves in order to get it right. For all the handwringing about lost global standing, it might be a more constructive how we got it in the first place. For all its bluff, Teddy Roosevelt’s Big Swingin’ Stick foreign policy was just that, a bluff. It wasn’t aimed at controlling the world, but denying certain great powers the ability to control it. And any parent of teenagers can tell you that denial is far more effective and economical that outright control.

And therein lies the curve-ball – that we’ve always been a humanitarian power. Even if we’ve been a bit of a ham-handed one. A century ago, America was perceived to be the counter-weight to European Imperialism. The forces we sent around the world were private ones made up of engineers and missionaries. Local rivals may have thought that “Lord and Savior” business was a bit tedious, but the eyeglasses really brought things into focus and all that clean water really hit the spot. Didn’t miss the cholera either. We were Europeans without the empire – so rich we didn’t need anything in return from the people we helped.

The Cold War didn’t make us a super-power, but it did require a global strategy. Suddenly, it was Europe that became the Europe without the empire, and we were crawling all over the planet with some admittedly ill-advised adventures. Still, we won the stand-off, got cocky and left the denial business for the costlier and ineffective control racket. Yet, despite our detractors, the humanitarian strain in America is so great that we felt obliged to rebuild the nations we’d knocked over.

I was in one of those countries we’d knocked over working with a medical aid mission to perform heart surgeries on children. The program drew children from around the region and created, more so than any pay-off or foreign aid package that I’m aware of, fiercer allies: politicos who were seen as heroes of the people, parents and siblings who could never be racialized because a child who hadn’t stood a chance had, in fact, lived. The cost of these missions, mostly privately funded, is a tiny fraction of even the most modest nation-building efforts. The good will is near infinite, there is no blow back. And because some of these programs are enticingly close to being self-sustaining, we have an exit strategy.

In a world before the US was the colossus, this humanitarian bent combined with open markets was how we rose to the top. The imperial and then soviet systems faltered. Call them power blocs or neuvo-imperialism, but these systems are on the rise again. We no longer have the luxury of ignoring emerging countries, weapons of mass destruction have gone democratic. Everyone one doesn’t have them, but enough do. earth, but we are no longer bigger than everyone combined.

Our 20-year experiment in power projection didn’t work, it’s time to go back to the formula that did – free trade with allies willing to enforce the rules of membership. Encourage ambition, and harness it to something more.

How wrong could I be?


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