By Andrew Kim – Participant of 2012: Challenge Accepted Conference
As the 2012 presidential election nears, candidates confidently profess that their policies and visions will maintain the superpower status that has become the foundation of American pride. On the campaign, candidate Mitt Romney promises an “American Century,” one in which “America leads the free world, and the free world leads the entire world,” further emphasized by the release of his most recent book, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness. Such assurances especially resonate with voters as the imminent rise of China threatens American supremacy. However, what some fail to realize is that American dominance, as positive it sounds to American ears, is incompatible with world peace and the preservation of human rights. For the business elite and wealthy, the American superpower could not be more ideal. But for the billions worldwide who lack basic needs or who suffer in the shadow of extreme violence, American foreign policy often provides the greatest obstacle to improvement. The special nature of America’s superpower standing perpetuates significant levels of worldwide inequality, international violence, and cultural exclusivism. If we wish to create a world of equality and peace, we as Americans must be the first to sacrifice the notion that the suffering of others is a suitable price to pay for American supremacy.
First, the global preeminence of the United States is directly related to worldwide levels of poverty and inequality. According to the American perspective, our superpower status and unmatched affluence are what allow us to lift less fortunate countries out of poverty, a gesture of benevolence and the solidarity of humankind. However, what most Americans fail to realize is that mass poverty around the world is directly connected to the excesses and riches of the so-called “developed world,” represented by no country more suitable than the United States. Inherent in the presence of a “superpower” are the gross power differences that allow one country to domineer over other nations. In this case, American power has resulted in the past from exploitation of less powerful Latin American and African countries. After America emerged from World War II as the dominant global player, George Kennan, head of the State Department, said in his Policy Planning Study 23:
We have 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population… In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity.
In such a “pattern of relationships,” the Third World was to “fulfill its major function as a source of raw materials and a market” for industrial capitalist societies, as a 1949 State Department memo read. American foreign policy went accordingly. In 1954, the CIA engineered a coup that overthrew the first democratic government in Guatemala, whose policies were based on social reforms and threatened the agricultural monopoly of the influential United Fruit Company. The coup set into motion a string of military governments that destabilized the country and eventually committed genocide against its own citizens under the guise of anti-Communism. While Guatemala has now experienced economic growth and democratic elections, a 36-year-long civil war is a tall price to pay in service of American interests. The United States’ superpower status has allowed us to exploit countries like Guatemala and to cripple their stability for our own interests. As Paul Farmer, founder of Partners in Health, says in his book Pathologies of Power, “To argue that human rights abuses occurring in Haiti, Guatemala or Rwanda are unrelated to our surfeit in the rich world requires that we erase history and turn a blind eye to the pathologies of power that transcend all borders.” Today, American oil corporations such as Texaco are sucking the Amazon basin dry of its rich petroleum. Contracts coaxed out of less powerful governments give most of the benefits to exploitative corporations rather than the country’s whose resources are being extracted. As a further side effect, indigenous communities in the Amazon basin, such as the Huaorani and Cofan people, suffer from polluted rivers and destroyed homes. Yet American power allows corporations to emerge unscathed and with pockets filled with oil profits. Viewing America as a superpower inherently reduces smaller, less powerful countries and communities as pawns to be wrung dry of their resources. The control that developed nations are able to exert over poorer countries for their own interests only exacerbates the inequality that lies at the root of suffering.
Second, the various interventions and displays of force that are valuable tools for America’s dominance have threatened peace and security worldwide. The United States’ use of force stands unprecedented, as America has tried to further its own interests abroad. The most recent manifestation of our international power play in the Middle East has failed to bring about any sort of peace or stability. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was a radical violation of the United Nations Charter’s prohibition on territorial aggression. Yet, as Richard Falk and Howard Friel point out in their book The Record of the Paper, an enemy nation accused of violating international law stirs up an outrage. When the United States, on the other hand, commits such a transgression, international law all but dissipates. Falk and Friel record that in the seventy New York Times editorials during the invasion of Iraq, the words, “UN Charter” and “international law” never appeared. Our American sense of entitlement seems to grant the United States transcendence above the laws that bind lesser nations. Furthermore, the hunt for Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda promised a body count from the very beginning. Drone attacks on northwest Pakistan that were aimed at militants and Al Qaeda leaders started in 2004 and only increased at the advent of Obama’s presidency. Over a hundred civilians have been killed by unmanned attacks, and to no one’s surprise, drone attacks have been inextricably linked to the increase in anti-American sentiment within Pakistan. American intervention in the Middle East is not a new phenomenon either. 1953 saw the CIA coup that deposed the Iranian prime minister, Mossadegh, who had begun to resist Western oil companies that controlled Iranian petroleum. Before we denounce Middle Eastern countries for their anti-American sentiments, we must look at how America has wielded its superpower status and whether American power has truly created peace in the world.
No threat to world peace is more pressing than rising militarization and the perpetuation of nuclear arms. The United States has exacerbated such issues as well by continually striving to strengthen our overwhelming military dominance, especially as our economic influence is threatened by the rise of China, India, and other nations. American military spending accounts for 40% of the global arms spending, more than the next twenty largest military spenders combined. However, worldwide goals toward peace will require limits on the superpower model of exorbitant militarization. The nuclear arms landscape epitomizes the military tension perpetuated by the United States along with its allies. As the dominant power, Western developed nations have dichotomized the world into those who are allowed nuclear weapons and those who are not. The United States has shown no intention to take initiative in our own nuclear disarmament, because we view ourselves as the entitled military power. We claim that our ally, Israel, a country with a history of open hostility and outright invasions toward Palestine and Lebanon, may keep their nuclear weapons while Iran, our enemy, cannot. The problem with Iran is that any country with American as its foe has little incentive to demilitarize. America has shown its willingness to intervene in enemy nations through the previous examples of leftist Latin American governments and more recently the examples of Afghanistan and Iraq. No country that boasts 40% of the world’s arms spending can claim to be working toward peace. If we truly want a world free from the ever-present shadow of nuclear destruction, we must first and foremost give up our ideas of being the military superpower. Weapons and armies cannot be our sources of pride. They are far too often sources of destruction and instability.
Third, the idea of American supremacy engenders cultural exclusivism within the United States and a dangerous ignorance about the rest of the world. There is a widespread and unquestioned belief that we live in the greatest country in the world filled with the greatest citizens. Whether or not such a statement is true, it is simply counter-productive. We have erected a barrier between the “developing world” and us, and many of us peer across the gap with emotions ranging from contempt to patronization. In my own travels around the world, often what surprises me most is the level of knowledge foreigners possess about American politics and culture. South Africans have extensive knowledge about the current Republican primaries in the United States, but how many Americans could name the current president of South Africa? America is the hub of the world, and we are not at all tempted to deny it. A global world requires global citizens, but those living in the center are far less tempted to understand the outskirts. History classes and education in general are still Euro-centric, and most Americans graduate high school without formal schooling in the deep histories of Africa and Asia whose consequences still shape today’s world. The United States’ increased involvement in the global landscape requires a deeper understanding of other countries, their cultures, and their histories. A peaceful resolution to American tensions with the Middle East can only occur if Americans understand Islam, Middle Eastern history, and the socioeconomic forces that underlie the rise of terrorism. Current global issues arise out of highly complex chains of events, and only scholarship that transcends the borders of our country can give us a complete understanding of how to approach these increasingly global problems.
Ultimately, America’s position as the world’s superpower is incompatible with the eradication of poverty and injustices throughout the rest of the world. Much humanitarian aid currently arises out of a paternalistic benevolence toward the less fortunate. The idea of charity assumes that America can continue to pursue wealth, as long as the expendable iota is donated to the starving African children. The problem with this view of humanitarian aid is aptly expressed by Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed:
In order to have the continued opportunity to express their ‘generosity,’ the oppressors must perpetuate injustice as well. An unjust social order is the permanent fount of this ‘generosity,’ which is nourished by death, despair, and poverty. . . . True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity.
True humanitarianism must acknowledge that structures that make America wealthy and the structures that impoverish billions are one and the same. Hunger, for example, arises not from a shortage of food worldwide, but rather problems of inequitable distribution—a byproduct of the current structures that make a preferential option for the rich. Contrary to what many have subconsciously come to accept, poverty is not inherent to our world. This falsity is easiest to believe from the perch of the United States, where we can intellectualize poverty and injustice just enough for the suffering of an innocent Pakistani or of a “savage” Huaorani to become an unavoidable side-effect of Darwinian struggle for survival. This belief allows the developed world to avoid self-implication as a force that enables poverty. The assertion that America can indefinitely continue accumulating wealth and power relies on the false assumption that our extravagance has no consequences. Ultimately, the force of oppression acting upon the poor is the promise of American supremacy and the belief that no glass ceiling should limit the growth of a superpower.
As the election nears, Washington politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, are promising the American public that the United States of America will remain a superpower in a changing world order. But if we truly believe in equality and the empowerment of the poor, the first sacrifice must be this American superpower. A world with a superpower cannot be a world of peace and equality. As every world power in history has learned, the domination of one nation is oftentimes inextricably linked to the oppression of many. America’s rise to the pinnacle has left in its wake poverty and instability, disguised as the unavoidable byproducts of the world at work. The call for an end to American dominance is a call for a better America, one that allows space for the empowerment of the disempowered, and one that can earn the respect of not only its constituents but of the global community. The “post-American” world does not have to be a dystopia that policymakers desperately try to avert. It can be a positive movement toward a world that abstains from the excesses and surfeits inherent to structured inequality. As the global community faces unprecedented levels of poverty, ecological imbalances, and militarized violence, the mark of a nobler, fairer United States of America will not be the attainment of power but rather the relinquishing of it.
 Muskal, Michael. “Mitt Romney advocates ‘American century’ in foreign policy speech.” LA Times. 07 10 2011: n. page. Web. 29 Mar. 2012. <http://articles.latimes.com/2011/oct/07/news/la-pn-mitt-romney-foreign-policy-20111007>.
 Farmer, Paul. Pathologies of Power. University of California Press, 2004. Print.
 Friel, Howard, and Richard Falk. The Record of the Paper. Verso, 2004. Print.
 Shah, Saeed, and Peter Beaumont. “US drone strikes in Pakistan claiming many civilian victims, says campaigner.” Guardian. 17 07 2011: n. page. Web. 29 Mar. 2012.
 SIPRI Military Expenditure Database 2011, http://milexdatasipri.org