What Are We to Do about Our Leaders?

I’m grateful to my monthly meeting that since the beginning of the ’90s it has supported my ministry of religious service, which has included over 50 trips outside the United States to train grassroots leaders working nonviolently for a better world.

This summer I once again worked abroad, training young adults in the Balkans in democratic and nonviolent skills for moving their countries away from the recent era of bloodletting. Once again I’ve heard more than I care to about how U.S. foreign policy appears to thoughtful and concerned people abroad.

Since the beginning of my ministry, I’ve watched more and more friends of the United States become appalled by our nation’s behavior. The trend goes largely unreported by mass media in the United States, including the National Public Radio many of us Friends would wish to count on. Nowadays when I’m abroad I’m reminded of when I lived in Europe during the Vietnam War. It’s almost that bad.

For our friends (and Friends) abroad, there is this dilemma: what to do when someone we like and respect in various ways—for their vision, for their affection, for their can-do attitude, for their vitality, for their ability to show us a good time—gets drunk and turns mean and ugly?

And how to contend with a woozy friend who, when we try to communicate our concerns about their behavior, discounts our views and says it’s time to "choose sides"?

When I’m with a friend who’s had too much, I remember there’s a real person in there who has achievements and likable traits and times of compassion, but right now he’s behaving like a bully and is dangerous to himself and others. What shall I do?

This dilemma isn’t only for foreigners, of course. For United States citizens it’s a double-whammy: not only is our friend’s behavior dangerous, but he is in a special and legal sense our responsibility. (In daily life, I can be criminally charged if I knowingly let an intoxicated friend get back behind the wheel of his car!)

It’s my belief that the United States is drunk not with alcohol and drugs but with power and greed. It’s the empire thing.

No, No, Not Our Friend!

I can be held responsible if I knowingly let a drunken friend drive.

"Knowingly" gives me some wiggle room. After all, there are so many things to be said in favor of my friend; that’s why he’s my friend! And, in the practice of my ministry, I get to see visible reminders of the good side of my nation when it’s not under the influence. I sometimes work in cultures where, by contrast, there is not a tradition of neighbors organizing to build a civil society, where people don’t believe that things can ever get better, where many parents let their children run dangerous physical risks, where corruption is much more rife than in the United States. Even while I drink deep from the positives in their cultures, and feel privileged to discover inspiring ways to act in other countries, I also am reminded of ways that my culture is special and why I feel affection for it.

As a young man I had the chance to settle down and make a life in Norway, a country whose social order includes, compared with the United States per capita, much more democracy, much more economic justice, less militarism, better education, no poverty, almost no crime, better mass media, more resources put into social amenities and culture, almost no corruption, no slums, excellent health care for all, better environmental policies, free university education, more support for the global South and for the world community, more bookstores, and better coffee.

I made my choice: to live in the United States, my country, which I love like my friend.
And here’s my friend, behaving outrageously. For many years I was in denial, and argued that he wasn’t drunk, although he’d had a few stiff ones and the marijuana probably didn’t help. Then in graduate school the distinguished British historian Arnold Toynbee came to my aid. I’d already read his 11-volume study of civilizations, and sat at the edge of my seat in the crowded auditorium at University of Pennsylvania when he came to speak. Toynbee’s bottom line was: It’s time for you Americans to face the fact that you’ve organized a vast world empire, with the profits and militarism that go with it; you need to ask yourselves whether that’s really consistent with the revolutionary aspirations of your birth as a nation.

At about that time one of the greatest of the Washington foreign policy insiders, Sen. J. William Fulbright, blew the whistle by publishing his book The Arrogance of Power. I left denial behind. My dear country, many of whose ideals I cherish, is drunk with empire.

Now I see almost as clearly as my foreign friends that the arrogance of power paralyzes thought inside the Beltway. "Regime change" is as revealing a phrase for the disease of empire as "beauty pageant" is for the disease of sexism. "Of course" U.S. powerholders have the right to decide the kind of government other peoples should have (even when those peoples democratically elected their government); of course U.S. powerholders should re-write the rules of the world economy to benefit the rich even more; of course U.S. powerholders should refuse to join treaties and should oppose the process of creating a world community of law and environmental sanity.

You can tell someone’s drunk when they refuse to do something about a menace they and everyone else admit is starkly dangerous—global warming—and instead put their energy into making war on a nation—Iraq—when even most of the neighbors of that country refuse to join the crusade.

What do I do with my inebriated friend who refuses to protect his children from danger in order to head elsewhere and attack someone with whom he disagrees?

We are Friends

Not only are most of the readers of this essay U.S. citizens, we are also Friends. For us, addiction has a spiritual dimension. We may be called not only to confront our friend whose intoxication with power and greed has turned him into a dangerous bully, but also to show him there is a new freedom on the other side of addiction. In the process of shedding the addiction to empire ourselves, we experience the joy of making choices for life.

While the addict believes, "Economic growth depends on treating the environment as if there’s no tomorrow," Quakers have the freedom to support sustainability. While the addict believes, "Our only acceptable lifestyle depends on grabbing the lion’s share of world resources," Quakers may live simply so others can simply live. While the addict believes, "There’s no alternative to war in Afghanistan/Iraq/Colombia . . ." (for an empire the list is endless and war is endless), Quakers are free to envision nonviolent alternatives for dealing with threat.

Maybe best of all, Friends shedding empire experience a new freedom to remain centered amidst the turbulence of the empire’s decline and fall—and I believe that the U.S. empire is seriously moving into decline. For Friends who’ve been working for peace through good times and bad, the freedom might mean dropping the angry and righteous edge that sometimes creeps into our protests. The fact is, all empires do fall. Their falling invites quite a range of feelings (including sadness and compassion for those who suffer as well as for those who scramble to maintain privilege). Gandhi, who undermined a great empire in his day, may be our best model here. Not only did he rely on his inner life to sustain him, but he invented practical strategies to confront the empire and inspired people to practice patient organizing.

For Friends who haven’t been working for peace, the freedom might mean more confidence in our own thinking and less intellectual dependence on the pundits whose affiliation is clearly with the empire. The freedom might open new collaboration with the veteran peace-concerned Friends to work together to create innovative and practical strategies. The freedom might mean less anxiety (since empires run on fear) and more willingness to trust the Spirit that sustained Friends long before the U.S. empire was even a gleam in Teddy Roosevelt’s eye.

Let’s not let our leaders drive drunk. It’s a win/win possibility.

George Lakey

George Lakey is a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting who has authored six books on social change and taught at Haverford, Swarthmore, and University of Pennsylvania. He is director of Training for Change, http://www.trainingforchange.org. ©2002 George Lakey