Sound Advice for the Next President

Guest Column: Helena Cobban, whose site Just World News is one of my favorite sources of perspective on the Middle East — check out her excellent coverage of the events of the past week in Lebanon — has come out with a new book setting out the challenges facing a new leadership in America, in respect of how it relates to the wider world. I heartily recommend her book and her site to anyone seeking a more peaceful, constructive and cooperative relationship between the last superpower and the world that has longsince slipped beyond its control.


By Helena Cobban

Re-engage! America and the World After Bush is my seventh book, and it is certainly the one that I’m most excited about. (Luckily, books are not children, so Mom is indeed allowed to play favorites.) Part of the reason I’m so psyched about this book is that we– my publishers at Paradigm Press, and I– seem to have caught the zeitgeist. The official publication date isn’t till May 15, but Paradigm did a great job both in producing an excellent book, and in expediting the process so that the book can gain maximum exposure
during the crucial months ahead. So copies are now available. The paperback is being published simultaneously with the hardcover, and costs only $14.95. Order your copy now!

One of the main things that I have sought to demonstrate in the book is the simple lesson that foreign policy is, at its core, all about relationships. It is, therefore, a subject that any citizen, regardless of her or his level of specialized knowledge about this or that aspect of world affairs, already has a huge ability to understand. It doesn’t require advanced degrees in the arcane sciences of “circular errors probable” or an advanced understanding of the often obscure theologies of
international economics to understand foreign affairs. All that we really need to understand is people: what makes them tick, and what makes them ticked off; what makes some relationships work, and what makes others quite dysfunctional.

So yes, I’ve written the book to be readily accessible to Jane andJosé Average Citizen. My friends at Paradigm were enthusiastic about this aspect of the project. They worked hard with me to make the text-editing crisp, and to include lots of charts and other graphic elements in the book while keeping the price as low as they could. We also agreed to label this book as “An Informed
Citizen’s Guide”– both to convey the idea that it’s not just for specialists, and to leave open the possibility that other such guides might follow…

But the fact that Re-engage! is accesible doesn’t mean it doesn’t make a strong argument of its own. The big arguments I make in it are:

  1. That the revolution in global communications has irreversibly changed the nature of international relations;
  2. That in the new era of transparency among nations, the only workable organizing principle for a international order going forward is one deeply rooted in the concept of the equality of all human
  3. That the new era of international transparency and cross-border communications has also made the waging of colonial-style wars of domination much harder than ever before, and has perhaps even, these days, made them impossible to win;
  4. That the approaches of “human security” and “global inclusion” anyway provide Americans and the six billion of our fellow-humans who are not U.S. citizens a much surer path going forward than the continued pursuit of doomed attempts to impose our country’s will on other nations.

The book has five substantive chapters, covering:

  • Security challenges;
  • International inequality;
  • Human rights;
  • Climate change; and
  • Shifting global power balances.

These are all, indeed, items on the broad “human security” agenda, as it is generally well understood in various countries around the world–though sadly, not so much yet in the United States. These
subjects are all, also, deeply connected to each other. Indeed, while I was researching and writing the book, I gained a new level of understanding about the mounting impact of climate change as a
determining issue in global affairs. In late December, I wrote an op-ed on this in The Christian Science Monitor, in which I argued that “Climate change now looks set to be the same kind of touchstone issue in global politics that nuclear weapons has been since 1945… “

One of the interesting challenges I faced as I worked on the book was how to present the fact of the Quaker roots of my understanding of the world. Because I am a Quaker (by convincement, as we say, rather than by birth)– but I am also an analyst of strategic and international affairs. In fact, I was an analyst long before I became a Quaker, but that is another long story.

If you look again at the four arguments enumerated above, you’ll see that the one about the equality of all human persons (#2) and the one about the dysfunctionality of war (#3) are both, actually, closely related to the longheld testimonies of the Quakers. So to what extent could I, in the book, “stand aside” from my existence as a Quaker and put on my “analyst’s hat” and make these arguments, and to what extent should I also be upfront about being a Quaker?

In the end, the more I thought about it, the less of a problem this seemed. (Big thanks to those f/Friends from my Quaker meeting in Charlottesville, Virginia, who helped me think through some of this.) The main text of the book is written in a completely non-“sectarian” way and makes arguments that, I believe, any objective analyst can engage with and– I hope– agree with, or at least find some merit in. Then in the Preface I write just a little about my Quaker worldview, because I feel entirely comfortable doing that.

The astounding thing today is, it seems to me, that the events of the past seven years have underscored more strongly than ever before the validity of the traditional Quaker (and Buddhist) testimonies about the dysfunctionality of violence and war. Perhaps in the past, when European or other powers waged wars of colonial control in distant parts of the world, people back home in the metropole might have thought the wars were, on balance, somehow “worth” fighting– but that was, in my view, largely because the horrendous casualties those wars imposed on the residents of the distant war-zones were never brought sharply enough into focus for the citizens of the colonial power. Or, if they were brought into focus, the communities devastated by those wars were somehow dismissed as “less human”, or “less worthy of our concern” than the imperial citizens themselves. (It was only with the Boer War that the English suddenly came face-to-face with the idea that some of the people being oppressed in a distant war were “almost just like us”.)

Now, though, I don’t think anyone would be prepared to stand up and argue that a person in Africa, Asia, or the Middle East, is less worthy of our concern simply because of her skin color, nationality, ethnicity, or other intrinsic attribute. And now, throughout the whole of the US campaign in Iraq, we have been able to learn, in near-real-time and often in excellent English, what the effects of our country’s military campaign has been on the residents of the war-zone. Thanks to the blogosphere and You-tube, war will never be the same

Thank God.

All of which is to say that today, more than ever before, I believe that the longheld Quaker views on both human equality and war provide a more supremely “realistic” understanding of world affairs than ever before. (I would actually love to debate some of these points with some of the “realist” analysts of international affairs whose work I greatly admire, like Zbigniew Brzezinski. But so far, Brzezinski has resisted my invitations to do this…)

Perhaps if Quakers were not so self-effacing we’d have a new slogan along the lines of: “Quakers! We were right about slavery, so now listen to us on war!”

I digress. My main points here are (1) to thank my blog-pal Tony Karon for inviting me to write this Guest Column on his always excellent blog, and (2) to urge you to buy Re-engage! And (3) when you’ve read it, let me know what you think!

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