America: The UN's Fair-Weather Friend

"The United States helped found the United Nations. We want the United Nations to be effective and respectful and successful. We want the resolutions of the world's most important multilateral body to be enforced." So intoned President Bush, speaking to the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York on September 12, urging that body to enforce resolutions it has passed concerning Iraq and, by extension, to support his administration's determination to drive Saddam Hussein from power, by force if necessary.

It would have been refreshing if a similar attitude had been evident on the part of the administration at the just-concluded UN World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa. There, it was painfully clear that the US wants the UN to remain as toothless and ineffective as possible, to stay out of the way, insisting that free markets can save the environment and eradicate poverty (coincidentally enriching businesses) with as little government -- read UN -- involvement as possible. It's a solution one advocate branded, "Enron Environmentalism."

In other words, the US supports the UN when it comes to war making and would rather it didn't exist when it comes to nearly everything else. Thirty years ago in Stockholm, at the UN's first major environmental conference, and again ten years ago in Rio de Janiero, delegates and observers were full of enthusiasm and hope. Hopes were high that through international commitment, pollution could be vanquished, the loss of species could be stemmed, and the poorest people could be provided with clean water and the other basic necessities of life.

In Johannesburg, the attitude was altogether different. Rather than review and build on the promises of Stockholm and Rio as was the advertised purpose of the summit, most delegates and observers fought simply to hold the ground gained previously in international agreements. Meanwhile the US twisted arms and made threats that successfully weakened existing policies and diminished the influence of the UN in favor of the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and other instruments of unfettered capitalism, endangering many domestic environmental laws in the process. It was a grim sight to behold.

I attended the Johannesburg summit and served as editor of a daily newsletter published by and for an international coalition of environment and development organizations. The official results of the meetings were depressingly trivial, thanks largely to the efforts of the American delegation and a floating and ever-changing group of allies depending on the topic at hand. What was encouraging, even inspiring, was the passion, drive, and commitment of the thousands of observers who came from all over the world. It was clear to me that, while it is vital and necessary to try to strengthen the UN as the only even quasi-democratic of the international institutions, real progress on these epochal matters will come only through the efforts of ordinary citizens and their organizations. The people in the United States in particular must find a way to change the international behavior of our national government.

Many have asked why some people across the globe hate the US so passionately. In Johannesburg, I began to see one answer. The US can be astonishingly arrogant, self-centered, and selfish. With less than 5 percent of the world's population, the USA consumes 25 percent of the world's resources, emits one-quarter of the world's greenhouse gases, and talks out of all sides of its mouth about the need for international cooperation.

In his five-minute address to the summit, Mr. Bush's unfortunate surrogate, Secretary of State Colin Powell, said, "Our well-being depends on the well-being of the rest of the world." True enough. But this speech was greeted with cat-calls from the gallery, since it is so blatantly at odds with the way our government and our financial institutions behave. Americans citizens, many of whom had seen years of work to build international environmental commitments shot down by their own government, led the heckling that day.

This seems appropriate somehow, because only the American people can pull America back into the world. Our government and its corporate allies will not do it for us.

Tom Turner is author of Justice on Earth (Chelsea Green, 2002), stories of citizen groups who have prevailed over government agencies and private corporations in environmental disputes.


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