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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