Moral Leadership in Today's WorldSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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The cynics in our world often tell us that there is nothing we can do to combat poverty and destruction or to achieve lasting peace and development. They tell us that inequality and poverty are inevitable, that cancer will never be cured, that somehow evil will always get the better of good, so why fight it? Part of the tragedy is that these cynics paint themselves as realists, and then argue that anyone who is willing to fight for the underdog, to work for peace, to commit to ending human suffering, is really just a dreamer.
I was labeled a naïve utopian back in the 1980s for believing that the self-declared Marxist-Leninist government in Nicaragua would hold free elections, as they committed to doing when they signed my peace plan. Those who called themselves realists claimed that military victory was the only way to end the conflict in Central America. That time the realists were wrong. There is a first time for everything.
When we look to the future, we can only look with optimism. Francois Guizot once said that the world belongs to the optimists; pessimists are only spectators. However, being an optimist does not mean closing your eyes to the world's problems. As we dine here in this elegant setting, we must remind ourselves that 1.3 billion people live on less than one dollar per day. We should pause from time to time in our routine of reading the morning newspaper to remember that more than 850 million adults in the developing world are illiterate. In our moments of peaceful relaxation, let us not forget that insurgent and paramilitary groups continue to take up arms and batter their countries in turf wars that they attempt to disguise as ideological battles. Truly, my friends, when we take the time to ponder the ongoing deprivation of the poor and the acts of brutality that are committed on a daily basis, it is indeed very easy to become discouraged about the prospects for lasting peace and development in our world.
Unfortunately, human instinct seems to tell us to focus on the negative. Perhaps this is a result of our built-in instinct for survival; we must be aware of the dangers around us in order to defend ourselves from them. But for every source of danger that captures our attention, we miss a vision of beauty, an act of kindness, a moment of peaceful coexistence. Such pieces of life fade into the background, and the dark spots loom up, causing fear and pessimism. But those who have been able to change the world for the better are more likely to have been like the man of La Mancha, who charged every windmill he could find, and never lost sight of the beauty in the ordinary things of life.
In the wake of the events of September 11, the issue of national security has once again overshadowed the need to protect human security in the developing world. Work that seeks to alleviate poverty and promote peace and social justice has begun to be overlooked in the rush to build better defenses-and, make no mistake, better offenses-against the evils of terrorism. Today, when President Bush and members of his administration speak of aid to developing countries, they are most often talking about military training, tanks and fighter jets, and not hospital supplies, school books or technical cooperation for the development of life-sustaining agriculture.
I do not know whether this is due to the sinister influence of defense contractors within the US government, or simply to the zeal for military solutions that has always been a part of that country's response to perceived threats, and which has only grown stronger over the past six months. In either case, what I do know is that this faith in military means of ensuring security is misplaced. In 1905, George Bernard Shaw wrote these words, and they continue to be true to this day: "Security, the chief pretense of civilization, cannot exist where the worst of dangers, the danger of poverty, hangs over everyone's head." Though some traditional security measures are obviously needed, I believe that if the estimated 120 billion dollars it would take to create a missile defense system were instead invested in nutritional security, health security and employment security, they would go a lot further towards securing the lasting peace that we all long for.
My friends, I believe that we all have a vision for the world that motivates us to act in our varied capacities to achieve sustainability as we see it. My motivating vision of the world a hundred years from now is a planet Earth in which each government is democratically elected, is able to fulfill its people's basic needs, remains at peace with both its neighbors and its internal opposition and uses the tools of economics and science to the benefit of all its people. This, in brief, is my idea of sustainable development and my dream for the future. Though simply stated, these goals will require prolonged and complex efforts in order to be achieved.
I want to briefly share with you the story of my country. Costa Rica is the only Central American nation to rank in the "high human development" category, and this is a direct result of the fact that, having no army, we are free to invest a large amount of resources in health and education. Abolishing our army has given us a moral force that has become our best defense, and our experience inspires us to try to share this message with other developing countries. In 1994, we were able to convince the people and the legislators of Panama to constitutionally abolish the armed forces of that country, making the border between Costa Rica and Panama the safest in the world.
We have also been successful in Haiti, the poorest country in this hemisphere, where our work with President Aristide and the Haitian Senate led to the removal of 100 percent of the budget of the armed forces, amounting to a de facto abolition of the army. Although every country is certainly not ready to abolish its armed forces completely, we believe that reducing the size, budget and influence of the armed forces is a crucial step for every highly militarized poor country to take, because there is no better way to perpetuate poverty than spending on arms. When governments begin to emphasize human security over national security, they will find that the strength of their country only increases. It is not weapons, but full bellies and decent work that make fear and violence subside.
It has been said, my good friends, that when there is much to achieve, words must be short. These are weighty questions we are contemplating, and I will therefore end here, in order to leave room for your own minds and hearts to take up the immense tasks that lay before us.
Dr. Oscar Arias is the former president of Costa Rica and 1987 Nobel Prize Laureate. Dr. Arias focuses much of his work on issues of human security, human development and global governance. He is currently working on establishing a Framework Convention on International Arms Transfers. A graduate of the University of Costa Rica, he went on to receive his PhD at the University of Essex in England. On April 17, 2002, Dr. Arias spoke at the U-M Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy Citigroup Lecture. The following are his remarks at a faculty luncheon.