Taking the US to democracy

By Sunita Narain
Published: Saturday 15 June 2002

In matters of global affairs today, there is one question that is never directly asked. But it is on everybody's mind, if not on the tip of the tongue. People don't ask it simply because they don't have an answer. The question defies a solution in current times. So it is best to bury it, knowing fully well there is no progress without resolving it. The question, if you have not guessed by now, is just how the world will deal with the waywardness of the us? How will the world's most powerful nation -- both economically and militarily -- be made a more responsible member of the community of nations?

Why do I say this? The us government's rejection of the Kyoto Protocol - the legally binding multilateral instrument to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the industrialised North -- is just one example. But it is key as combating climate change is perhaps the largest enterprise humankind has ever embarked upon and it demands global cooperation. When the largest polluter turns renegade, by arguing, selfishly, that efforts to control global warming will impact on its economy, it shirks its responsibility to others who will suffer the disastrous consequences of its wilful disobedience.

Then, this month, the George Bush administration, took the unprecedented step to "unsign" the global treaty creating an international criminal court of justice -- set up to try individuals who commit heinous crimes against humanity, but evade prosecution in their own nations. The court's jurisdiction begins this July. The Bill Clinton administration had already signed the treaty. But now Bush says that the court could be misused to charge American soldiers with war crimes, forgetting the strong safeguards already in place. But how can the world's most powerful nation be subjected to global jurisprudence and scrutiny?

The renunciation has even wider consequences as it means that the us will now assert that it is not bound by the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, which requires nations to refrain from taking steps to undermine treaties they sign, even it they do not ratify the agreement. This virtually means rewriting the basis of global common law that has evolved over the past many years.

The us strategy on global negotiations is single-minded obsession for its own national, or corporate well-being. "The us way of life is non-negotiable," said George Bush senior when pushed on the issue of climate change. This remains the abiding basis of its foreign policy, with no exceptions. Its negotiation tactics are well established. First, the country will work extremely hard with huge contingents of experts and negotiators -- to craft global conventions, as they will. The threat will be implicit: do as we say or we will not sign. Then when the world has caved in more or less to deliver an agreement, weak for most but acceptable to the us, the country will flex its muscles and walk out of the agreement. The strategy then is to work towards total submission with a brand new agreement, rewritten by the us.

In the negotiations for the Law of the Seas agreement -- to manage another global common, the oceans -- the us refused, after it had participated actively in the negotiations, to concede to the final agreement. The convention was adopted, without the us, and came into force. The us then worked doggedly to "persuade" developing countries to reopen the negotiations and finally ten years later got a new agreement, which would "nullify the provisions in the original agreement that had not been universally accepted." "Universal" being the euphemism for the us. The agreement now makes sure that the us has control of the decision making process to exploit the seabed's mineral wealth.

The Kyoto Protocol is another such example. It is no secret that the protocol is an extremely pusillanimous agreement, riddled with loopholes, which have practically rendered the agreement ineffective, if not worthless. The us worked hard to get through each one of the agreement's fatal flaws. Then, when the final compromise -- the nail on the coffin -- was crafted, all to get the us to consent, the country walked out. Now it is working overtime to ensure that it can undermine the protocol and create conditions for the world to accept its formula that developing countries must also take on legally binding cuts in their greenhouse gas emissions.

But the problem is not merely about a recalcitrant bully nation. The problem is about global democracy and how it will function, or not, in this situation where the most powerful law-maker turns law-breaker. The world has moved towards a rule-based system of global governance, where nations agree to take on legally binding commitments based on lengthy discussions, consensus building and voting. But in this body of law, as with law-making in any civilised nation, the standard of justice depends on the equality of power to restrain the strong from doing what they have power to do, so that the weak don't have to accept what they have to accept. There can be no respect otherwise. Democracy is all about this. Surely the us should know.

The US dread-factor is the dampener on almost all global negotiations today, including the upcoming World Summit on Sustainable Development. Given the unipolarity in the world, its absolute power and the disinclination of the European Union to play a countervailing role, there is little that can change. But the answer will have to be found. An interesting proposal by a senior and respected Srilankan lawyer, M.C.W. Pinto is that in this situation we need to have a new system of weighted voting in which the nation's track records in global cooperation would be an integral component. In other words, we need a measure of the quality of judgement of nations to act in public interest.

Whatever the solution. The first step is that we at least ask the question. "So how do we bring democracy to the us?"

-- Sunita Narain

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