The U.S. Must Find Its Lost Voice

Matthew Spence, a Los Angeles native, is a graduate student in international relations at Oxford University on a Marshall scholarship.

"Resolved that the world has not learned a lesson from Sept. 11."

That was the topic of the final round in the World Universities Debating Championships, which ended here Sunday. It quickly became a debate about whether the United States should invade Iraq.

Three things struck me about this debate. First, most of the debaters -- from 30 countries ranging from Ireland to Botswana to Malaysia -- actually agreed with the goals of U.S. policy. Second, despite the agreement with what we are doing, they are angry about how we are going about doing it. Finally, because all the American teams had lost earlier in the tournament, there was no U.S. voice. The absence of Americans in this debate symbolized a central problem of U.S. foreign policy today. Through our cowboy rhetoric and rejection of international organizations, we have refused to participate in the global debate on the challenges of the coming century. We value weapons, not words. We offer influence, not ideas. We seek to dictate, not discuss. And thus we are losing the war in public diplomacy and, more ominously, losing the next generation of leaders in countries that are our allies.

It need not be this way. The real source of much of the debaters' frustration was the style, not the substance, of U.S. policy. For example, it was not just that the U.S. rejected the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gases but how much the Bush administration relished its unilateralism. Maybe the U.S. is not anti-Muslim in preparing to bomb Iraq for trying to acquire nuclear weapons while merely scolding North Korea for the same crime, but when American policymakers do not clearly explain the difference, the rest of the world is left to draw its own cynical conclusions.

In short, we in the U.S. can take a large step toward combating anti-Americanism simply by changing how we talk about our policies. But as we lose this war of words, our best friends are becoming our best enemies.

In the first years of the Cold War, the U.S. planted the seeds of its eventual victory by realizing that it could not win alone. The United States designed institutions of cooperation -- NATO, the Marshall Plan and the International Monetary Fund -- to ensure that what was good for America was also good for the rest of the world.

The same logic holds for the new war on terrorism. More than ever, we need friends to share intelligence, to fight terror before it crosses our borders and to stand with us against the states that refuse to do so. We win those friends with our persuasion as much as with our power. If we believe in the strength of our ideas, we must have the courage to engage the rest of the world in discussing them.

One of my British teammates from Oxford told me about a recent conversation he had in Washington with a member of Congress who "said that America needed to take time to explain its position to the world. But he used the word 'explain,' not 'discuss.' Even one of the strongest internationalists I met just expected the rest of the world to listen to America."

As I left the debating competition, I thought back to another student debate that was a harbinger of future danger. As Adolf Hitler was gaining power in Europe, the Oxford Union, the prestigious student debating club, adopted an infamous resolution: "This house would under no circumstances fight for king or country." When Hitler attacked Eastern Europe, the British public, still reeling from World War I, followed their student debaters to the sidelines of appeasement. Britain later recovered from its mistake, and the Oxford Union expunged the resolution from its records.

One of the lessons the U.S. must learn from the Sept. 11 attacks is that actions speak louder than words. But this does not mean that words do not matter. The debate in world public opinion will rage whether the U.S. speaks up or not. We cannot afford to remain silent.

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