A Project of the American Enterprise Institute and the Federalist Society

Timid Diplomacy

National Review Online

August 29, 2001

By John O'Sullivan

When President Bush declared that the U.S. would not send a high-level delegation to the United Nations Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban this week, it looked like a good example of smart politics - and that may indeed by the case.

By giving as his reason that the U.S. would not allow its "good friend and ally," Israel, to be put in the dock by the Third World on the grounds that Zionism is a form of racism, Mr. Bush seemed to be taking a gallant and even chivalrous stand.

Nor is there any reason to doubt that he was both sincere and politically shrewd. The Durban conference undoubtedly will be a fiesta of anti-Israeli sentiment. By saying so, Mr. Bush is likely to gain support among American supporters of Israel, mainly but not entirely Jews, who by and large voted for Al Gore last year. And making these altruistic noises, the U.S. slides cleverly out of a conference that will also be a fiesta of anti-American sentiment (and of anti-European sentiment.)

For another controversial item slated to be on the agenda was reparations for slavery. Originally the proposal was couched as direct payments (plus apology) by the West to African states and to the descendants of slaves in America today. But the host South African government, encountering some Western diplomatic resistance to being put in the historical dock, has been proposing instead a grand package of debt forgiveness and foreign aid package for the Third World financed by Europe and America. Once granted, of course, such an aid package would be treated as a Western admission of historical guilt.

To discuss slavery in these terms is, of course, to invert history. Slavery was a universal human institution which continued in Africa and Asia until the twentieth century. (It continues in some African countries even today.) Most African slaves who ended up in America had been sold to slave traders by their African owners-some the rulers of African slave empires. Whites and Arabs were complicit in this trade, of course. But it was the West, in particular the British Empire, which first outlawed slavery at home and then suppressed the international slave trade by force.

If reparations are to have any connection with historical justice, then those paying them should include the African states which are the successors of the pre-colonial African slave empires-and those receiving them should include the descendants of the officers and men of the Royal Navy who risked their lives (and sometimes died) to suppress the trade in human beings around the world.

To say anything like that in Durban would, of course, be to invite a charge of Racism, Racial Intolerance, Xenophobia and/or Related Intolerance. Slavery is likely to be treated as a Western invention imposed on the Third World by colonialism-when in fact colonialism, whatever its other abuses, generally put an end to slavery. Similarly, Racism, Racial Discrimination, etc. are likely to be portrayed as purely white Western pathologies that are magically responsible for such evils as economic backwardness, poverty, and tyranny everywhere.

For the whole point of conferences like that in Durban is to make the West, in particular the U.S., the defendant in a grand historical psycho-drama of Western guilt and Third World entitlement - and of course to extract substantial fines from the wretched criminal upon conviction.

Moreover, as the Hudson Institute's distinguished scholar, John Fonte, recently pointed out, the stakes have been raised recently by progressive American Non-Governmental Organizations such as Amnesty International USA, the American Friends Service Committee, the National Council of Churches, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, NAACP, and the ACLU.

These NGOs hope to use Durban not merely to humble the U.S. and make it cough up more foreign aid but also to compel it to alter its domestic policies in a sharply leftwards direction. To quote Mr. Fonte:

On July 20 in Washington, D.C., Gay McDougall, an organizer with the International Human Rights Law Group (one of the chief NGOs), told a pre-conference strategy meeting of NGOs that "the foreign policy of our government (U.S.) is responsible for racial oppression around the world."

Or again: "NGOs have insisted that the U.S. government should "remove all reservations" to the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) that the U.S. ratified in 1994.The "reservations" in question? The State Department notes that the CERD's restrictions on free speech and freedom of assembly are incompatible with the First Amendment. It is these "reservations" that the NGOs seek to eliminate."

And much else.

In the face of this ideological assault, mounted by an alliance of Third World states and domestic leftists, there are two possible responses.

The first is the Daniel Patrick Moynihan response: Send a high-level delegation to the Durban Convention to mount a fiercely brilliant, historically grounded, savagely witty, ideological attack on the false leftist assumptions underlying the entire U.N. Racism pantomime, on the despotic politics of most of the West's accusers, and on the illiberal and anti-democratic maneuvers of those American NGOs which are lending support to an attack on their own country.

The second response is not to attend at all. A show trial deprived of its chief victim, the U.S., would be a very poor show indeed. It would have little chance of generating news coverage, let alone a worldwide demand to pay U.S. reparations under any guise.

Which of the two is the smarter politics depends on whether this administration can summon up the eloquence to wage ideological warfare effectively. If Colin Powell were to lead the charge, the first course would be the better. If not, then staying away is indeed smart politics - though smart politics of a discouragingly timid kind.

Alas, by deciding on a compromise between these two courses, the administration has (not atypically) fallen between two stools. The U.S. is to send a delegation headed by a Deputy Assistant Secretary, Michael Southwick, but including a representative of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson. It will be Mr. Southwick's humiliating duty to stand in the dock as the representative of the U.S. government, nervously denying the more outrageous charges against the U.S. and receiving custard pies in the face, while Ms. Johnson piously concedes the justice of those same charges to the applause of the assembled NGOs and diplomats.

FAIR USE NOTICE. This document may contain copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. NGOWatch is making this article available in our efforts to advance the understanding of NGO accountability, human rights, labor rights, social and environmental justice issues. We believe that this constitutes a 'fair use' of the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Law. If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use,' you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.