Why the US is such a bully

US attempts to kill of global democracy are getting more commonplace than ever. In such a political climate, it is impossible to talk about global rights to common property resources, equity and social justice

Published: Wednesday 30 April 2003

Why the US is such a bully

-- In the on-going war the us administration -- and media -- is completely unfazed about dangling us $6 billion (they say in grants) in front of the Turkish parliament in exchange for use of its territory to open another front, a strategy it also followed with Pakistan during its hunt for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. Environmentalists know better. The us is actually following a norm. 'Buying' country positions (or is it 'silencing' them with dollars/threats?) in global negotiations is a strategy the us has pristinely perfected.

Retribution is swift, even for rich countries that oppose the superpower. Amidst criticism from sections of the Western media for turning the us against the un, the eu and nato, among others, France expects repercussions for opposing the superpower on the Iraq issue. Guillaume Parmentier, director of the Centre on the United States in the French Institute of International Relations, is certain that France will have to pay politically even if the World Trade Organisation (wto) succeeds in protecting the country from economic sanctions. "Among other things, future French initiatives could be read as having ulterior motives and hidden hostile designs" warns Parmentier.

For 10 years now the us has been trying to bury multilateralism while presenting itself as its champion. The Iraq war is nothing but another instance of such necrophilia.
Unilateralism In the existing political climate, it is impossible to talk about global rights to common property resources or equity or social justice. The genuine claims of developing countries -- addressing urgent problems like poverty or the creation and sustenance of global democratic institutions -- are simply not on the global agenda. In negotiations on global warming, for instance, even non-governmental actors from the us don't wish to discuss the issue of rights to a global commons such as the atmosphere. When the us was still part of the Kyoto Protocol process, they were afraid their country would find such talk unacceptable and disengage from negotiations.

Then the us walked out of the Kyoto negotiations in early 2002, a few months after Bush became President. This move could benefit us industry in the short term but at great cost to poorer countries. To add insult to injury, affixing liability -- making the polluter pay -- has become another unmentionable. With the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases ducking out, the chances of dealing effectively with climate change are reduced considerably. Now, vulnerable countries (such as the group called the least developed countries; or Africa) are sure to pay a heftier bill for unmitigated climate change,exacerbating their poverty.

The same absurdity marks global trade talks. The us -- land of free trade -- demands a complete surrender to market liberalisation at every global forum, yet continues to erect barriers that make it impossible for developing countries to compete in sectors such as agriculture and textiles (where their potential is great). It is poor farmers in developing countries who will eventually meet the cost of the massive subsidies Bush announced in the 2002 us Farm Bill. The United Nations Development Programme (undp) estimates that us farm subsidies alone cost poor countries about us $50 billion in a year in lost agricultural exports. (us $50 billion is also the total amount of overseas development aid that all rich countries together provide developing countries annually!)

To generate foreign exchange, the poorest countries rely mostly on the export of primary commodities, which are natural resource-based. High import duties on processed goods in industrialised countries keep developing countries out of the more lucrative market for processed goods. However, because global trade policies do not factor in social and environmental costs, the poor and their environment in developing countries end up bearing the ecological cost of consumption in rich countries.

Attempts by developing countries to factor in this reality into global trade and environment policies have not gone anywhere. In the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, for instance, developing countries have essentially contended that desertification cannot be sidelined as a local problem. Global factors are equally, if not more, crucial. With (globally controlled) primary commodity prices falling, poor farmers in these countries have had to over-exploit their land just to eke out a living. In trying to earn more by growing more, soil quality gets badly affected, leading to large-scale desertification. A 1999 study by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (fao) and the United Nations Environment Programme (unep) estimated that South Asia alone was losing us $10 billion annually because of losses from land degradation. This is equivalent to 2 per cent of the region's gdp or 7 per cent of the region's agricultural output.

Poor communities in developing countries are also robbed of the opportunity to benefit from biotic wealth (a crude estimate of the global annual market for products derived from genetic resources lies between us $500 billion and us $800 billion; compare this to the annual global sales of petrochemicals: us $500 billion). The Convention on Biological Diversity (cbd) recognises the rights of local communities to their biological diversity. It calls on biotech, pharmaceutical and agricultural companies to compensate communities through 'benefit-sharing' agreements for use of this biodiversity as well as the knowledge of its use. If cbd provisions are followed, local communities should get at least a share of these profits when their knowledge is used to develop a drug or crop variety. But this does not happen primarily because the us - home to a majority of the corporations using genetic resources from the developing world - has not ratified cbd. In renegade fashion, the us upholds the wto's Agreement on Trade-related Intellectual Property Rights (trips) which only recognises the rights of corporations and not communities. Any attempts to address the anomaly between cbd and trips have been successfully sabotaged by the us and its allies.

In a sane world, global efforts would correct such practices and policies. In a world where even basic realities are taboo and ad hocism is the way to avoid facing up to these realities, distrust and bitterness exacerbate global insecurity.

Can the world...?
Can the world deal with this rogue superpower? Not likely, suggests a recent article in the Foreign Affairs journal by Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth of the department of government, Dartmouth College, usa. American supremacy today is unparalleled in history. The us spends as much on military research and development as the next six powers combined. (It spends more on military r&d than Germany or the uk on their total defence budget!) The us economy is twice as large as its closest rival Japan. (California's economy alone is the fifth largest in the world, ahead of France and just behind the uk). It is also the world's leading technological power. us expenditures on r&d in the 1990s equalled those of the next 7 richest countries combined. "The us has no rival in any critical dimensions of power" say Brooks and Wohlforth. "The recent tendency to equate unipolarity with the ability to achieve desired outcomes single-handedly on all issues only reinforces this point; in no previous international system would it have occurred to anyone to apply such a yardstick."

Historically, every time such a bully emerges other powerful nations gang up to plot its downfall. That won't happen with the us, Brooks and Wohlforth believe. Bounded by oceans to the east and west and with friendly powers on the north and south, it is less vulnerable than previous hegemons. It will also buck the historical trend because the main potential challengers to its unipolarity - China, Russia, Japan and Germany - cannot augment their military capabilities without becoming an immediate threat to their neighbours.

The eu has often been seen as a counter to the us. The likelihood seems remote.Just as in the Iraq issue, Tony Blair believes that he can get us multilateralism in return for staunchly backing Bush, so also in most environmental negotiations the uk has tended to follow the us line of thinking, while France has conventionally opposed it. According to Chris Patten, eu external affairs commissioner, Europe will only matter as a counter to the us if France and Britain work together.

Perhaps the key reason why none of the major powers today (including the eu) will form a coalition against the us, whether in the context of Bush's preventive strategy or global trade, development and environmental negotiations, is that they have been closely allied with the us for decades and have derived substantial benefits. They fear that they will have to forego those benefits if they take on the us even though chances are equally high that they may eventually benefit from independent policies.

Moreover, the us' extreme positions make the rest of the developed world look respectable in comparison. The eu has often hidden behind us recalcitrance in global negotiations, suggesting comparatively progressive solutions but backing down at the last minute. The eu came to the Kyoto climate conference, for instance, and suggested a 7.5 per cent cut in industrialised country emissions by 2005 compared to 1990 levels and a 15 per cent cut by 2010. This figure wasn't very ambitious when compared to the urgency of dealing with climate change. But compared to the us position of no legally binding cuts until developing countries participated 'meaningfully', it looked positively progressive.

A notable exception was the sixth climate conference in The Hague in 2000 when the eu for the first time resisted us attempts to further dilute the Kyoto Protocol. Not surprisingly France held eu presidency and came under severe criticism, particularly from the uk for upsetting the us. The us of course did a good job themselves of blaming the French for the collapse of the conference to take away attention from their attempts at weakening a multilateral accord. The head of the us delegation blamed "a crisis of governance within the eu" and "positions shaped more by political purity than by practicality, more by dogmatism than by pragmatism".

Eight months later, when the conference was continued in Bonn, Bush had announced his decision not to participate. Reacting to the arrogance of this announcement, the eu and the rest of the world tentatively thumbed their noses at the us by announcing an intention to keep the protocol alive with or without the biggest polluter on board. It still remains to be seen if the protocol will eventually get the necessary ratifications required to come into effect.

An awkward situation
Brooks and Wohlforth could be wrong in concluding that no global challenge to the us is likely to emerge in the near future. In the end, the importance of military might may prove to be hugely overestimated. After all despite its missile-toting, the us failed to get bin Laden, which is why it had to go looking for a more conventional enemy with an established army to satisfy its desire for revenge. It could also be that the uk will cease to kowtow to the us and instead see the benefit in building a new relationship with and strengthening the eu. This is likely particularly if the present war goes seriously wrong.

Until this happens, there will be little support for major changes in status quo or for global institutions to democratise global decision-making. Developing countries (and increasingly a section of global civil society) find themselves in an awkward situation where they are not happy with the existing infrastructure for multilateral decision-making but are forced to defend it because the alternative could be much worse. For instance, while the un may not be the equivalent of a global parliament by a long chalk, developing countries cling on to it as their last hope. They are not very happy with the wto, often accused of being subservient to us interests, but realise that the alternative (no wto and bilateral trade agreements) could be much worse. They do not particularly like the Kyoto Protocol but have learnt to live with it.

Today the future of the existing, weakened un is threatened. For the time being, it has been relegated to a reconstruction agency - worse, a figurehead on a us-led committee on reconstruction in Iraq. In the days before the war started, before the resolution was eventually withdrawn from the un, Bush had issued a warning: "The un must mean something. Remember Rwanda. Or Kosovo. The un didn't do its job. We hope tomorrow the un will do its job. If not, all of us will have to step back and try to figure out how to make the un work better." ....

The us has been actively stifling the un over the last year, even if not outrightly confronting it. At the World Summit on Sustainable Development (wssd) in September 2002 and at the climate change conference that followed in New Delhi in October the same year, the us was blatant in its effort to draw out countries from the un process and to form "coalitions of the willing" instead. At the wssd Paula Dobriansky, head of the us delegation, accused governments of focusing too much on text. "These words can't save the Earth", she told a press conference. Instead, she called on governments to focus on voluntary partnerships between governments, regional groups, local authorities, non-governmental actors, international institutions or private sector actors. In the climate negotiations, the us chief negotiator disparaged the Kyoto Protocol as just "a piece of paper" while calling on countries to go with the us and sign bilateral deals instead.

The post-war world might see the us doing a lot more of what is has already been doing - form "coalitions of the willing" to counter get what it wants because it has 'lost faith' in existing institutions, including the un. The us will therefore be 'forced' to seek out particular countries as allies and reward them with its protection. (Already, two trade agreements signed recently with Singapore and Chile could be models; rewards for countries that subject themselves to America). Nothing could be worse for developing countries - effectively, their problems and concerns will be relegated to the bottom of the list until the world order changes again, while they continue to foot the bill for the "non-negotiable American lifestyle" that George Bush Senior referred to at unced.

Is there no hope?
There are some signs of hope. Despite threats and promises from the us, the six non-permanent members of the un Security Council (Cameroon, Angola, Chile, Guinea, Mexico and Pakistan) held their ground and refused the us even a 'moral majority', which the us would have been willing to live with even in the face of a veto from Russia, China and France.

Even more encouragingly, a public opinion poll conducted for the World Economic Forum (wef) and released in January this year reveals that people are increasingly disenchanted with the direction in which the world is moving. The surge of protests related to the Iraq war (and the anti-globalisation protests before) prove that they are increasingly willing to take to the streets to make their point. The wef poll also shows clearly that people no longer trust their leaders, and particularly us leaders to shape the world in a way that represents their interests.

The us may yet be tamed by the overwhelming will of the world's people. A hopeful sign of this is perhaps the decision of Turkey to deny the us the right to base troops on its territory. As a commentator observed, the us wanted democracy in the Middle East and they got it! The newly democratised Turkish parliament was reflecting the views of over 90 per cent of the Turkish people.

A future challenge will be in ensuring that the public does not just stop short at demanding change, but has the information to define the nature of this change as well. Enlightened global public intervention, coupled with increased democracy in countries across the world so that leaders are held accountable and cannot ignore the will of the people, can play a major role in countering us unilateralism. In the days since the war began, information has played a key role. For the first time people have access to a plurality of views - not just from the Internet, which has made it easier to ensure that people hear an alternative viewpoint instead of only the controlled messages of mainstream media, but also from the various Arabic tv channels broadcasting from Iraq.

As in 1991, the Western media is presenting a thoroughly sanitised version of the war. There are bombs but no blood and gore. Arab channels (Al Jazeera in particular) have come under severe criticism for showing the dead bodies of British and American soldiers and ordinary Iraqis. This is ridiculous - the world has to see the ugly side of war and know what is going on to be able to form independent and informed public opinion. Instead of being embedded with the coalition armies, journalists need to embed themselves with the people of Iraq to be able to represent what the war means for them. Descriptions of the human impact of the war in Iraq and around the world, rather than descriptions of the war machinery of the coalition forces and their fighting techniques, will go a much longer way in promoting global democracy.

Beyond self-censorship
The us media has been always unwilling to cover anything but their government's point of view in environmental negotiations. This insularity is usually ascribed to various reasons - corporate ownership of the American media, misguided patriotism, a general unwillingness to criticise domestic policy. The net effect is that the media is not doing much to help the us public understand global perceptions on us foreign policy.

Non-governmental organisations (ngos), particularly those who work in the global arena, have also not succeeded in raising public debate on the role of the us in ensuring global democracy. Pointing to this shortcoming in the context of climate negotiations, Ross Gelbspan, former editor and reporter at the Philadelphia Bulletin, Washington Post and Boston Globe, recently wrote: "Before Bush withdrew from the Kyoto talks, representatives of several major environmental groups spent their considerable energy and talent bird-dogging excruciatingly minute and arcane provisions of the climate treaty - rather than focusing public outrage on the foot-dragging attempts by the us to finesse nature with accounting tricks. By trying so hard to be players, they effectively marginalised themselves." Gelbspan sees hope in a growing group of grassroots organisations in the us that are far more outspoken than national ngos and responsible for changes in local and state level legislation. Greater engagement of the us public in these issues is crucial. They have to reassert their democracy in the face of global criticism that the us functions like a business plutocracy.

Finally, the future world will depend a lot on the foresight of us leaders and their ability to understand that superpower status notwithstanding, the country still needs the rest of the world. If proof is needed of the world's interdependence, environmental negotiations provide plenty. Increasingly, these negotiations are about sharing a finite natural resource and dealing with problems that have serious impacts but are not limited to national boundaries. No one country can solve these problems alone. But to engage the entire global community and ensure their cooperation, there will have to be a basic level of faith and trust that the global community will deal with the problem in a way that protects the interest of the poor and weak. The current deadlock in the global environmental and development agenda - be it in the wssd, wto, unfccc or cbd - owes a lot to the erosion of this faith. Negotiations today are marked with distrust, and almost every environment meeting over the last couple of years has ended in near-disaster.

The us bears a large part of the responsibility for the current strain in global relations. If the country's leaders are indeed interested in global peace and security, they have to lead by example, by first changing domestic policies to match what they have been demanding of the other countries (for instance, opening up us markets to developing countries) and then strengthening multilateralism. This will serve the long-term interests of not only the us but also the rest of the world.

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