Sep 16, 2014
A Fair Foreign Policy Is the Best Defense
Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin The Washington Post
Thursday, December 13, 2001
International Herald Tribune
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Opinion & Editorial
NEW YORK In the spring of 1946, J. Robert Oppenheimer was asked in a closed congressional hearing room whether three or four men couldn't smuggle units of an atomic bomb into New York and "blow up the whole city." The father of the atomic bomb answered, "Of course it could be done, and people could destroy New York."
When a nervous senator then asked how such a weapon smuggled in a crate or even a suitcase could be detected, Mr. Oppenheimer quipped, "With a screwdriver." A few years later, he persuaded the Atomic Energy Commission to write a top secret study on the dangers of nuclear terrorism. The document, known as the "Screwdriver Report," remains classified to this day. U.S. leaders realized then that there was no defense against such an attack and, because we were defenseless, chose to play down its possibility.
But on Sept. 11 Islamist terrorists used knives and box-cutters to turn commercial aircraft into weapons of mass destruction. Next time they could use spent nuclear reactor fuel wrapped in explosives. And if they are determined to sacrifice their own lives, the assassins will achieve a high degree of success.
Mr. Oppenheimer understood a half-century ago that by unlocking the power of the atom he and his colleagues had suddenly made the world a smaller place. That is why in 1946 he proposed banning nuclear weapons.
The globalization of technology has reached a point where weapons of mass destruction can be wielded by a handful of individuals. In such a world, the United States' military prowess is its very last line of defense.
To Americans' peril in this interdependent world, they are foolishly squandering their first and strongest line of defense: their reputation for fair play. In this sense Sept. 11 was the ultimate failure of a foreign policy that has systematically sullied the reputation of the United States.
For a half-century the U.S. foreign policy establishment complacently assumed that America could act with impunity in the Third World. Americans fought the Cold War on Third World battlefields; the list of U.S. interventions is staggering: Iran, Korea, Guatemala, Congo, Cuba, Vietnam, Chile, Nicaragua and, of course, the entire Middle East. Millions died.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. policymakers have pursued a "triumphalist" stance based on America's invincibility as "the world's only superpower." They told Americans that the smoldering conflicts in Bosnia, Rwanda, East Timor, Congo, Sudan, Chechnya, Afghanistan and dozens of other places were not America's business.
They were wrong. America needs a radically new foreign policy. The artificial Cold War dichotomy between realism and idealism must be abandoned. No foreign policy devoid of sound moral principles is realistic today. Even a "victory" in Afghanistan will do little to protect Americans from terrorists if the United States again becomes complicit with authoritarian regimes that abuse their own people.
The United States needs a smart foreign policy that addresses the underlying grievances that foster suicidal rage. Americans need to go back to where they were in 1945 - before Hiroshima, before they took the road to a permanent national security state. Most Americans have no memory of the designs that Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Dealers had for postwar U.S. foreign policy. Human rights, self-determination, an end to colonization, nuclear disarmament, international law, the World Court, the United Nations - these were all ideas of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
Americans need to return to this Rooseveltian vision of a foreign policy based on human rights. The United States desperately needs to engage with the world - and not just dominate it with dollars, cruise missile diplomacy and secret military courts. The billions that Washington contemplates spending on missile defense should instead be invested to promote peace agreements and meet basic human needs in the world's poorest societies. And right now, America needs to end its long illicit affair with nuclear weapons.
In 1948 Mr. Oppenheimer observed that nuclear weapons - born in secrecy and designed as "unparalleled instruments of coercion" - were by definition antithetical to a free society. And so paradoxically he insisted that even a nuclear-armed America must nevertheless remain loyal to two mutually interdependent ideals, the minimization of secrecy and coercion: "We seem to know, and seem to come back again and again to this knowledge, that the purposes of this country in the field of foreign policy cannot in any real or enduring way be achieved by coercion."
Mr. Bird, a fellow at the Smithsonian Institution, and Mr. Sherwin, a professor of history at Tufts University, are writing a biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer. They contributed this comment to The Washington Post.
Kai Bird is the new Executive Director for CUNY Graduate Center's Leon Levy Biography Center
Crown books (Random House) has signed Kai Bird to write a biography of President Jimmy Carter's White House years.