By Donella Meadows
–September 22, 1994–
Were you as dismayed as I was by the public debate about whether, and under what conditions, this nation should invade Haiti? The discussion revealed us in all our nakedness, the world’s one remaining superpower, with no idea, or at least no agreement, about what to use that power for.
Some people said that whatever we do, we shouldn’t endanger our troops, we should have a limited, definable objective, and the whole business should be over fast.
But if we are only going to use our power for small, neat actions where no one gets hurt, we need an armed force no bigger than that of, say, Denmark. We could save ourselves $250 billion a year and relieve the world of superpowers altogether. The world would be grateful. It must be getting sick of hearing how it’s not worth the loss of one American life to prevent the loss of millions of lives of other, lesser, human beings.
Another group put forth loudly, continuously, and without apparent embarrassment the bully theory of superpowerdom. Our might should be used only for our own clear and countable benefit. Columnist George Will, for example, could not believe that anyone would be so silly as “to spend the nation’s blood, treasure, and prestige for abstractions, rather than concrete national gain.”
There is no concrete national gain, no vital U.S. interest, to be found in Haiti, these folks argue. So what if the regime is brutal and the people suffering? The world is full of suffering. It’s not our job to fix it unless there’s something in it for us.
This is the same crowd who managed to perceive national gain in bombing Libya and invading Panama and Grenada, though if you ask them what it was, they come back with unconcrete abstractions. These eager readers of the Book of Virtues are astonishingly ready to sweep away the moral and democratic reasons for using force in Haiti.
If there is any virtuous use of power, isn’t it to help the powerless? If we are defenders of democracy shouldn’t we restore to power a president elected with two-thirds of the vote in the first fair election his country ever had? Democracy is a mere abstraction, of course, but if our power doesn’t stand for that abstraction, what does it stand for? For being the world’s biggest bully?
Those who argued for invasion were not so loud or certain-sounding, perhaps because they were more able to see through their own contradictions. Some of them simply want to stop desperate Haitians from washing up in Florida. But most of them are honestly and deeply disturbed by the oppression in Haiti. They see a multitude of wrongs there, a nation suffering as no other nation in this hemisphere suffers. They are constitutionally unable to stand by and watch a few very rich people systematically, generation after generation, tyrannize a whole population of very poor people.
But the folks with the sensitive consciences also tend to be uneasy about the use of power — though power is probably the only thing that oppressors like General Cedras understand. Following the exertion of power, furthermore, comes the uncomfortable question: “Then what?” So you throw out the thugs. So you bring aid to destitute people. Can any outside power, even a superpower, establish justice, build democracy, sow the seeds of prosperity? Is that a job for power at all?
It would be refreshing if everyone, on every side of the argument, would admit that nobody knows the answers to those all-important questions. Every invasion, every refusal to invade, and every negotiation to avoid invasion sets off a stream of consequences that no one can foresee, much less keep to a timetable and keep risk-free. When it comes to the use of power we are and always have been flying blind. Even if we were sure what the lessons of Somalia or the Persian Gulf or Vietnam were, those places are all different, their lessons were different, and Haiti is yet another place with its own lessons — as will be every future possible target of our military might.
It’s dangerous to fly blind, especially when loaded with superpower. It’s pointless to fly without a compass. And it’s not only evil to fly guided by nothing but self-interest, it’s also counterproductive, because we are unclear about where our self-interest lies. Before proceeding any farther or faster into the New World Order, it would be a good idea to step back from our knee-jerk, outdated ideological postures and have a serious, national, democratic discussion.
What purposes should our power serve? What principles should guide it? What are we willing to pay and to endure in order to keep it? What would happen if we joined the other 96 percent of the world’s people, who manage to get through life, run their national affairs, and even find self-respect without having to be superpowers?
Could there be a world that was ruled not by power, but by morality, persuasion, compassion, and cooperation? And if that’s a question that makes us angry or fearful or intolerably sad, when did we sell our souls for power, and how do we get them back?
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1994