On September 11th, when many people died in the blazing inferno at the World Trade Center, so did many illusions. Among them was the American sense of invulnerability, protected by the world's two largest oceans, blessed with a large continent filled with natural resources. Over the two centuries of our national life, we Americans have developed a feeling of safety, of optimism and of confidence. With the exception of our own Civil War, Americans have always felt that the terrible things taking place in distant lands couldn't happen here.
There were of course, in just the last few decades, other attacks on our country-even on the World Trade Center itself-but none ever pierced our feeling of invulnerability. September 11th did that. It exposed, in a violent and a tragic way, the reality that in today's world, there is no place that is immune to terror. The immediate worldwide outpouring of sympathy for Americans was heartening, but it soon gave way to a more complex reality. Because societies, like individuals, are complicated mixtures of high ideals and base instincts, they can simultaneously admire and, resent love and hate.
People around the world are drawn to, and inspired by, our nation's basic values: the primacy of individual liberty, the concept of equal justice under law and the aspiration of fair opportunities for every member of society. At the same time, many people around the world disagree with some of our policies, while others resent what they believe to be American exploitation or indifference to their plights. And there are those to whom we are an inevitable target simply because of our place in the world.
Throughout human history there have been dominant military powers and dominant economic powers. Despite its initial distrust of foreign entanglement, despite the reluctance of the American people, the United States has been thrust to the center of the world's stage. That role brings with it enormous benefits, but also many problems. In this era of instant communication, every problem in the world is seen by someone as an "American" problem. Every grievance, no matter how local, whether real or imagined, can be a cause for resentment of the dominant power.
Another illusion that was buried in the rubble of the World Trade Center was that the United States could go it alone. Withdrawing from multi-lateral efforts, not paying our dues at the United Nations, repudiating treaties that we entered into: all of those actions were wrong in and of themselves and shortsighted, not in our self-interest. It is obvious that we cannot deal with every problem alone.
Moral authority and American influence
Indeed given our place in the world, it is in our national interest to encourage the involvement of others in solving our common problems. Recently, I was in South Korea and I met with the president, the prime minister and the legislative leaders. As you know, there are 37,000 American troops there pursuant to a mutual security treaty between our two countries.
President Kim told me that the government and the people of South Korea support the continued presence of American troops in their country. In the past few years, I have met with government and political leaders from every country in Europe, from Ireland to Russia, from Finland to the Mediterranean Sea. I asked each of them this question, now that the Soviet Union no longer exists and Russia has withdrawn its military forces back to its own territory: Do you believe that the United States should withdraw its military forces back to our own territory?
Without exception the answer was an immediate and emphatic no. Now I referred earlier to dominant powers. Think back through history and try to recall a dominant power with so much moral authority that other countries all around the world asked for our military forces to be stationed on their soil. Why is that? Obviously part of it lies in power itself. But I am concerned for the many Americans, especially for young Americans who have never known anything else, who perceive power, economic and military, to be the exclusive basis of American influence in the world. I think there is more to it.
While clearly important, power is secondary to our basic ideals: individual liberty, equal justice and opportunity for all. That always has been, and continues to be, the primary basis of American influence in the world. And I ask you and all Americans to never forget that the United States was a great nation long before it was a great military or economic power. When there were fewer than four million Americans clinging to the Atlantic seaboard, this was a great nation, ennobled by the Declaration of Independence and the adoption of the American Constitution. These charter documents and especially the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, are the most eloquent and concise statements of individual liberty ever written and adopted by human beings.
There have been and there will continue to be times when it is necessary to use force to defend our liberty, to protect our citizens. But we must do so in a manner that is consistent with our fundamental values and we must, at the same time continue without pause or hesitation, to search for peace, justice and security in the world.
In Northern Ireland, in the Middle East and in the Balkans, we have worked to promote peace and security, unfortunately with limited success. In Northern Ireland an unprecedented agreement for peace was reached in 1998; when I had the privilege to announce the agreement, I described it as an historic step, which it was. But I also said that by itself that agreement does not provide or guarantee peace and stability. It makes them possible, but many difficult decisions remain and the outcome is, even now, not assured.
In the Balkans, we rightly were criticized for the long delay between the onset of violence and our response. Yet once we acted, we helped bring the violence to an end and to replace a brutal dictator. But once again, a successful outcome is not assured.
In the Middle East, we have had even less success. Despite an intense effort, President Clinton was unable to resolve the differences between Israelis and Palestinians. And notwithstanding the efforts of the Bush administration, the cycle of fear, hatred and violence accelerates. We must not be deterred by the apparent lack of progress. To the contrary, we must intensify our efforts. A just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the right objective for them, for us, for the world. That was true before September 11th, it is even more true today.
The Muslim world
Earlier I referred to the many countries that want American troops on their soil. I am sure that many of you at that moment thought of other countries that do not want our troops, where some express, everyday, in public and in sometimes violent demonstrations, their hostility to our country. Although many troops are in Muslim countries, President Bush has rightly made clear that Islam is not our enemy.
The Muslim world is not monolithic; the countries there are many and varied with different ethnic, linguistic, religious and political heritages. Their economic and political interests frequently diverge and they have fought many wars among themselves. We could make it a self-fulfilling prophecy if we assume their hostility and think of them and act toward them as one.
What they have in common, for the most part, is the absence of democracy, growing populations, stagnant economies and widespread poverty. What they most need is more organization and growth in their economies, the creation of jobs, the generation of hope and optimism among their peoples. We must be sensitive and we must address these realities if we are to have any hope of a more peaceful world.
The dream of world peace
Recently I was asked a question: Is world peace an impossible dream? I would like to conclude these remarks by trying to answer that question. Now it may seem like the wrong time to talk about peace in the world with reports of war filling the air. But if we wait for the day that nothing bad happens in the world, we may never even get to talk about peace. So I'd like to say a few words on that subject.
If by world peace, it is meant the complete absence of conflict among and within nations, then it may well be impossible. There are more than six billion people in the world; current estimates project an increase to between eight and ten billion in this century, with the largest increases to occur in the poorest countries. There will be a huge and rising demand for land, for water, for natural resources of all kinds, for jobs and opportunity, for political and economic power. As the gap between the rich and the poor nations widens, and as the technology of killing advances and spreads, it is unrealistic to imagine the complete absence of conflict.
But if by world peace we mean the absence of a major war and the effective containment of regional conflicts, I believe that to be entirely feasible. The remarkable ingenuity of humans, especially of free men and free women in societies, has been repeatedly demonstrated. Throughout history at almost any point in time, a negative forecast was justified, and yet over time progress has been steady and at sometimes spectacular.
I believe that the direction of human history is toward more knowledge, more freedom and more broadly shared prosperity. Just look at our own national experience. I referred earlier to our Constitution. It is, to me, one of the greatest literary and political accomplishments in history. And yet, great as were the men who wrote it, they were products of their time, constrained by the society in which they learned and lived.
And so our Constitution, which we rightly revere, limited the right to vote to adult white men who owned property. Black persons were not even considered to be persons under the American Constitution. It took 75 years and the bloodiest war in our history to extend the right to vote to all adult males. It took another 60 years and a long and bitter struggle to extend it women. And it was just a decade ago that Americans with disabilities, for the first time, obtained the legal right to live full and meaningful lives.
To this day the struggle goes on to expand our definition of citizenship, of what it means when we talk about human and civil rights, which every American citizen should enjoy. Now that history is both a painful record and at the same time inspiring evidence about what's good about America-a never-ending effort to right the wrongs of the past, to enable each generation to be more free and more prosperous than its predecessors.
And today we are more liberated and more prosperous than Americans have ever been. Now obviously what has happened here will not be duplicated precisely elsewhere. But we should be heartened by the knowledge that in a different way, at a different pace, the same journey has been underway in Europe, in part of Asia and in other lands-not all, not evenly and with many setbacks, but in the right direction.
We are now living in what will be the first full century of American dominance in the world. It can be, like so many in the past, a century of war and famine, of oppression and injustice. But it also can be a time when the dominant power uses its strength and commits its people, its power and its prestige to a great and noble vision: a world that is largely at peace with education, opportunity and prosperity extending to more and more people to more and more parts of the world. As Americans, that is our challenge. As Americans we must make it our destiny.
George Mitchell served in the United States Senate from 1980 to 1995. Upon leaving the Senate, he joined Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson and Hand, where he currently serves as the firm's chairman. Recently, he served as chairman of the Peace Negotiations in Northern Ireland.
George Mitchell Senator Mitchell also chaired an International Fact Finding Committee on violence in the Middle East. The committee's recommendation, widely known as The Mitchell Report, was adopted by the Bush Administration as its policy in the region and has been endorsed by the European Union and many other governments. On April 4, 2002 Senator Mitchell delivered a public lecture at the University of Michigan. The event was sponsored by the International Institute, CES, CMENAS, CREES, Office of the President, Office of the Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs.
I have heard a great number of people say that peace is a nice idea, but an impossible one. I beg to differ. I believe that world peace is extremely feasible. However, to achieve this, it will take hard work, flexibility, and a great deal of open-mindedness. These three things are in very short supply in this world.
H. Ross Perot once said that "Our country is diseased with just doing enough to get by." I believe this applies to the majority of this world. Patriotism to one's country is a great thing; however, I believe that in order to achieve world peace we need not think of ourselves as citizens of the United States, Japan, the Soviet Union, Iraq, or any other nation, but rather as citizens of one united world.
There are too many problems on this planet for any one country to solve. As single nations, we cannot prevent the ozone layer from completely depleting, nor can we stop the waste of this planet's valuable national resources; however, as a united group of people living on the same planet, we may be able to reverse the wanton destruction of our Earth.
We need to solve disagreements with words and treaties, not with weapons and murder. We need to rid this world of the things that cause us not to think clearly, such as drugs and alcohol. Many people have said that this just can't be done. They say that this generation's druggies won't, but by educating the youth, the next generation will have fewer people addicted to brain-damaging substances, and the generation after that will have even fewer, and the chain will go on, with a domino effect, until alcohol and drugs are virtually obliterated.
If we could just co-operate! By not giving a damn whether your neighbor is black, white or of any sex, race, creed, age or different political party, we can do this. We, today's youth, are the future of this country and we can achieve world peace. n
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.