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The American Diplomacy Essay Contest

Third place in our contest concluded in the fall was won by William Collins. The judges found his essay to be an outstanding effort by a young scholar. Collins argues that in order to win the war on terrorism. the United States must focus on the root of the problem: poverty in the Third World and misperceptions of America. He suggests that the United States must increase its presence in and assistance to developing countries in order to attack those underlying problems. As with the other winning essays, Collins’ effort is not the final answer, but it does highlight the long-standing problem of the American people’s unwillingness to share even a miniscule amount of their national wealth to help other nations climb out of poverty. The essay also underscores the need for a revitalized public diplomacy effort to present a more accurate picture of America to the rest of the world.

—Associate Publisher Michael Cotter

Terrorism: How it is Unlike the Cold War

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, progressive reformers in the United States began to realize that crime in a highly urbanized society was a product of the environment in our cities, not an effect of religious deprivation or lack of middle-class morals. Concomitantly, we came to understand that reforming the tenements, ghettos, and slums could do as much to prevent crime as any police force. Political terrorism can be interpreted in a similar sense. We are currently engaged in a global struggle against the threat of Al Qaeda terrorism and Osama bin Laden, but we must look to the root of the problem. Why are al Qaeda and other fundamentalist groups so successful in operating in the Third World, and what can we do to combat the root causes of terrorism? Like crime in industrial America, global terrorism can be traced to poverty and desperation in its environment: the developing nations in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Religious fundamentalism provides an avenue of escape for the legions of poor in the Third World, providing potential recruits for any terror campaign. To truly win the war on terrorism we must tailor our diplomatic efforts to support developing countries in the Third World.

Terrorist activities can easily be traced back to the Third World. Al Qaeda’s network is based throughout the developing nations in Africa and Asia and was involved in terror attacks in Africa and the Middle East before September 11. Most notably, the debacle in Somalia in 1992, the attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, and the USS Cole bombing all involved Osama bin Laden’s operatives. Al Qaeda training camps have also been identified in several countries, including Somalia and Afghanistan. Various other fundamentalist groups also operate in the Third World, in locations ranging from Chechnya to the Philippines. Terrorism should not be solely associated with Islam, however. The historical differences between Christianity and Islam serve to accentuate the differences between fundamentalists and the relaxed religious atmosphere in the West, but all religions are capable of producing such fanatics. Recent Hindu attacks against Muslims in India and atrocities committed by "Christian" militiamen in Sub-Saharan Africa are examples of the type of brutality religion can inspire.

But why are people attracted to religious fundamentalism? In Medieval Europe, the hope of eternal salvation after death helped keep the peasantry submissive to the established social order. Similarly the promise of religious deliverance inspires many of the poor to join the modern crusade against the West. In the Third World, the West’s influence is primarily felt through the much-vaunted process of globalization. Commercialism is America’s international face. Unfortunately, this incomplete picture makes it easy for religious fanatics to point to America as a land of debauched, morally deficient people, corrupted by their crass society. America’s obvious wealth also makes it easy for radicals to arouse jealousy and hate in desperate people. Terrorism will continue as long as popular leaders continue to propagate these misconceptions about American society. We can continue to use our military force to disperse terrorists groups, but in an age where one can find out how to make a bomb on the internet, how can we hope to truly stamp out the threat with military force alone? Inevitably, the answer is that we can’t. Our overwhelming strength can be used to destroy terrorist bases and capture or kill fugitive leaders, but until we can change existing preconceptions throughout the Third World, we will continue to face fanatics who have nothing to lose and everything to gain (at least in their eyes).

Like progressive reformers at the turn of the last century, we must endeavor to face the roots of the problem. The existing misconceptions of American society can be cured through active intervention in the Third World. Our current presence in the Third World is rather limited. Our political influence is exercised through sanctions and the threat of intervention, yet countries that aren’t an immediate threat or strategically important are given little or no attention diplomatically. Furthermore, our economic aid to developing regions represents the smallest percentage of Gross National Product of any western nation. Surely we can afford to give more to some of the poorest people on Earth?

Poverty in the Third World, along with the uneven pace of economic development, is contributing to several global problems. As far as global terrorism is concerned, the greatest problem is the way we present ourselves overseas. Multinational companies investing in the Third World promote economic development, but this involvement has several downsides. Companies are eager to market American goods to largely untapped markets. In this case, economic involvement leads to the over-exposure of the worst aspects of our culture: bad movies, fast food, and Coke and the other faces of globalization threaten to overwhelm indigenous cultural standards. American pop-culture doesn’t appeal to alien cultures that are unfamiliar with our values, but because of our lack of deeper involvement, American pop-culture is the face many people in the Third World associate with America as a whole. The threat to traditional values makes it easy for radicals to play up on fears of "economic imperialism." Furthermore, these fleeting glimpses of America’s incredible wealth also arouse jealousy and resentment towards the West.

However, we can do much to change the situation. With positive intervention in the Third World, we improve our international image, thus whittling away at the pool of potential recruits for any terror campaign. Essentially, we must deprive the fundamentalists of a way of blaming their troubles on America by showing our true colors. Programs like the Peace Corps go far to help Third World communities and to promote a better image of America and Americans. Expanding youth programs would certainly improve our international standing throughout the world. Furthermore, increased humanitarian aid to poor regions would also help make people more appreciative of America’s generosity. Cheap pharmaceutical products to fight the spread of diseases such as AIDS and Malaria would also help ease misunderstandings between the West and the Third World.

Too often, however, our humanitarian programs are tied to political agendas. We are reluctant to aid peoples governed by autocratic or corrupt regimes because this runs counter to our message of promoting democracy and free markets. However, a country’s political leanings are irrelevant when people are suffering. According to the humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow, a pyramid of needs dictates people’s immediate requirements. At the bottom of the pyramid are the most basic needs; food and water are among the most basic necessities of human existence. Although Maslow’s theory is debatable, his basic premise is sound. By getting people on the ground distributing medical and food supplies, we are promoting two things: a positive international image of America, and, indirectly, political change. If we can ease the basic, everyday problems facing people in the Third World, we can expand people’s horizons beyond day-to-day survival, thus stimulating political change in repressive countries. When people have time to worry about things other than their next meal, they are able to focus on abstract concepts such as freedom and democracy.

The war on terrorism is not an unending struggle without hope for the future. However, our military strength can only disperse and kill some terrorists. Throughout the Third World, new volunteers eagerly look to emulate earlier terrorists and begin their crusade against the West. Unfortunately, fanatics like Osama bin Laden will always be around, looking for a way to lash out. Although fundamentalist leaders like bin Laden are very dangerous, their strength lies in their ability to inspire others. Take away the pool of recruits, the willingness of people to provide shelter and support to the terrorists, and you have an impotent radical on the run. By taking the initiative in the Third World through active humanitarian intervention, we can accomplish several goals simultaneously: provide genuine relief to people in need; advance our own political ideals by getting people to move beyond concrete problems into abstract contemplation; and, most importantly, change current misconceptions about Western Society. By winning over the "hearts and minds" of people throughout Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, we can ensure that fewer and fewer people join the terrorists in their global struggle. Without his legions of followers, bin Laden and people like him are powerless. And if the radical leaders no longer command the devotion of the "faithful", then we have won the war on terrorism.


William Collins, the son of a U.S. diplomat, was born in Frankfurt, Germany, and has lived additionally in Greece and Finland. He began high school in Helsinki and is now a graduating senior at West Potomac High School in Fairfax County, Virginia.

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