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Ending American Triumphalism

Eric Alterman



[Eric Alterman is a columnist for The Nation and MSNBC. He is the author, most recently, of Who Speaks for America? Why Democracy Matters in Foreign Policy (Cornell University Press, 1998). He is also a contributing editor to IntellectualCapital.com.]


If you ask Melvin Goodman, the U.S. remains unsure of its role in the post-Cold War world.

This week's Issue of the Week: Be Careful What You Predict

Pope John Paul II rose to the balcony of St. Peters last week to celebrate World Peace Day. "I wanted to remember that the secret to true peace lies in the respect for human rights," he reminded the assembled multitudes. "The recognition of the innate dignity of all the members of the human family ... is the foundation of liberty, justice and peace in the world."

Alas, as we enter the final year of the 20th century, it would appear that the greatest levels of human achievement are not in science, medicine, the arts or industry, but in political hypocrisy. Not to pick on the Pope per se, but in his World Peace Day speech, he did find a moment to ask, "How can one forget the death camps, the sons of Israel who were cruelly exterminated and the martyrs?"

Yet he could hardly find a moment to examine the Catholic Church's own morally deficient record when called upon to take a stand on that cruel extermination.

Who among us shall cast the first stone? During the past two decades, we in the West have stood by as genocide no less cruel has been perpetrated on the peoples of Cambodia, Rwanda and to a lesser extent, the nations of the former Yugoslavia. In each case, we had what we considered to be sound strategic reasons for allowing the slaughter to continue, but not once did we stop thinking of ourselves as the kinds of people who would not abide genocide.

No leader of any great power has entirely clean hands, but as the world's only remaining superpower, the United States also is the world's greatest hypocrite. While we reserve the right to lecture other nations, we have been slow to abide by important international and regional human-rights treaties. The United States is one of only two countries that has failed to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. (The other is Somalia.)

Even when the United States has ratified human-rights treaties it often has done so only halfheartedly, with major reservations. For example, it has reserved the right to use the death penalty against juveniles, expressly forbidden by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Moreover, we dominate the global market for arms and security equipment exports, supplying arms, security equipment and training to governments and armed groups that commit torture, political killings and other human-rights abuses in countries around the world.

We also profess a dedication to ridding the world of poverty and disease but, in fact, do more to spread it than ameliorate it. In Iraq the United States above all nations insists on maintaining sanctions. A recent U.N. Report said that "40,000 more children and 50,000 more adults now die each year in Iraqi hospitals than died before the sanctions were imposed." Rates of polio, diphtheria, tuberculosis, malaria and viral hepatitis also have increased sharply.

The recently resigned head of the U.N. humanitarian effort is Iraq, Denis Halliday, explains that sanctions "are starving to death 6,000 Iraqi infants every month, ignoring the human rights of ordinary Iraqis and turning a whole generation against the West." Yes, Saddam Hussein is a monster, and yes, his arsenal is quite worrisome to everyone in the region. But what good is starving the Iraqi people to prove it?

The sanctions have been in effect for nine years, and Hussein looks as prosperous as ever. His weapons are just as deadly. But many millions of innocent people are dead, and they are not his victims but ours.

Some telling statistics

Much the same can be said of our policy toward that pathetic Cold War relic, Fidel Castro's Cuba. Since it stopped receiving more than $4 billion a year in Soviet aid, Cuba has become an unabashed basket case.

With a highly educated population, doctors make less than $30 a month and must moonlight as cab drivers for tourists to make ends meet. Some educated women with professional skills choose prostitution at resort hotels as a way out of poverty. The average monthly salary is 207 pesos, or about $10.

Again, by what moral calculation can the United States justify worsening the plight of these people simply because we do not approve of their leader?

Conservative politicians speak of poverty, disease and their causes as conditions of life rather than problems to be addressed, but this is itself a political choice. Consider the following statistics, released last week in the annual U.N. Development Report:

Of the world's 6.8 billion people, 4.4 billion live in developing countries, the rest in rich industrial or transition countries. The three richest people in the world own assets that exceed the combined gross domestic products of the world's poorest 48 countries. Among the 4.4 billion people who live in developing countries, three-fifths have no access to basic sanitation, almost one-third are without safe drinking water, one-quarter lack adequate housing, one-fifth live beyond reach of modern health services, one-fifth of the children do not get as far as grade five in school and one-fifth are undernourished.

The amount of money necessary to provide basic education for children worldwide is less than Americans spend on cosmetics. The cost of installing water and sanitation for everyone would be less than is spent on ice cream. Reproductive health services for all women would cost approximately what Americans and Europeans together spend on perfume. And basic health care and nutrition for the entire world would cost less than Americans and Europeans spend on pet food.

The question of the year

Certainly, the problems above are more complicated than the numbers make them seem. Curing poverty and disease is more than a matter of money, no doubt. It is also a matter of culture, delivery systems and adaptation of traditional ways of living to the modern world.

But it is also very much a matter of money. And money spent is, to a considerable degree, a matter of politics.

During the next year, we will no doubt continue to obsess about Monica Lewinsky, the "politics of personal destruction," campaign-finance reform and 24-hour tabloid television. It would be nice, however, if somewhere in our busy lives we could find the time to discuss the vast gulf between the people we profess to be and the people we are -- and what, if anything, as the millennium approaches, we might like to do about it.