Morally, What Does the U.S. Stand for?


It took three weeks for President Obama to publicly address the crisis of over 250 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped on April 14 and to pledge to send modest support. That is 22 days of unfathomable cruelty to vulnerable girls. It’s 22 days of panicked parents wondering the fate of their daughters and why the international community has not vocally condemned the treacherous act.

That the U.S. and other nations are stepping forward with offers of assistance is welcome; but the fact that such action came after more than three weeks, and only in response to great pressure and international outrage, raises a fundamental question: what, morally, does the U.S. stand for?

It is naïve to ignore the mounting evidence that, beyond considering its own strategic and national self-interest, the U.S. does not have an operating philosophy when it comes to defending human rights. Its decision to remain silent after Egypt’s democratically elected president was overthrown in a coup last year, and its long standing engagement with countries with poor human rights records, such as Saudi Arabia, underscores the schism between what America claims to stand for and what it actually does in practice.

America in practice is a far cry from America, the moral torchbearer and defender of human rights, of fairness and justice, of what is good and decent. That was the America – America, the brand – that I believed in as a young girl in boarding school in Africa. But it is not the one I recognize today.

To be sure, America faces a host of its own economic challenges — an anemic economic recovery in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, widening income inequality, political gridlock, dilapidated infrastructure and significant demographic headwinds with the aging baby boomers. No doubt these seemingly intractable challenges feed into the American temptation to retreat from the international stage. An April 2014 poll found fewer than 20 percent of Americans calling for more active engagement in the world, and about half demanding less.

Against such a backdrop, international crises will not easily top an already crowded U.S. policy agenda. Indeed, the message that America will not come to the rescue when injustices occur elsewhere in the world may only now be sinking in along with the message that the U.S. may no longer underwrite such global public goods as policing sea lanes. Doing what is right, simply because it is right, seems no longer the American posture.

Yet the U.S. should carefully consider whether a hasty retreat is actually in its interest. Those who believe that events like the school atrocities in Nigeria are not particularly relevant to their future are wrong. Such destabilizing events are by no means isolated or easily contained.

Nigeria has an incendiary confluence of characteristics matched only in other volatile places such as the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan: a population skewed to the young, notable commodity dependence, and religious fervor and extremism. But Nigeria is not unique.

Already, for 2014, the Economic Intelligence Unit has identified 65 countries that face a high risk of social unrest, the highest measurement of its kind in more than a decade. And the Overseas Development Institute projects that by 2025, the vast majority of the world’s poor will be living in fragile, mainly low-income and African states. The slow and slowing economic growth prospects of the broader emerging world, home to 85 percent of the world’s population and a disproportionately high number of people under the age of 25 years old, will only lead to a more tumultuous and dangerous world.

This is not a world in which America can thrive. Nor is it a world that America, the largest economy in the world and ostensibly leader of the free world, can safely ignore.

Even if morality had not been sufficient to mobilize the U.S. to action in Nigeria sooner, surely economic political, and security considerations should have been. After all, Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy by GDP, and it is one of the ten largest oil exporters to the U.S. In the interest of economic development, children’s access to education must be protected. Moreover, the fact that Boko Haram, the terrorist group that has proudly claimed responsibility for the abductions, is affiliated with al Qaeda should have raised serious security concerns for the U.S.

And if the U.S. has been so slow to respond to or even acknowledge Nigeria’s crisis, what hope do smaller, less relevant countries have — countries without the oil, minerals or strategic importance?

Americans should think about this question, care about this question and act upon this question. If not, they should be surprised when trouble ripples — or rips — through the world, affecting even the country that thought it could stand safely on the sidelines.