Bahai News - Punditry; Noblesse Oblige
by Peter Beinart
Only at TNR Online| Post date 08.06.01
In narrow realpolitik terms, the UN World Conference Against Racism to be
held later this month in Durban, South Africa, is virtually meaningless.
Poor and powerless countries will vent their rage. Rich and powerful
countries will listen politely. A high-minded declaration will be written,
and never read. And the world will go on operating as it always has.
But international relations is about more than just realpolitik. Ideas
matter; in the short term they may seem irrelevant to the hard realities of
military and economic power, but in the long run intellectual power shapes
relations between countries as much as arms and money do. And intellectually,
the Durban conference matters a great deal. It matters because under the
guise of anti-racism, it poses one of the great theoretical questions of
contemporary international politics.
The question is what matters more: the rights of individuals or the rights
of states. Ever since World War II, the international system has witnessed
two contradictory trends. The leaders of the formerly colonized countries
of Asia and Africa have argued vehemently for the redistribution of wealth
from the world's wealthy to the world's poor. But they haven't meant wealthy
and poor people; they have meant wealthy and poor states. They
have demanded money from the West, but rejected Western efforts to insure
that such money actually helps their people. As the leaders of countries
that only recently gained sovereignty, and as the heads of governments that
frequently abuse their people, they have had clear reasons for insisting
that no moral principles ever justify interference in the domestic affairs
of another country. At the same time, however, the Holocaust convinced many
in the West that there were some crimes so great that they justified
violating another country's sovereignty, and Bosnia, Kosovo, and Rwanda
underscored the point. So for the last half-century, the world's weak and
unfree countries have argued for an international system that enshrines
absolute state sovereignty. And the powerful and liberal countries have
argued that sometimes the rights of individuals matter more.
If we are lucky, that debate will come to a head later this month in
Durban. Cuba, Iran, China, and various African countries will argue that
because of past racism--in particular, colonialism and the slave trade--the
U.S. and Europe owe a moral and financial debt to the countries of the
Third World. Right now, the Bush administration's reply is that such
demands are backward-looking and counter-productive; that it's silly to
ask countries to make recompense for historic wrongs. That's a bad answer.
There's nothing absurd about reparations per se. Affirmative action,
Germany's assistance to Israel, and Europe's foreign aid to Africa and Asia
are all, whether acknowledged as such or not, reparations of one sort or
another. Cuba, Iran, and their allies are not wrong because they want to
talk about historical recompense, they are wrong because they think that
historical recompense should go not to individuals but to states. The Bush
administration should say that because of its history of racism, the West
does indeed have a historic obligation to the people of the Third
World. And it will seek to fulfill that obligation in two ways.
First, when a Third World government genuinely represents its people, the
rich countries will generously assist it. The White House might say that as
a matter of principle, every democratic Third World government should have
its international public debt forgiven, and that every democratic government
facing an AIDS crisis should be given $1 billion to fight the plague. The
United States could even focus its money on the democratic countries of West
Africa (say Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal and Benin), because of the historic
damage the slave trade did to that region. (Similarly, the U.S. might call
on the rich countries of the Gulf to aid democratic governments in East
Africa, a region that suffered from the Indian Ocean slave trade).
But the flip side of the West's obligation to the people of the Third World
is an obligation to oppose, even undermine, those Third World governments
that do not represent them. The Bush administration should bluntly tell
tyrannies like Iran, China, Cuba, and Liberia that it is precisely because
we take our historic responsibility to your people seriously that we will
not stand idly by while you abuse them. Last February in Tehran, at a
regional planning session for the Durban conference, the Iranian government
effectively banned Jewish and Bahai leaders--leaders of communities the
Iranian government persecutes--from attending. Perhaps the American delegate
in Durban should say that in solidarity with the people of Iran, people who
suffered under Western imperialism, he would like to draw special attention
to the plight of those non-Muslims suffering under theocracy's yoke. In
memory of its human rights abuses in China early in the twentieth century,
Britain might start a fund for Chinese dissidents. America could honor its
debt to the people of Liberia by establishing a war crimes tribunal for
their homicidal leader Charles Taylor.
The point is that people fighting racism must also fight Charles Taylor and
Ayatollah Khamanei and Fidel Castro and Jiang Zemin because the struggle
against racism has meaning only as a subset of the struggle for universal
human rights. That is the crux of the ideological conflict between the U.S.
and countries like China. China denounces racism because it hopes to
undermine the West's moral standing in pushing for universal standards of
human rights; for Beijing, anti-racism is an arrow in relativism's quiver.
There is no nobler mission for post-cold war American foreign policy than
to oppose that argument at every turn. If the Third World's history of
oppression can be marshaled in service of democracy and liberty rather than
against it, there is no limit to the expansion of human freedom the coming
years might bring. That's why Durban matters, and why America needs to go
there and fight.
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