The University Record, April 22, 2002

Arias challenges U.S. to take responsibility for its actions

By Theresa Maddix

“The world knows that this is the only economic superpower; the world knows that the United States is the only military superpower. The world also would like you to be a moral superpower,” Oscar Arias told those assembled for the Ford School of Public Policy Citigroup Lecture April 17.

Speaking as statesman, Nobel laureate and former president of Costa Rica, Arias squarely placed the burden of responsibility for America’s actions on every U.S. citizen—“everyone who has voted or chosen not to.”

“The U.S. has wonderful values,” Arias says. “It’s not doing such a wonderful job living up to those values.” The U.S. fails at times, Arias pointed out, when its interests conflict with the values of responsibility, freedom, democracy and prosperity.

Defining responsibility, Arias spoke of rugged individualism—the idea that each person ultimately controls his or her own destiny.

Although the U.S. says it holds personal responsibility in high regard, Arias noted an unwillingness to face up to the “outrageous amount of environmental destruction” the U.S. causes by emitting one quarter of the earth’s greenhouse gases. Pollution created by the U.S. unfairly burdens the rest of the world, Arias says.

Not only is the United States refusing to take responsibility for the environmental harm it has caused, Arias says the U.S. will not even rein in the corporations causing more problems. He is very disappointed in the Bush administration’s unwillingness to implement the Kyoto accord to combat global warming. The accord would require the United States to substantially decrease emissions of greenhouse gases by 2012.

Another often-cited American ideal is freedom. Arias used the Naval bombing exercises on the island of Vieques in the U.S. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico to demonstrate America’s willingness to sacrifice the freedom of those who cannot vote. A civilian security guard was killed three years ago by an errant Marine Corps bomb from a nearby bombing range that occupies approximately one-third of the island. The event prompted protests on the island to stop the bombing. Arias said Puerto Ricans are concerned about more accidental deaths, along with the environmental effects of the range and damage to the local fishing industry.

America’s highest ideal, democracy, is patterned after the system of checks and balances developed by America’s founding fathers, Arias said. But, “the rules seem to change once the U.S. is acting outside its own borders.” Historically, when the U.S. “chose between anti-Communism and human rights, anti-Communism always won.” Arias said the U.S. supported dictatorial forms of government in Chile, Guatemala and El Salvador. Now that communism is not a threat to the region, U.S. activity has merely “shifted across the globe. The U.S. continues to ship weapons to Asia and the Middle East.”

Still, the American dream of prosperity “resounds around the world. Many a group of newcomers has made its way.” While noting that the American dream is a reality for some, Arias questioned the prevalence of children in poverty within the U.S. Nearly one in five children is poor and, unlike other wealthy nations, the U.S. government guarantees neither health nor childcare.

“When it comes to the developing world,” Arias said, “the U.S. shows even less concern.” He called this nation one of the stingiest countries in offering foreign aid and said he’s dismayed when he sees the amount of money that goes to the Pentagon. Arias described current policy as “bombs over books” and “helicopters over hospitals.” Such a mentality, he argued, “deals a double blow to hopes for prosperity in the developing world.”

After outlining current gaps between values and interests, Arias turned to the audience to fix the problem. “In the areas where the government is failing, you are the helpers,” he said. “You are the ones with the obligation to get the government back on track.” Arias encouraged America to “be the kind of leader that can bring healing and hope to our world.”

Arias received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for his instrumental role in creating a lasting peace between Costa Rica and eight other Latin American countries. He is known as the drafter of the Esquipulas II accords, a procedure that has established firm and lasting peace in Central America. Arias presented the 2002 Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy Citigroup Lecture. The endowed lecture was established to honor former President Ford by bringing distinguished policymakers to the school.