July 4 symbolizes America’s historical ability to unify around high ideals. We hope President Joe Biden uses this moment to propose new ideals for a world that urgently needs nobler leadership.
America has done this before. In 1918, Woodrow Wilson devised “Fourteen Points” to eliminate the ancient problem of big countries eating little ones.
Georges Clemenceau, Wilson’s French counterpart, satirized the Fourteen Points by saying “God Almighty has only ten!” But Wilson’s pie-in-the-sky principles became the hallmark of legitimacy in foreign relations. Respecting national borders, referring disputes to an international assembly, peacefully navigating the oceans and lowering barriers to trade are accepted standards a century later, even when tested by rogue regimes.
Wilson’s example should embolden President BidenJoe BidenTrump endorses challenger in Michigan AG race On The Money: Democrats get to the hard part Health Care — GOP attorneys general warn of legal battle over Biden's vaccine mandate MORE to go beyond a new Atlantic Charter with Great Britain to suggest the next “Fourteen Points” for the world. In this century, the most urgent problem will be countries eating themselves — or fighting off predators that are not countries at all.
What should our planet look like in one hundred years? Wilson wanted a world safe for nations. Our next goal should be a world safe for humanity.
Today, all peoples struggle with disinformation perpetuated by the Internet, unaccountable private actors with extraordinary resources, planetary warming, pandemic disease, cyber-sabotage and domestic disunity. Weak governance and grotesque wealth gaps overshadow yesterday’s threats of foreign invasion. United Nations debates now revolve more around rescuing troubled peoples than ending wars.
Yet, our security model remains premised on the past. We conquered conquest, but forgot to declare victory, send troops home, and turn to new challenges.
Since the Declaration of Independence, it has been an American propensity to “think big.” Shrinking from that is a mistake, as we did after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Expanding NATO to Russia’s borders looked more like an extension of the Cold War than a new day for international peace. The results were distressingly predictable.
Accepting the status quo is a betrayal of the American promise to build a better world. Simply responding to others’ malicious or competing agendas without offering compelling alternatives leaves little for other nations to get behind. It feeds the temptation to obsess about tactical solutions to possible threats while postponing the reckoning with bigger problems.
We need to think imaginatively.
Based on our decades of engagement in foreign affairs, we offer an updated “Fourteen Points” to open a conversation about how to shift away from outdated security paradigms and set new goalposts. We hope others will improve on these ideas, but here are ours:
- Unilateralism is the way of the past. The five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council should yield the veto power they have held since 1945. The way to a stable future is through cooperation on a basis of equality.
- Foreign military bases on foreign soil should be multi-nationalized or deactivated. Nuclear weapons should be eliminated.
- The oceans, atmosphere and outer space should be demilitarized zones devoted to commerce and science. No nation should patrol without authorization and unmanned aerial strikes must be banned.
- Military intervention in foreign nations’ internal problems must never occur except by order of the United Nations Security Council and in the rarest circumstances.
- Parties to armed civil conflict should be denied international arms sales.
- Non-violent activities conducted by consenting adults, such as the use of narcotics, should be decriminalized to deny international criminal rackets their income.
- The Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the United Nations in 2015 should be introduced for discussion in the domestic assemblies of all member governments in recognition of the fact that poverty triggers mass migration, chaos and suffering.
- Sustainable agricultural and industrial practices should be incentivized. Unsustainable agricultural and industrial practices should be penalized.
- Nations with intact forests should be reimbursed for maintaining the planet’s lungs. Corporations and countries should contribute according to their production of greenhouse gases.
- The United Nations should develop plans to relocate displaced peoples as sea levels rise.
- An international tribunal should be established to target and expose corrupt officials.
- Corporations should adhere to international standards of transparency. Offshore tax havens should be abolished. Anonymity in cyberspace should be considered an inherent threat and banned by national and international bodies.
- The development of artificial intelligence should be internationally monitored for adherence to ethical and legal standards.
- To stop global disinformation campaigns, profit-making social media corporations should be held to the same libel standards as other media.
Biden can propose a new agenda for the 21st century. High goals always seem impossible until achieved. Ask the women and men who founded a democratic republic, abolished slavery, invented the lightbulb and championed world unity.
Some might object that America is too compromised by its present failings to lead. We are hardly a paragon of virtue. Neither was Woodrow Wilson, as is well known. Flawed people make history.
Idealism is not the default of the weak. July 4 reminds us it is the most powerful tool of a nation founded on ideals and with the courage to realize them.
Douglas Brinkley, Ph.D., is a CNN presidential historian at Rice University.
Elizabeth Cobbs, Ph.D., a professor of U.S. foreign relations at Texas A&M.
Ambassador David Robinson a retired emissary to Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Venezuela, Bolivia and Guyana.