Despite the rhetoric coming from the campaign trail in the months ahead, the United States is still the major power player on the global stage. To be sure, American dominance is not what it used to be as serious power brokers, such as China, rise globally and growing powers, such as Brazil, rise in the Western Hemisphere. But the US is still the most powerful nation in the world. With that power often comes the expectation that the US should be the great force for peace and justice globally. If ‘American exceptionalism’ is still the modus operandi, then the US should be venturing to solve grand problems. The idea that great power brings with it a moral obligation to help those who are helpless is widely accepted in both domestic policy and in foreign policy.
Much of the coming campaign will revolve around what our priorities should be and how the government can best help the American people. Additionally, the time has come for the US to reprioritize its foreign policy. US foreign policy over the last 30 years has been dominated by a series of interventions, diplomatically and militarily, in the Middle East with cursory glances towards the trouble spots in the world at that time. That focus has translated into a disproportionate amount of American resources being tied up in that region for a full generation.
It is not to say that the United States does not have an obligation to come to the aid of those that are being oppressed. Assisting in the removal of violent and dangerous dictators can be seen as a just cause and something that only the US has the ability to do. There is a role for the US to play in stopping the assault on Syrian citizens by the Assad regime. There is a role for the US in standing up for pro-democracy forces in the Middle East. There is absolutely a role for the US to play when large scale humanitarian crises are present from the horn of Africa to the Hindu Kush. Unfortunately, as the riots aimed at the US by angry Afghan citizens prove, the blood and treasure spent by the United States in the Middle East may only be marginally effective.
The problem, and the need to reprioritize, lay in the fact that while the State Department has been intensely focused on the Middle East, the problems of the Western Hemisphere have been largely ignored. While the moral obligation to aid the humanitarian crises in east Africa have been well documented, the humanitarian crisis of Haiti has fallen off of the radar since the immediate response after the earthquake. The UNDP Human Development Index, which ranks countries based on citizen education, life expectancy, and standard of living, consistently ranks Haiti in the bottom tier of nations along with Afghanistan and many African countries.
At a time when government officials are talking of budget cuts and debt reduction, the need to have American aid dollars go towards meeting a need in a productive way is paramount. And unlike some other foreign policy investments, investments in Haiti appear to be productive according to USAID statistics which show a 6% growth in Haitian GDP in 2011. While the US government wrestles with how to effectively end the government assault on citizens in Syria, many in and out of government speak passionately about the obligation that the US has to aid in this blatant violation of human rights. Yet we rarely hear of the continued human rights abuses that occur on a daily basis just across the Florida Straits.
The governmental assault on the people of Cuba is well-hidden by Castro’s government. The principle is the same though. The people that oppose the government are assaulted and in many cases, taken away to be abused in a myriad of inhumane ways in Cuban prisons. The government that holds high the banner of defending human rights should be beating the drum every day and relentlessly calling for an end to human rights abuses in Cuba. Dissident bloggers and groups like the Ladies in White should know that they have the attention of the US government and that the continued violation of human rights 90 miles from US shores is at least as important as human rights violations halfway around the world.
While the inability to provide for citizen security in many areas of the world leads to the acute fear of a failed state, similar conditions in the Western Hemisphere very rarely receive mention. Over the last decade, the American public has grown weary of nation-building and would be very reluctant to support the rebuilding of a failed state. It would be wise to be proactive in ensuring that this does not happen, especially in the Americas.
The most common cause of a failed state is when the government loses the ability to maintain order and protect the security of its citizens. While the US has been deploying assets to the Middle East over the last 10 years to help secure those populations, there has been a disturbing trend in the Caribbean. The 2012 UNDP Caribbean Human Development Report cited that while most parts of the world show decreasing or stable homicide rates, the trend of violent crime in the Caribbean is increasing.
Outside of war torn Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean is the most violent region in the world. A good percentage of the violence that takes place regionally is a result of drug cartel activity. Few other foreign policy issues present themselves on the streets of the United States on a daily basis in the same way that the inability of Latin American and Caribbean governments to effectively combat narcotics traffickers does. Drug consumption is linked to violence and poverty in American cities and drug trafficking is responsible for extreme violence and political instability in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Yet, by way of financial assistance and directed attention, it appears that US foreign policy neglects to sincerely address these issues. The argument of whether or not the US has a moral obligation to help the vulnerable in the world is one that will continue to engage American politicians and policy makers for years to come. If we assume however, that a moral obligation does exist, then the United States should not focus so intensely on humanitarian issues halfway around the world that they miss the moral obligations that exist right next door.