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Because of its own human rights record, the U.S. government was overconfident in its ability to win routine re-election to the United Nations Human Rights Commission in a secret ballot.
According to the commission’s internal rules, the United States and three other countries — France, Sweden and Austria — were competing for three seats on the “Western European and Others” sub-group. But when the results were announced May 3, France (52 votes), Austria (41 votes) and Sweden (32 votes) had won, and the United States, with only 29 votes, unceremoniously was thrown off the commission Eleanor Roosevelt first chaired in 1947.
Getting bounced from the panel — current members of which include such human rights stalwarts as China, Cuba and Libya — struck the Bush administration, Congress and most Americans who were paying attention as outrageously unfair. As outrageous was the obvious pleasure putative allies like the French were taking at America’s rejection. In response, the U.S. House of Representatives a week later approved by a 252-165 vote an amendment to the State Department’s authorization bill that would withhold $244 million in U.N. funding unless the United States is restored to the human rights commission next year.
It is tempting to dismiss this incident as of little importance in the arena of international relations, says STRATFOR, the Global intelligence company. But the vote actually was of momentous political import both for the United States and the growing number of nations that resent U.S. political and military hegemony a decade after the end of the Cold War. The rejection is not significant in moral terms but instead reflects one symptom of a critical process now under way in the international system: the search for geopolitical equilibrium.
STRATFOR has argued for several years that the international system has been in a state of serious imbalance ever since the United States emerged as the clear victor of the Cold War and that the world political system inevitably would tend toward reasserting equilibrium by challenging U.S. power and influence.
For a long time after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its communist system, the United States enjoyed its status as the only superpower. Girded by the most robust economy in the world, the United States faced a potential opposition that was fragmented and incapable of counterbalancing U.S. military and economic power: The Soviet Union was shattered. China, caught up in its own frenzied economic development, had a heavy trade dependence on the United States. The Europeans traditionally were used to viewing themselves as America’s junior partners and were themselves absorbed in internal affairs, from creating the European Union to integrating Eastern Europe into the European system.
Those factors resulted in the United States having a free hand in shaping global policy for most of the 1990s. While tending to shape the international system to suit its own interests, a built-in paradox helped lead to the human rights commission election: The most powerful nation in the world was, at root, indifferent to what happened in the world.
The United States could not help but affect world events. But the U.S. government, in fact, was relatively indifferent to the consequences of its actions. In many cases, U.S. interventions overseas have had less to do with any overarching American strategic interest in the world and instead have stemmed from domestic political considerations. During his eight years in power, former President Clinton looked at the international system through the prism of domestic politics.
To our allies and adversaries alike, this approach made the United States appear fundamentally unpredictable and unreliable from the standpoint of the international system. To anticipate and plan for the effects of U.S. actions overseas, other governments required an intimate understanding of American domestic politics — something only a handful of governments can claim to possess.
Another factor that heightened the growing anxiety and resentment overseas was that during a time of extraordinary prosperity at home, both domestic and international politics in the United States tend to become a marginal issue for most people as they carry out their private pursuits. As a result, the politics of foreign affairs in the United States became the purview of a very small group of people. U.S. interventions in Haiti, Bosnia or Kosovo were utterly unpredictable to foreign analysts and observers.
The international system abhors imbalance, but it cannot tolerate imbalance coupled with unpredictability. When Clinton engaged the U.S. military in its multiple foreign interventions, the president’s justification was to support the human rights of those we sought to help.
But much of the rest of the world did not accept the rhetoric. Instead, it deemed Clinton’s words as a justification for capriciousness, particularly when the United States failed to act consistently on human rights, such as its hands-off approach toward genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Indeed, when critics pointed out such inconsistencies during the 1998 Kosovo air war, the Clinton administration further confirmed the perception of whim when the U.S. government made it clear it reserved the right to select whether or how to intervene. The U.S. and NATO intervention in Kosovo went against the wishes of China and Russia. In Beijing, Chinese officials perceived the human rights justification for military action as a direct attempt by the United States to destabilize their regime.
The underlying tendency of any international system is to try to limit the influence of any single superpower by creating a coalition to counterbalance and restrain it. Therefore, the vote to remove the United States from the U.N. Human Rights Commission should be seen in two lights.
First, it is part of the anti-American coalition building process that has been under way for years. France’s delight at the vote — and its reported behind-the-scenes work to scuttle U.S. membership — indicates our putative friends and enemies feel extremely uncomfortable about unchecked American power. Second, the venue selected for this coup is both highly symbolic and significant since it constitutes a rejection of America’s constant legitimization of foreign policy adventures based on human rights. It is also an attempt to limit American utilization of the United Nations as a justification for protecting its own global interests.
We see the same process at work on both sides of the equation. The Bush administration in its first months has embraced a more geopolitical foreign policy than the Clinton administration did. As our allies and adversaries alike continue to formulate their geopolitical interests to counter U.S. hegemony, this should reinforce the importance of foreign policy to the Bush administration. As the emerging anti-U.S. coalition becomes stronger and dangers associated with the organized opposition increase, it is logical to predict the U.S. government will react with caution and restraint. Thus, we probably will see the issue of human rights itself begin to diminish as a “driver” of U.S. foreign policy.
In the wake of the U.N. panel election and congressional reaction, the next key development will be to watch how the Chinese and Russian governments attempt to further exploit growing anti-American sentiment in the United Nations, says STRATFOR. It appears a sizable number of nations are waiting for either Moscow or Beijing to take the leadership in an organized political attempt to offset America’s undeniable advantages in economic and military power.