For many years, the United States has occupied a vital but uncomfortable place in the world. We are the dominant global power, yet we are jealous of our independence. We have been devoted both to protecting our national interest and advancing the cause of human rights, yet our understanding of what our national interest actually entails has often been poorly defined and our commitment to our humanitarian mission sporadic and half-hearted.

As a result, we now face a world in which both our national interest and the cause of global human rights are in disrepair. To take just a few examples:

Afghanistan, as we all know, is controlled by a fanatical, radical fundamentalist faction called the Taliban, which shelters anti-American terrorists, assaults international aid workers and essentially enslaves its female population. The country is also largely a bombed-out wasteland and is torn apart by violence between rebels in the north, who have U.S. support, and the Taliban, who we supported when they were fighting the Soviets in the 1980s.

Pakistan, beset by poverty and corruption, is engaged in a dangerous staring match with India over who should control Kashmir. As both countries have nuclear capabilities, violent confrontation could have catastrophic consequences for the entire region. Such confrontation wouldn’t affect the United States directly, but it could turn the entire Indian subcontinent into a nuclear wasteland.

Since gaining its independence, Pakistan’s democratic governments have repeatedly been toppled by military coups, most recently in 1999. The United States is currently depending on Pakistan to support us in our fight against terrorism. But the current military regime is itself vulnerable, and there are reports of radical Islamic fundamentalists, who sympathize with the Taliban, infiltrating the officer corps of the military.

Given the current regime’s inability to improve Pakistan’s economic conditions or end widespread corruption, the danger of the country suffering another coup and falling into far more dangerous hands is a real possibility.

Meanwhile, many regions of Africa remain ravaged by a horrific combination of starvation and AIDS; the death-toll dwarfs our own recent, horrific suffering. The Balkans continue to seethe with resentments and even those nations that have been spared civil war and ethnic cleansing resemble war zones.

Albania, for instance, lacks a state that is able to sustain the rule of law or control crime, which runs rampant. A large part of a whole generation of teenage Albanian girls have been kidnapped, drugged, gang-raped and sold into sex-slavery throughout Europe, while the government has stood by ineffectually and family members of victims have been cowed into silence by grisly violence.

Russia remains locked in a brutal war with rebels in Chechnya. The mob wields power over the economy and society, and xenophobia is a rising force.

All of these countries suffer from poverty and a lack of infrastructure and education. All have governments that are weak, corrupt or authoritarian. And thus they are unable or unwilling to support democracy or protect human rights. None of these problems will be fixed by military or diplomatic pressure on the part of the U.S. They can only be helped by economic aid and political support and advice.

The world needs a new Marshall plan, and we have a duty and a necessity to give them one. Many of the people in the countries that need our help don’t like us much, and many feel sympathy for the terrorists who have murdered thousands of Americans. But when we rebuilt Germany in the 1940s and ’50s, we were hardly helping people who had been friendly to us. Sometimes it is necessary to conquer our own hatred, however well-founded, to undermine the hatred of others.

We now know that unstable or fanatical governments and disintegrating societies threaten our national interest. Extremes of human suffering constitute a moral shame today; they may constitute a military danger tomorrow. In either case, inaction is no longer a valid option. If we allow thugs and terrorists to prosper, we will not be able to survive. If we let millions of innocent people suffer and die, we won’t deserve to.

Joshua Cherniss is a senior in Saybrook College.