May 7, 2001 by

When the U.N. snubs the U.S.

Last week, the United States was voted off the 53-member United Nations Commission on Human Rights. We had served on the commission for its entire 54-year history. Although Secretary of State Colin Powell claims to have had "43 solid written assurances" of support, the U.S. ended by getting just 29 votes of 53, less than three other nations in the "Western" bloc, France, Austria and Sweden.

This appears to have been a combination of those countries that objected to the United States because it was too concerned about human rights, and those that objected to it because it wasn't concerned enough. China and Cuba and other human-rights violators joined hands with other nations to send a message to the "hyper-power," the United States. Now Sudan, carrying out slavery and genocide, is on the commission, while the United States is not.

China, in particular, was quite happy with the departure of the United States, which was often the sole sponsor of resolutions critical of its human-rights performance. China, with the support of most developing nations, was usually able to block those votes. Nonetheless, they had the effect of focusing world attention on China's dismal performance.

In 1997, in apparent return for getting most of our allies not to co-sponsor a critical U.S. resolution, China signed the United Nations Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In 1998, in return for the United States dropping such a resolution, the Chinese signed the U.N. Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Cynics might suggest that the "mistake" which cost us the commission seat was suspiciously well-timed. The Bushies have never been interested in "human rights," which conflicts with their "realist" view of the world. And a story of "U.N. betrayal" by our so-called allies fits right in with the conservative agenda of pushing unilateralist approaches to foreign policy at the expense of our "squishy allies."

The political problem of this administration is that the Anglo-Saxon Right has no particular electoral equivalent in the rest of the world, and the North American Right has a large Protestant fundamentalist component that marks it as unique even among Anglo-Saxon nations.

Many of the attitudes in the U.S. Republican Party can't be found elsewhere -- even Margaret Thatcher, for example, is against the death penalty. So when a domestically oriented administration of the right, such as this one, comes to power, the culture conflict between the United States and its allies is bound to be wide and deep.

The Bushies have made this problem worse by sheer incompetence. Despite their alleged reputation as good managers, they have reversed themselves on statements by Powell on South Korea, Rumsfeld on China, the president himself on Taiwan. They have acted unilaterally without even reference to the interests of other heads of state, in such matters as interring the rotting corpse of the Kyoto Agreement without even informing other nations affected by this abrupt burial.

While Clinton's alleged "blunders" in his first few months involved such crucial questions as gay rights and the White House travel office, which received endless press coverage, the gaffes of the Bush administration have been more serious, and, naturally, less covered.

On matters ranging from Taiwan and North Korea to Iraq, Kyoto, missile defense and even the death penalty, the United States appears to its allies not only as the arrogant superpower, but the bumbling superpower. Conservative Republicans protest that many of the same opinions were expressed of the Reagan administration, and that the allies went along in the end.

But the Reagan administration was the leader of one side in a bipolar world. That's no longer the case.

While conservative Republicans may be claiming, "we're not unilateralists," their very attitudes on diplomacy show that is just what they are. That's an opinion shared by almost all the opinion-makers in every country in the world except Mexico and Israel. And polls show that most of the European public agrees with their leaders about the new leadership of the United States. The fact that it is shared doesn't mean that it's right, but it does mean that President Bush has already created an unfavorable environment for himself in foreign policy.

No matter how strong a country may be, one does need some friends outside. We have a president who has never been in London, Paris or Berlin, and it shows.

The vote on the Human Rights Commission isn't important by itself -- but it is a message.



Archives / Trinicenter Home