By Donella Meadows
–December 5, 1996–
Suppose you lived in a diverse neighborhood — rich folks, poor folks, people of all kinds and colors, most of them eager to keep the peace and do business together. But no neighborhood is perfect, and yours is plagued by a youth gang or two and some drug runners and a couple of well-armed, dangerous thugs.
Suppose you agreed, for the safety of everyone, to form a neighborhood association to keep the peace. The association also tries to help the poor a bit, encourage trade, clean up the streets and stage some cheery multi-cultural celebrations. Not a big deal, this association, but a lot better than everyone going it alone.
Now suppose that one of the richest members of the neighborhood, after putting significant energy and money into getting the association started, suddenly gets mad because everyone doesn’t always do things his way. He starts making rude remarks and stomping out of meetings. He falls behind in his dues, refuses to do his share of the work and insists that he and he alone should choose the next association president.
If you can imagine how you would feel about that jerk, then you know how every nation of the United Nations feels about us. The United States, almost $2 billion behind in our UN dues, a laggard in the dirty work of peacekeeping, a constant critic, is single-handedly blocking the re-appointment of Boutros Boutros-Ghali to be UN Secretary General.
Boutros-Ghali is not the most popular Secretary General in UN history. But the way we are swinging our weight around is making everyone else support him. We could at least pay our dues before we act like such a bully. Not to do so, to behave so loudly and irresponsibly, is a formula not only for making enemies all around, but ultimately for weakening, maybe destroying, the neighborhood association.
Perhaps that’s the bully’s intention. If so, he’d better remember what the neighborhood was like before anyone got together to police it.
Diplomats will claim that neighborhood analogies are way too simple for the complex give and take of foreign policy. But I keep thinking, as I read about the behavior of nations, including our own, of none-too-friendly neighbors in a rough part of town.
For example, imagine that one dark night a household a few streets over, folks by the name of Hutu, take out after their next door neighbor, named Tutsi, and hack a great many of them (900,000 or so) to death. The Hutus did have a grievance. The Tutsis had been lording it over them. But that massacre is not only extreme vengeance, it is horrifying to everyone, a terrible example for the children, a mess to clean up, and an ominous precedent for other neighbors with grievances.
Now suppose the surviving Tutsis rally and chase the Hutu murderers into the next house down, where the Zaireans live. The fleeing Hutus take along their mothers and grandfathers and cousins, innocent folk except that they happen to be related to genocidal gangsters. They huddle over at the Zaireans for awhile, but the Zaireans, who have troubles of their own, are not what you would call hospitable. So the Hutus finally stream back, refugees and gangsters alike, to their old house, now inhabited by Tutsis.
The neighborhood association has done nothing but watch the whole time. We watched the murders, watched the flight of the Hutus, sent over a little food to Zaire. Now we watch the Hutus try to return, wondering who is going to turn on whom with the machetes this time.
Do we just go on watching? If it were a real neighborhood, what would we do?
Over on another street we have the smartest, meanest thug, Milosevic by name, the head of the Serbian clan. He has impoverished his own family and organized gangs to wage war on his immediate neighbors, slaughtering men, raping women, burning houses. The rest of us told him to cut it out. He didn’t, so we watched the carnage, grateful that we didn’t live on that unhappy street. When Milosevic paused to catch a breath, we invited him to a peace conference and praised him for laying off, though his goons continue to run loose, occupying the property of former neighbors. We sent in a few police to be sure they stay there.
Now Milosevic’s own family is rising up against him. The neighborhood association is doing nothing. “It’s a family affair,” some of us say. “If we went in there, some of us might get hurt,” says the bully who doesn’t pay his dues. The bully has been saying that from the beginning, though the bully can command thousands of times the manpower and weaponry available to Milosevic. (But then, we all know that bullies are never really brave underneath their bluster.)
Our neighborhood, not just the Serbian part or the Hutu part, but all of it, is a fearful place. There are more and more streets where it’s not safe to walk, day or night. Innocent people fall under the influence of thugs or get in the way of gangs, and when violence starts, they have no recourse. They dial 911, they wait and they wait, and nothing happens.
What do you suppose thugs and drug runners and gangs do, when they see a neighborhood that fails to police itself? Why can’t a world that is increasingly rich, a world that talks grandly of technical marvels and global trade and the end of cold war, do something as simple as apprehending criminals and keeping peace? The power of a few thugs is nothing compared with the combined strength of billions of law-abiding people. The only moral excuse for building up weapons is to protect the weak. Why don’t we use our weapons that way?
And why would any nation, especially a rich and strong one that prides itself on its decency, want to build a reputation as a deadbeat, muscle-bound but lily-livered, self-centered bully?
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1996