Quit Throwing a Tantrum and Get On With It

America's recent ousters from both the U.N. Human Rights Commission as well as the International Narcotics Control Board (Straits Times, May 9, 2001) underscore the increasing dislocation between the U.S. and the world that it seeks (or chooses) to lead. The subsequent backlash by congressmen Henry Hyde and Tom Lantos to what was essentially a fair vote, by amending the House Bill to withhold U.N. dues, is both reactionary and immature. Given the system in place that allocates only 3 seats for the West, the fundamental stakes were clear from the outset. The U.S. - superpower or not - cannot simply choose to rewrite the rules of the game, much in the same way former vice-president Al Gore attempted to in the aftermath of the recent presidential elections, just because the results do not fit its understanding of 'justice'.

Needless to say, the U.S. has a very valid point: to admit the likes of countries such as Sudan and Cuba - countries with a proven track records of deplorable respect for human rights - into the Commission would be ironic and would constitute a supreme act of hypocrisy. Yet the U.S. risks some hypocrisy of its own if it refuses to respect the democratic processes that went into the panel vote, even if they do not yield results that are necessarily fair or favourable. America has to learn a lesson from the book of the Austrians, who upheld the election of far right candidate Jorg Haider even though his presence in the Austrian parliament evoked strong repercussions from many fronts, most notably from the E.U.

This raises a related point: that there have also been doubts concerning the U.S. model of democracy that it has tried to import to the rest of the world. Witness the fiasco in Florida over last November's elections, which has acted as a reminder that the Electoral College system, the bedrock of the American political system, was founded on liberty, and not democracy. The chad-counting exercise was mocked in many parts of the world, and seriously damaged American credibility in the world arena. This American perception of democracy directly influences its stand on human rights and drug-control issues. Could it be that the rest of the world, many of which are developing, hold a dim view of the way in which the U.S. perceives human rights and handles drug-control? Singapore's Senior Minister Lee Kwan Yew has been a vociferous proponent of the view that the Western model of democracy may not be directly applicable to the East, where values are shaped more by Confucian ethics than by individual rights.

However, the chief reason as to why the U.S. lost its seat must have been its general attitude, which has bordered on arrogance and paternalism of late. The loss reminds America that it does not exist in a vacuum, and that its model of the way the world works does not necessarily translate well into other cultures and contexts. Rather than point fingers at the E.U. or African nations that voted against it, the U.S. should refocus its efforts on future campaigning. By uprooting its sense of complacency and being more sensitive in its foreign relations, the U.S. can take positive steps to reinstate its position on both panels.

Showing responsibility by fulfilling its dues to the U.N. would be a much-needed first step. This, the Bush administration seems to recognise ('Bush Won't Withhold UN Dues', Straits Times, May 11, 2001). The House of Representatives should likewise reject any attempt to shirk on U.S. debts and simply make its final payment of US$244 million. This would be a positive move towards restoring the lost trust and abating the sense of resentment felt by the other nations in the world towards the only remaining superpower.


'US Voted Out of UN Drug-Policy Body', The Straits Times, May 9, 2001

'Bush Won't Withhold UN Dues', The Straits Times, May 11, 2001

This article is unpublished.