The General Assembly decided yesterday to reform the United Nations — but omitted some of the most urgent reforms from the agreement. The negotiators had to abandon several specific commitments and substitute in their place only vague “motherhood” clauses that already had been accepted long ago. There is no definition of terrorism, as Kofi Annan’s advisory team had proposed. There is no powerful new human rights council to replace the existing commission. Nuclear proliferation and disarmament are not covered at all in the text of the agreement.
There were some positive changes, however. The “responsibility to protect” doctrine has been endorsed, requiring the United Nations to protect civilians from genocide, ethnic cleansing, and massacres, using military power if necessary, whenever their own government will not protect them. And the administration of the UN probably will become more efficient, with new auditing arrangements to be set up and the secretary-general wielding more authority to set priorities; at present he must get the approval of the General Assembly to make significant changes.
The greatest disappointments about the new document concern its failure to provide strong remedies for poverty and environmental dangers. So many tragedies loom ahead — and there is so little time! Kofi Annan put the best face on the outcome, claiming that it was not a failure — but it was. The reactionary policies of the United States must be blamed for the inadequate responses to these urgent problems. The UN could do so much more that one can only grieve for the loss of this rare opportunity.
Oddly, today I received another message that troubled me: a comment posted on my blog by a woman named Chrissy, who admired the comments of my old high school friend Ted, who is now a Libertarian. Chrissy thinks that most people are better off without help from government and particularly opposes development aid, which she blames for many of the problems poor countries face. Her astonishing advice: “pull out and don’t look back. This is not a miserly, selfish view of the world. This is a realistic, possibly workable solution to a problem that our government and society continues to make worse.”
By “our government,” she presumably refers to the United States — the richest country but also, among developed countries, the one that contributes the least financial aid to the developing world. To be sure, flawed development strategies sometimes have worsened the plight of poor countries, but there is no such option as to “pull out and don’t look back.” Everything that powerful individuals and societies do will affect others — especially less powerful others. We cannot stop the world and get off. The only option is to learn from our mistakes and do a better job. Instead, the rich nations continue to support trade arrangements that further impoverish the poor — not allowing them to export freely to the West, while exporting our surplus agricultural commodities to the poor countries, destroying the market for local producers.
I generally avoid the term “globalization,” since it refers to such a disparate array of practices as to be almost meaningless, but in this case it is a fitting term, for it highlights the impact — whether intended or inadvertent — of power and wealth upon the whole planet. Globalization can, in principle, be a great blessing. For example, the aforementioned “responsibility to protect” doctrine places the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of powerful societies to protect the weak victims of dictators and enemy ethnic groups in their own countries. This becomes a global responsibility only when local protective arrangements fail. It nevertheless remains possible for the powerful countries to ignore this responsibility or even exacerbate the plight of the victims. The doctrine may even be misused to authorize more tragedies such as the invasion of Iraq by the United States and Britain. Nevertheless, it is potentially a step forward and I rejoice at its adoption.
It’s high time that we recognize the world as an integrated economy and a single ecological system. There is no country that can remain unaffected by the whole. We share the same air and water — whether polluted or clean. Whenever you drink a cup of coffee or eat a banana, you are part of a planetary market that determines the income of some Third World farmer. Your impact cannot be avoided.
Sorry, Chrissy and Ted, but the only way forward is to become more conscious of the ecological and economic footprints we leave on the planet. We must live mindfully, as members of one single species inhabiting the only planet where life is known to exist. There are no guarantees that we’ll prevail — indeed, it just got harder yesterday — but I invite you to do your part.