The victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks are depending on the “kindness of strangers” for food, blood and money donations.

The U.S. government, however, must now depend on the kindness of those it has actively snubbed during the past few years.

After the attacks, we received condolence messages from dozens of countries around the globe, countless donations from their citizens and memorial tributes both official and private. More importantly, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization invoked Article 5 of its charter, declaring the attacks on the U.S. to be an attack on the alliance; Pakistan sent envoys to negotiate with the Taliban; Saudi Arabia cut off ties with the Taliban; and Russia approved an unprecedented potential U.S. presence in a former Soviet republic to facilitate possible strikes against Afghanistan.

It could be argued that much of this is simply a basic human reaction of sympathy, and countries offering more extensive support are only trying to protect their own populace from future terrorist attacks. And to some extent, this must be true. But the fact is that all these nations are now coming to the assistance of the United States, even though the U.S. has consistently turned its back on some major international problems.

Take the recent United Nations effort to enforce the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. The U.S. walked out of seven years of negotiations on the pretext that the agreement might put our “national security and confidential business information at risk.” Never mind that every other country was willing to sacrifice in some way to bring about an accord for the common good.

That same month, July 2001, the United Nations held a conference to reduce illegal trafficking of small arms and light weapons. The planned measures, however, had to be weakened considerably after the U.S. threatened to leave the conference because the plans might interfere with Americans’ right to bear arms.

The March 2001 Kyoto Accords provided another opportunity for the U.S. to act like a solipsistic maverick, and we did not disappoint. Though 178 countries would eventually sign the climate-control agreement to cut greenhouse emissions, America cited conflicting business interests and claimed the treaty was too lenient on developing countries. And so we chose not to accept or follow the treaty at all.

We have consistently hindered international progress in recent years, from President Bush’s refusal to ask the Senate to ratify the International Criminal Court Treaty in January 2001 to the Senate’s rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in October 1999. The first treaty, supported by 138 other nations, would have established the world’s first permanent war-crimes tribunal; the test ban treaty would have prohibited nuclear weapon development. We rejected the 1997 Land Mine Ban Treaty, which 121 other countries signed, and we abstained from the 1992 Biological Diversity Treaty, which sought to protect threatened species and share biotechnological advances among other countries.

And this does not include our plans to build a missile-defense shield, an idea loathe to almost the entirety of Europe, and that jeopardizes our already-precarious relations with China and Russia.

Why, then, should the rest of the world be a good neighbor to us when we have so often failed to be a good neighbor to them?

Many of these accords, and several others, sought to address dire international problems that have caused (and continue to cause) the suffering of millions of people in dozens of countries across the world. But as long as our country was relatively peaceful, as long as our own economy was good and our standard of living was reasonably high, we saw no reason to compromise our own well-being for causes we hadn’t chosen or weren’t in our immediate best interests.

But suddenly, on Sept. 11, 2001, our complacent sense of security was pierced as thousands of our own citizens died in a dramatic conflagration that left us, for once, feeling vulnerable, scared, confused – and in need of support from the rest of the world.

And so, while we frequently have resisted helping other nations solve their problems on their own terms, we felt immediately comfortable demanding the help of other nations with ours.

“This is the world’s fight,” said President Bush in his Sept. 20 address. “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

This anti-terrorist agenda is certainly a positive and important policy, and an international effort in this cause would be welcome. But the U.S. attitude remains the same: We lead, you follow. We decide which cause is right, we choose how to achieve it, and if other countries don’t agree with us, that’s too bad.

And now that we are the ones in need of help, we suddenly saw it fit to pay $582 million of the $862 million we owe in United Nations dues, more than a decade overdue. Without a doubt, that money would have helped the U.N. considerably over the years in assisting other nations with their equally grave problems.

Make no mistake, the Sept. 11 terrorism against the United States was an unspeakable catastrophe and deserves to be taken seriously by the world at large as well as by our own country. But we should not forget the millions of people around the world who do not die dramatic, televised deaths in the biggest city of the richest nation in the world, but whose deaths are equally senseless and more or less preventable.

For instance, 2.4 million people died last year in Africa from AIDS; 24,000 people around the world die of hunger every day; one person is killed every 15 minutes from a land mine. Their lives are not worth any less than American lives, and they demand equal attention from the world. If the U.S. asks for the assistance of other nations with our own problems, we must be just as ready to help other countries with theirs.

It is certainly about time.

Rebecca Regan-Sachs is a freshman in the School of Foreign Service.

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