By Helena Cobban
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. - What has happened to Americans? Why have we allowed our government to act with such reckless disregard for the survival of the global system that for the past 61 years has successfully prevented the outbreak of worldwide war while it has also allowed numerous nations - including the United States - to prosper?
Back in 1945, in the last days of World War II, President Harry Truman invited his allies to a conference in San Francisco where they established the United Nations. The very first words in the UN's Charter were, "We, the peoples of the United Nations, determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind...."
In recent years, have we forgotten the wisdom of those words? Have we forgotten about the visionary way in which Mr. Truman and his cabinet members - men who had lived through two World Wars, as well as the dire economic depression between them - set about rebuilding the world?
In 1945, US power stood astride the world. That was not just the power of US armies, though that was huge. It was also the power of a humming American economy and much-admired US ideals. Europe and Asia were in tatters in 1945, their great nations pulverized and spent by the battles that had raged across them. Truman and his colleagues could have designed just about any "world order" that they pleased. The one they chose was marked by considerable American self-restraint. They established a rules-based global order that was also linked - as it had to be then, to be effective at all - to US leadership, quietly asserted.
The global system that Truman established in 1945 has brought many benefits to Americans. It also allowed Japan and the war-ravaged nations of Europe to get back on their feet. And in more recent years, it has allowed China and India to rise - peacefully - to the status of major global powers.
But along the way, many Americans, politicians and citizens alike, forgot important portions of the "lessons of 1945." They forgot that warfare - even when waged for a goal as laudable as bringing an end to Nazism and Japanese militarist expansion - is always a harmful scourge. They came to think that wars could be fought and won easily - that some combination of "precision" weaponry, high-tech battle-management, and planning for humani- tarian crises could make wars less damaging to civilians, more rapidly win- nable, and therefore easily justifiable.
Many Americans forgot important things about the UN, too. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, American military power once again stood unchallenged astride most of the world. But this time - under President Bill Clinton and now even more so under President Bush - the strategic self-restraint and basic wisdom that marked Truman's approach to world affairs were missing. Sometime in 2002, Mr. Bush decided he was prepared to overthrow Iraq's Saddam Hussein by force - and that he would do so even if he failed to win the UN Security Council's backing. While he was thumbing his nose at the UN this way, Bush was also actively opposing other key international agreements such as the Kyoto Agreement on the environment and the Rome Treaty on the International Criminal Court.
We should remember that after Sept. 11, 2001, people and governments around the world expressed unprecedented solidarity with America in its time of woe. Sadly, Bush squandered all that goodwill - particularly when he proceeded with the invasion of Iraq and then showed that his administration had no idea how to administer or rebuild that country. Far from being an action that caused little damage to civilians and was rapidly winnable, the invasion turned out to be - as many of us had predicted - a tragic quagmire that has brought great suffering to Americans and especially to Iraqis.
Now, it is time to rethink the degree of support that so many Americans have given to the idea that fighting wars can ever resolve our nation's (or anyone's) problems. And it is time, too, to seek a government in Washington that will recommit to the idea of a rules-based international order - an order in which the same set of rules applies to all, no exceptions.
Iraq remains a damaging quagmire. If the US military is ever to disengage from there without a regionwide conflagration erupting as they leave, Washington will need the help of the UN. If the present tensions between the US and Iran are to be contained and (hopefully) ramped down, the two sides will also need the help of the UN.
So let's return to the spirit of 1945. We know now, in 2006, that war is a damaging scourge - even when launched with excellent intentions. Let's use the UN for deescalation and farsighted problem-solving, rather than trying to use it to build a coalition for another unwinnable war. Nonviolent resolution of conflicts was, after all, the main thing the UN's founders intended it to do. They knew well that war is a "scourge."
• Helena Cobban is writing a book on violence and its legacies.