Editor's Choice Archive 1

What Happened to Reason in the 21st Century?

By Patricia Keegan

In the dawning moments of a new century, the sun comes up in a tender morning sky, the moon goes through its timeless cycles, and together they pour endless light and warmth into a world that now appears to be shrinking into darkness. Fear seems to have a steadfast grip on human consciousness. Why is this happening again in a world that has just emerged from the most violent of centuries? Is it because our leaders lack vision in imagining what this new century could look like, and so resort to old methods of resolving conflicts?

As citizens of this planet, where everything and everybody is in some way interdependent, it is time to bring an open mind to solving interdependent problems.

The way we have answered the following questions illustrate what I call dormant reasoning. The answers have created a void and fostered a crisis, illustrating policies in which the end does not justify the means.

Could it be that the vexing vision thing, missing in the first Bush administration, might still be plaguing the current administration?

In 1989, when the Cold War ended and the Berlin Wall came down, America became the superpower. Led by a powerful democracy, we were confident that the world would become a safer place. Human expectations, long neglected because of Cold War budgets and fears, would at last be addressed. The world breathed a unified sigh of relief. Our patience, our diplomacy, and our quiet strength had helped us avoid the annihilation of nuclear war.

Diplomacy had triumphed, and now more resources would be available to raise living standards among the poor. America was respected, former enemies became allies, there was abundant goodwill. We had more friends than ever. To secure the peace, we would engage with adversaries, we would use dialogue and diplomacy until we were blue in the face!

At this turning point a mental leap should have been taken -- a leap in faith away from the irrational toward a safer, non-proliferating world in which lasting peace was conceivable. But this was all new territory. We had never been in this position before, and because we either could not, or would not, envision such a future, we adopted a laissez fair attitude. We moved ahead but marked time without new thinking, without optimism that now the world might actually be different. Uninspired by monumental changes and the potential for an enlightened world order, we stumbled into the 21st century without a creative blueprint. We couldn’t seem to find any new guiding principles or vision. We heard talk of a new world order, but nothing concrete was ever articulated.

President Clinton had the ability to reach beyond the tragic breakup of Yugoslavia, to process the bigger picture and present a new vision. To his credit, he was instrumental in bringing peace to Northern Ireland, and he worked hard to formulate the Oslo Agreement. But beyond the globalization of economies and talk of “raising all boats to a higher standard,” there was no encompassing vision that could lay the cornerstone for the 21st century.

Consequently, residuals of the Cold War remained. We continued our role as the biggest arms dealer in the world, and our rhetoric did not always live up to our actions. Nevertheless, we still had loyal friends and partners around the world, and we had the respect of most of the world.

Then came that terrible day in September, 2001, and along with the loss of life, America lost its innocence and its way in the world. It was a turning point that had to be treated with the utmost delicacy. It would be the prism through which the world would judge us. We were faced with a new kind of enemy, one that stayed in the shadows and could not be openly identified. It was, and is, an enemy that can even hide in our own country.

How did we handle it? Instead of maximizing our intelligence power -- fighting terrorism with competent undercover agents spread across the world -- and minimizing our firepower, we made no distinction between a conflict with terrorists and a pre-emptive war against another country. In order to bridge the obvious gap in reasoning, President George Bush called the enemy any state that harbors terrorists and named Iran, Iraq and North Korea as the axis of evil. It was a terribly provocative statement. Worse, it was an outright trampling on principles of diplomacy. We were sending the wrong message to the world and to those countries that some would say were already irrational.

President Bush launched his doctrine of preemption. This seemed to resonate well. It sounded tough, it was action-oriented, we would get the bad guy before he got us. But in the long run the policy provokes enmity and exacerbates the build up of both offensive and defensive weapons as countries follow our lead, adapting to a preemptive world order. Such a doctrine does not evoke reason or diplomacy.

The pulse of the world’s discontent can be measured by the international response to our unilateral actions in Iraq and the lack of post war security. It can also be measured by reaction to our unwavering support of Ariel Sharon’s provocative, escalating campaign against Palestinian terrorism. Every ounce of American influence, diplomacy and even-handedness should have been concentrated on bringing peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Do Americans have higher expectations from their President? With an election on the horizon, it might be a good question to ask. If this administration cannot restore confidence and convince us of the soundness of their ideas and decisions, then, hopefully, the next one will have the wisdom to offer a fresh, new outlook.

We all live in the present. What we need is a leader challenging us to focus on the longer term. Throw out those advisers from the Cold War era who see the glass as half empty. Open the White House to the genius of the nation, to Nobel Prize winners, and those who excel in their fields. Bring them together to foster constructive ideas and new direction; tell the political spin-meisters to take a hike. Promote an understanding that the vast majority of people in the world, regardless of religion, are peaceful people who have co-exited and still want to co-exist and live in harmony.

As the 21st century sun lights our days and the moon punctuates the darkness of our night, we can still be assured that the profound goodness of humanity will prevail. We have the opportunity to turn that goodness into greatness by magnanimously turning away from our superior weapons and toward our superior intellect as a means of solving conflicts. We have to live up to the responsibility of being a “superpower” by bringing back policies that are in sync with the values that made us proud to be Americans.What Happened to Reason in the 21st Century?