Drucilla Cornell's essay "Thinking Big in Dark Times," published in a recent collection of reflections about Hannah Arendt, begins by invoking Amartya Sen's plea to resist the temptation to miniaturize the human spirit. Watching the Nazi trials in Israel, Arendt famously described the "banality of evil" — the positively pedestrian tenor that moved men to mass murder and genocide. "Thinking big" means risking ethical action, "even if we often feel overwhelmed and powerless before a world that acts from thoughtless myths and the reputed commands of ruthless gods." The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), with its footholds in Syria and environs, provided the world with another depressing image of these gods as it destroyed another UNESCO World Heritage Site last month.
So far, Germany stands apart for showing both policy leadership and cultural courage. In opening its borders to an anticipated 800,000 Syrian refugees, it has pointed out how petty it would be to feel "overwhelmed" by these dark times. Its gesture offers a profound historical correction from the heartland of the last truly global refugee crisis, World War II. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the target of not a little contempt just a few months ago for perceived stinginess and sternness on Europe's financial crisis, is a descendent of the millions of migrants who fled their homes following World War II. "She is also a [p]astor's daughter and evokes her Protestant ethos of responsibility in a nation in which the churches are political forces," points out Georgetown University Professor Norman Birnbaum, the author of several books on German politics. Germany faces an aging population and low fertility rates (1.4 births per woman), so the ethical action does perhaps have an element of self-interest if Germany seeks to remain continental Europe's economic powerhouse.
The refugee admissions are also part of larger geopolitical pivots that the U.S. seems to be missing. "German ties to Russia are now as important as those with the US," says Birnbaum, who sees increased cooperation between Germany and Russia on the Mideast as plausible. Moreover, just two decades ago, it was impossible to address the Middle East without placing the Palestinian question at the center, a principle that the Oslo Accords failed to resolve by largely ignoring resettlement. For decades, Palestinian refugees scattered throughout the region served as a common cause across Arab foreign policies, though the accompanying humanitarianism aid was often simply a shallow political instrument for coalition building. Then-Secretary of State James Baker broke up that coalition with the inclusion of Arab countries in the 1990-1991 Gulf War. Now, Oslo looks easy, and it is hard to imagine any meaningful progress in the Middle East beyond the Iran nuclear agreement without considering 4 million Syrian refugees on the verge of becoming stateless as Syrian President Bashar Assad slaughters the nation in order to salvage his malignant vision of a state.
How unfortunate that, as the greatest humanitarian crisis since Arendt's era unfolds, the United States seems trapped in small thinking. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that the 59.5 million people displaced around the world last year set a new record. Nearly one out of every 122 people in the world has been forced to abandon his or her home, and half of Syria's 23 million people are displaced. But while the difference between "Sen" and "Senate" is only a few letters, the ethical gap is huge: The fiscal 2016 foreign aid bill (S. 1725) is set to slash $415 million from Migration and Refugee Assistance (MRA), amounting to a 14 percent reduction overall. The U.S. has offered to accept only 8,000 refugees — roughly half the number that the UNHCR is asking of America, where only 1,434 Syrian refugees have been resettled over the last five years. A compelling plea by 14 senators earlier this summer, recently reiterated by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), calls for increasing the annual cap on refugee admissions to accommodate up to 65,000 from Syria. Stephanie Peters, a commissioner for the Women's Refugee Commission, points out that 75 percent of the refugees are women and children. "Helping these people is first and foremost a humanitarian imperative," she argues, "and it makes good strategic sense for fostering better US-European ties."
Meanwhile, presidential candidates otherwise critical of big government are arguing for more bureaucracy, not to expedite the applicant screening process, but to stall it. "We would be potentially open to the relocation of some of these individuals at some point in time," droned Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). "There's only so much we can do," opined Donald Trump (R). Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), apparently unaware that the U.S. spends a mere 0.7 percent of the federal budget on poverty-focused foreign assistance, pandered to the average voter who estimates that the U.S. spends about 30 percent of its budget on foreign aid: "The answer is not for America to increase the number of refugees we take in." What a contrast with Merkel, who is running for reelection in 2017; after opening the borders, she threatened Germany's xenophobes with the full force of law.
The German playwright Bertolt Brecht suggested that evil is exhausting, describing its mask with "swollen veins of the forehead, indicating what a strain it is to be evil." Merkel has reminded us that it should not be so hard to be good. Raise the cap. Restore the MRA funding. America, abandon your image of a miniaturized human spirit.
(Click here to see a list of organizations providing direct assistance to Syrians.)
LeVan (@Dev4Security) is an assistant professor at American University and the author of Dictators and Democracy in African Development: The Political Economy of Good Governance in Nigeria. Join him at American University on Sept. 21 to launch his new book on subnational politics.