Congressman Gregory Meeks (D-NY) is a member of the House financial and foreign affairs committees. He is also co-chair of the House Dialogue Caucus. Recently he published an op-ed in The Hill on the low U.S. ranking in the Global Peace Index. FPIF contributor Michael Shank interviews him on the reasons for America’s poor showing.
Michael Shank: The recently launched Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Peace Index, which rates countries on their level of peacefulness, ranked the United States 96th out of 121 countries surveyed. Does this come as a surprise to you?
Rep. Gregory Meeks: Not a big surprise. We know that we’ve got several problems. One of the things that I think is important and that I hope that the rankings will do is cause us to have a more interflective viewpoint. We often look at what’s taking place elsewhere and not look at what’s taking place inside.
From my viewpoint, from traveling and talking to different people from other parts of the world and their asking me certain questions about the United States and about our policies in particular, even about the number of African-Americans that have been incarcerated, they try to show me that the United States sometimes does things that are somewhat hypocritical in nature – and it is hard for me to answer these questions. So the rankings did not surprise me to a great deal.
You would think that a country like Iran or Syria would finish even further behind, would be dead last. But it was surprising that they were right behind us.
Shank: I know you’ve mentioned the Global Peace Index in committee hearings. What has been the response on the Hill? How are people responding to the idea that one, a peace index exists, and two, that the United States has ranked poorly?
Meeks: You hear two things. The first is that people want to attack the Peace Index. They don’t want to take that inner look at themselves. So they say, who are the people behind this? What do they do? When you tell them who is behind it and the individuals that have checked off on it that kind of silences them. A lot of the individuals just feel that the United States is above all reproach and doing everything that is absolutely correct. So therefore it could not possibly be that the United States ranks that low. It has to be something to do with the scoring and or who was doing the scoring. That’s one group.
The other group is a group of individuals who agree that we have tragically lost a lot of good will in the world because of what we’ve done. They look at our military spending. They look at the incarceration rate. They look at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. They say, “Look this is not surprising, and we’ve got to change and we’ve got to move in a different direction.” So it depends upon which camp you happen to fall into [that determines] the kind of response that we’ve gotten.
Shank: The criteria for the Index, some of which you’ve already mentioned, included homicide rates, percentage of population in prison, military expenditures, access to guns, and respect for human rights. The United States scored poorly in all of these categories. How does this compute with the notion that the US is a nation where freedom and democracy prevails? How does one explain this apparent contradiction?
Meeks: When you look at some recent studies and findings from others who are not from the United States of America, you find some astonishing differences of opinion. I was astonished with a recent survey that came out that says that most of the individuals in the world now are beginning to trust China more than they trust us. That’s astonishing. So we better start looking inward because otherwise we’re going to end up isolating ourselves with our own rhetoric.
We’ve got to clean up our act. We’ve got a lot of responsibility. We are unquestionably the wealthiest nation in the world. But the question is, in this age of globalization, are we using that wealth and that power to help others so that we can bring them up? Or are we using that wealth and that power just to continue our power and our wealth at the expense of others? That’s where we are right now.
Currently we are the world’s only superpower. We’ve only been that for the last 15-20 years. The world has had superpowers before. You can go back to Great Britain. They were a superpower with the greatest navy in the world for a while. Then that came to an end. You can go all the way back to the Roman Empire, if you want. That came to an end.
Shank: Now superpower reigns are getting shorter and shorter.
Meeks: That’s exactly right. So the reign of the United States as a superpower depends upon, especially in this age of globalization, how we interact with other countries, how we’re viewed by other countries, whether or not we’re utilizing that superpower [status] to bring together a more peaceful and interdependent world – or whether we’re using it to be an empire, to try to build an empire. And in today’s age, empire-building doesn’t work because countries have their own pride, their own culture, their own self-respect, and they don’t want to just be trampled upon. So the question is, with all the inventions, with all the good that is happening, how are we utilizing it to help and bring together the world as opposed to pulling it apart?
When you look at what we’re doing to ourselves, it is not something you would want other countries to emulate. The way we treat others, I surely would not want to be treated myself. So we’ve got to change the pattern that we have, and I think we had a golden opportunity to do it. We had one shot at this thing where we could’ve taken tragedy and made it a positive and a global unifying act.
That was 9-11. Everybody was with us. Everybody was coming to our side. That was the opportunity to bring people, countries, and the world together and isolate those that want to go unilaterally against the United States. We could’ve done that but we didn’t. What we did was just the opposite. We made actions in a unilateral manner. We decided that you’re either with us or you’re against us. We decided that we’re going to go into Iraq even though there’s no evidence at all that they were the ones that attacked us. We’ve made all those kinds of mistakes, and we’ve now got to clean it up.
Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-MA) had a series of oversight hearings on the opinion polls that showed the opinion of the United States — the opinion of the United States by other countries — has declined and it has declined specifically because of what our policies are. So it is time for us to take a look and examine what our policies are and change them, given the world that we’re currently living in.
Shank: Critics took issue with countries like Japan scoring high since their low military spending results from U.S. protection and, consequently, higher US military expenditure. We’ve now doubled our defense spending in the last five years, running a total of near $700 billion, not including war-related spending. Yet according to the Index, we’re not more peaceful as a result of higher defense spending. Why not?
Meeks: First of all, I believe the United States has to be in a position to defend itself. But if you look at our military spending, it’s not making us safer. In fact, we are spending money as if we’re in a cold war. This is a different age we’re living in. The weaponry that we’re buying and investing in has nothing to do with making us safer. Therefore it causes one to think that it’s making somebody rich, contractors, etc. But it’s not anything to do with what we have to do to defend ourselves. So quite clearly we can begin to bring down some of that spending militarily because it’s antiquated equipment and use some of those dollars in a better way so that we can employ better diplomatic efforts as we deal with other countries. That protects us more and sends a different message.
How can we tell other countries that they can’t spend militarily, that it is wrong for them to do that, when in fact that’s what we’re doing? How do we have the moral authority to do that? We lose the moral authority when we’re doing exactly what we’re telling everybody else what they can’t do.
Shank: What’s the relationship between racism and U.S. position on the Index? Do you see any concrete ties between racism at home and racism in U.S. foreign policy?
Meeks: Good question. We’re in 2007 and I sure as heck wish I could say racism is dead. But racism is alive and well on both fronts. In jobs that are being created, the diversity is not there. Some of that is racism. When you look at the vast number of individuals who are incarcerated in US prisons, they’re predominantly African-American, Hispanic. Some of that is racism. Look at the disparity in laws with reference to cocaine. Crack cocaine is used mostly by poor people, people of color, and they go to jail. Cocaine, even though it’s more [widespread] than crack cocaine, is used largely recreationally by white and others, and they don’t go to jail. That’s racism.
There’s inherently still a problem in America. We’ve come a long way on the racism issue within America but we still have got quite a ways to go.
There is also obvious racism in U.S. foreign policy. When you have poor developing countries with people of color, and you want to work with them, there are all kinds of excuses why it can’t be done or why it shouldn’t be done We have those kinds of discrepancies and those kinds of problems.
We’ve got this whole immigration issue right now. When you dig deep into it, no one is concerned about anyone emigrating from Canada. No one is concerned about anyone emigrating from Europe. They’re concerned about people emigrating from where? Mexico, Latin America and the Caribbean. For places of color, there are different policies. If you try to get in here from Haiti they’re going to send you right back on a boat. Some of that is inherent racism in our foreign policies, which we’ve got to change.
We had a secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, who said nothing important happens in the southern hemisphere. That’s racism. And you look at what our policies are toward countries in the southern hemisphere today, it is benign neglect. Still. That has to be changed. The fear of a lot of Americans, and the reason why we have this immigration policy, is that this country is changing its complexion. They’re not worried if it’s for the good or for the bad, but it’s “god forbid, we’re allowing people of color to come in this country.”
Shank: The theme that I keep hearing you reiterate is that we need to look inward. Do you think, in 2008, a Democratic president, if one is elected, will be able to lead that inward looking process?
Meeks: I think we can. We would’ve been in a much different situation had a Democrat got elected in 2000 and/or had Bush acted differently. One of the things that stands out in my memory since becoming a member of the House of Representatives was a conversation I had with Bill Clinton. At the end of his term as president of the United States I asked him the question: what surprised him most after eight years that he did not think when he first entered the presidency? He sat back and he thought for a second. He said, “You know, you would think with all our might and our strength that we could impose our will, militarily or otherwise, on smaller nations.” But he found that they didn’t care about our military strength. They cared more about being respected as a sovereign nation and being able to talk with us to try to benefit their people. It’s not just ramming something down their throat. This is coming from Bill Clinton.
If you looked at what direction he was moving his foreign policy, nations around the world were beginning to have some hope that they were going to be connected with the United States and work with us to improve mankind. That’s what was happening under Bill Clinton. That’s why he was so popular all over the world. He was the first sitting president to visit Africa. He sat down and talked with nations about how we could have open skies and how we could interconnect. He began to talk about, and came very close to trying to figure out, a true peace in the Middle East by having everyone come in and sit down at Camp David.
That’s what I looked forward to having in 2008, a president that tries to sit down and build relationships with individuals based upon a mutual respect, not based upon “it’s my way or the highway” as we have in this current administration.
Shank: Which is what you’re doing with the House Dialogue Caucus?
Meeks: That is what the House Dialogue Caucus is all about. Fortunately it is a bipartisan caucus. It’s Democrats and Republicans trying to figure this thing out because in the end it’s not going to be just the Democrats or the Republicans that suffer or benefit. It’s going to be either all of us who are going to suffer, or all of us are going to benefit. So it takes all of us to work and pull that together.