Herb Rothschild Jr.: Is humility ever an option?

At the Veterans Day ceremony in Ashland, when Rogue Valley Veterans for Peace joined Ashland Culture of Peace Commission in honoring returned Peace Corps volunteers for their service to our nation, Barbara Settles, chairwoman of the Rogue Valley Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, made an important distinction between “helping” and “serving.” She said that helping means doing things for other people that you think they need, whereas serving means listening to other people speak about their needs and then working together to meet them. I would add that helping, as Settles defined it, often is an exercise in arrogance, whereas serving requires humility.

Beginning in the last century, our government has injected itself into the affairs of almost every other nation, sometimes with self-serving motives, sometimes with a genuine desire to be helpful, and usually with a mix of the two. But whatever the motive, it has rarely been in a spirit of humility, meaning a willingness to understand the hopes that peoples elsewhere have for themselves and their perception of the obstacles they must overcome to realize those hopes.

Humility is difficult, and it’s especially difficult for those used to wielding power. Because I’ve been involved for so long in the struggle to lift from humankind the threat of nuclear annihilation, I take as my example a recent action by six U.S. senators — all of whom I respect and one of whom I consider a friend — in regard to our diplomacy with North Korea.

On Sept. 12, Tammy Baldwin, Sherrod Brown, Kirsten Gillibrand, Jeff Merkley, Bernie Sanders and Ron Wyden sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In it they pressed for a concrete and verifiable agreement on North Korean de-nuclearization, expressed impatience with the vagueness of the promise Kim Jong-Un gave to President Trump at their Singapore meeting, and urged Pompeo to insist that all nations enforce sanctions until North Korea comes to heel, arguing that the sanctions helped drive Kim to the negotiating table.

Peace groups were alarmed by the hard-line tone and content of that letter, especially because it came from senators who have been our allies in the work of peace. On Sept. 25, they sent a letter to the signers pointing out that de-nuclearization was only one of the issues discussed in Singapore, that the actions of South Korean President Moon Jae-In were the main catalyst for negotiations, and that a call for maximum pressure on Kim was likely to be counter-productive. The letter ended in a request for dialogue on these matters, perhaps via a conference call with appropriate staff in the senators’ offices.

That conference call took place Oct. 25. Along with three other nuclear disarmament activists from Oregon, I was on it. I learned most from Hyun Lee, a Philadelphia-based member of Women Cross DMZ. She said that a year ago the current progress in relations between the two Koreas didn’t seem possible. De-nuclearization is not South Korea’s main focus, but rather a formal end to the Korean War and bridging the divisions between two nations that were created by Cold War politics after World War II.

Our primary plea to the senators was to step back and let Koreans take the lead in ending antagonism on the peninsula. There was some indication that the staffers absorbed that message. Nevertheless, such humility is a hard sell to even the best of our leaders. It’s not easy to let go the belief that America is the indispensable nation.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Daily Tidings every Saturday.

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