The Bush administration has declared war on the world.
The 450 changes that Washington is demanding to the action agenda that will culminate at the September 2005 United Nations summit don’t represent U.N. reform. They are a clear onslaught against any move that could strengthen the United Nations or international law.
The upcoming summit was supposed to focus on strengthening and reforming the U.N. and address issues of aid and development, with a particular emphasis on implementing the U.N.’s five-year-old Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Most assumed this would be a forum for dialogue and debate, involving civil society activists from around the world challenging governments from the impoverished South and the wealthy North and the United Nations to create a viable global campaign against poverty and for internationalism.
But now, there’s a different and even greater challenge. This is a declaration of U.S. unilateralism, uncompromising and ascendant. The United States has issued an open threat to the 190 other U.N. member states, the social movements and peoples of the entire world, and the United Nations itself. And it will take a quick and unofficially collaborative effort between all three of those elements to challenge the Bush administration juggernaut.
The General Assembly’s package of proposed reforms, emerging after nine months of negotiations ahead of the summit, begins with new commitments to implement the Millennium Development Goals—established in 2000 as a set of international commitments aimed at reducing poverty by 2015. They were always insufficient, yet as weak as they are, they have yet to be implemented. The 2005 Millennium Plus Five summit intended to shore up the unmet commitments to those goals. In his reform proposals of March 2005, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan called on governments north and south to see the implementation of the MDGs as a minimum requirement. Without at least that minimal level of poverty alleviation, he said, conflicts within and between states could spiral so far out of control that even a strengthened and reformed United Nations of the future would not be able to control the threats to international peace and security.
When John Bolton, Bush’s hotly contested but newly appointed ambassador to the United Nations announced the U.S. proposed response, it was easy to assume this was just John Bolton running amok. After all, Bolton, a longtime U.N.-basher, has said: “There is no United Nations.” He has written in The Wall Street Journal that the United States has no legal obligation to abide by international treaties, even when they are signed and ratified. So it was no surprise when Bolton showed up three weeks before the summit, demanding a package of 450 changes in the document that had been painstakingly negotiated for almost a year.
But, in fact, this isn’t about Bolton. This Bush administration’s position was vetted and approved in what the U.S. Mission to the U.N. bragged was a “thorough interagency process”—meaning the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon and many more agencies all signed off. This is a clear statement of official U.S. policy—not the wish- ist of some marginalized extremist faction of neocon ideologues who will soon be reined in by the realists in charge. This time the extremist faction is in charge.
The U.S. proposal package is designed to force the world to accept as its own the U.S. strategy of abandoning impoverished nations and peoples, rejecting international law, privileging ruthless market forces over any attempted regulation, sidelining the role of international institutions except for the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO, and weakening, perhaps fatally, the United Nations itself.
It begins by systematically deleting every one of the 35 specific references to the Millennium Development Goals. Every reference to concrete obligations for implementation of commitments is deleted. Setting a target figure of just 0.7 percent of GNP for wealthy countries to spend on aid? Deleted. Increasing aid for agriculture and trade opportunities in poor countries? Deleted. Helping the poorest countries, especially those in Africa, to deal with the impact of climate change? Deleted.
The proposal puts at great risk treaties to which the United States is already a party, including the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The U.N. Summit draft referred to the NPT’s “three pillars: disarmament, non-proliferation and the peaceful use of nuclear energy.” That means that states without nukes would agree never to build or obtain them, but in return they would be guaranteed the right to produce nuclear energy for peaceful use. In return recognized nuclear weapons states—the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia—would commit, in Article VI of the NPT, to move toward “nuclear disarmament with the objective of eliminating all such weapons.” The proposed U.S. changes deleted all references to the three pillars and to Article VI.
The U.S. deleted the statement that: “The use of force should be considered as an instrument of last resort.” That’s also not surprising given the Bush administration’s “invade first, choose your justifications later” mode of crisis resolution.
Throughout the document, the United States demands changes that redefine and narrow what should be universal and binding rights and obligations. In the clearest reference to Iraq and Palestine, Washington narrowed the definition of the “right of self-determination of peoples” to eliminate those who “remain under colonial domination and foreign occupation.”
Much of the U.S. effort aims to undermine the power of the U.N. in favor of absolute national sovereignty. On migration, for instance, the original language focused on enhancing international cooperation, linking migrant worker issues and development, and the human rights of migrants. The U.S. wants to scrap it all, replacing it with “the sovereign right of states to formulate and enforce national migration policies,” with international cooperation only to facilitate national laws. Human rights were deleted altogether.
In the document’s section on strengthening the United Nations, the U.S. deleted all mention of enhancing the U.N.’s authority, focusing instead only on U.N. efficiency. Regarding the General Assembly the most democratic organ of the U.N. system—the United States deleted references to the Assembly’s centrality, its role in codifying international law, and, ultimately its authority, relegating it to a toothless talking shop. It even deleted reference to the Assembly’s role in Washington’s own pet project—management oversight of the U.N. secretariat—leaving the U.S.-dominated and undemocratic Security Council, along with the U.S. itself (in the person of a State Department official recently appointed head of management in Kofi Annan’s office) to play watchdog.
The Bush administration has given the United Nations what it believes to be a stark choice: adopt the U.S. changes and acquiesce to becoming an adjunct of Washington and a tool of empire, or reject the changes and be consigned to insignificance.
But the United Nations could choose a third option. It should not be forgotten that the U.N. itself has some practice in dealing with U.S. threats. President George W. Bush gave the U.N. these same two choices once before—in September 2002, when he threatened the global body with “irrelevance” if the U.N. did not embrace his call for war in Iraq. On that occasion, the United Nations made the third choice—the choice to grow a backbone, to reclaim its charter, and to join with people and governments around the world who were mobilized to say no to war. It was the beginning of eight months of triumph, in which governments and peoples and the U.N. stood together to defy the U.S. drive toward war and empire, and in doing so created what The New York Times called “the second super-power.”
This time, as before, the United States has threatened and declared war on the United Nations and the world. As before, it’s time for that three-part superpower to rise again, to defend the U.N., and to say no to empire.
Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, is the author of the forthcoming Challenging Empire: How People, Governments, and the U.N. Defy U.S. Power (Interlink Publishing, Northampton MA, October 2005)