The recent decision by the United States to quit UNESCO was a shock. But for US foreign policy watchers it was not totally unexpected. In fact, Washington’s move to leave the UN agency is symbolic of the move by the Reagan administrations to bolster its independent image in the international community. The US is attempting to cut its losses at the United Nations and is instead opting for a one-on-one relationship with Third World nations where its clout can not be muffled by the UN’s diplomatic machinery.
In stark contrast to the late 1970s liberalism of President Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan’s strategists see nations beyond their borders either as ‘friends’ or ‘enemies’. There are three tests that allow you to join the US friendship club:
In practice this means that all world events are judged according to their impact on America’s ‘national interest’ - a concept which is sufficiently elastic to mean just about anything the Reagan team wants it to mean.
UNESCO is being punished because it refused to play by American rules. The US charged the agency with undermining freedom of the press and ignoring its mandate to foster world literacy. The target of criticism was UNESCO’s New World Information and Communications Order, vigorously opposed by Western media and by Washington. The real substance of the Information and Communications debate is how to restructure a world communications system dominated by Western technology and Western multinationals. So the Reagan administration decided to pick up their chips and go home. (And those chips are significant since Washington antes up 25 per cent of UNESCO’s yearly budget).
This change in the policy of dealing with America’s world neighbours reflects the rise to key positions of right-wing ideologues like UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, Secretary of State George Schultz and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. All are hawks. All firmly believe the US is a beacon of freedom and justice with a civilizing mission to spread enlightenment and check the advance of Mr Andropov’s ‘evil empire’. Their disposition towards the outside world is framed by the crude calculus of the Cold War.
American analyst Michael Klare sees a split in the US foreign policy elite between the Reagan group - the ‘Prussians’ - and a ‘softer’ conservative faction he calls the ‘Traders’. The Traders are practical businessmen who believe the Cold War is a barrier to healthy global trade and that regional political problems have to be dealt with on their own merit. The Prussians, on the other hand, believe military strength is paramount and that the US should fight for what it believes in.
The Prussians are simply unwilling to accept that the configuration of global power has changed since 1946. But changed it has. The Third World has emerged as a forceful, if divided, lobby. The economies of Japan and Western Europe have bloomed. The Soviet Union has become a super-power with imperial designs of its own. Western nations no longer see eye to eye with the US on foreign policy. Détente for one thing is a much more pressing concern for France, Germany andthe other European countries that must share a continent with the USSR.
With a wary eye, Europe accepts the Soviet reality; the US quite simply does not. President Reagan describes communism as ‘another sad, bizarre chapter in human history, whose last pages even now are being written.’ Those who live in ‘totalitarian darkness’ he says ‘are the focus of evil in the world.’
Not since Vietnam has militarism become such a large part of American life. Arms spending is expected to jump by 20 per cent yearly in 1984 and 1985. The country’s largest arms manufacturer, General Dynamics of St. Louis, has been praised as a sure-fire bet by stock market promoters. Nuclear freeze advocates have been labelled sincere but woolly-headed dreamers by Mr Reagan. After years of covert meddling in Central America the US finally intervened directly in the affairs of a sovereign state by invading Grenada. This was the first military intervention in the outside world since Vietnam and the first in South America since the invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965.
Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick set the tone for the new militarism in a 1979 article called Dictatorship and Double Standards - a piece which reportedly brought her to the attention of the President. She argued that America should be prepared to throw its weight around:
‘A posture of continuous self-abasement and apology vis-à-vis the Third World is neither morally necessary nor politically appropriate.
Ms Kirkpatrick went on to distinguish between ‘traditional authoritarian dictatorships’ and ‘revolutionary autocracies’. The former - like Nicaragua under President Somoza, the Philippines under Marcos, Chile under Pinochet - are preferable to the latter - Nicaragua under the Sandinistas, Cuba under Castro, Mozambique under FRELIMO. Why? Because, in Ms Kirkpatrick’s reasoning, the former are more susceptible to ‘liberalization and democratization’ and ‘more compatible with US interests’.
If it wasn’t for the ‘socialist threat’ of equality and social progress, the argument went, there would be no push for revolutionary change in the Third World. Somehow for Ms Kirkpatrick lousy living standards, hunger, illness; these simply don’t figure as reasons why people might want to struggle for something better.
‘Because the miseries of traditional life are familiar, they are bearable to ordinary people who, growing up in the society, learn to cope, as children born to Untouchables in India acquire the skills and attitudes necessary for survival in the miserable roles they are destined to fill.’ Poverty is lamentable, Ms Kirkpatrick implies. But in the long-run, liberal do-gooders will only make a worse mess.
This right-wing mix of bluster, suspicion and self-interest has, predictably, hobbled American aid policy. In an effort to put more political muscle into its aid programme the US is cutting back on its donations to agencies like the World Bank where it cannot exert direct control. There has even been a push by ultraconservative Congressmen to slash US support to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Up to now most criticism of the IMF has come from the Left who complain that IMF loan conditions punish the poor and increase Third World dependency. The Right argues that international banks and poor nations got themselves into trouble: and they can get themselves out again without American help.
Mixed in with the general right-wing attitude towards the outside world is a generous sprinkling of racism and knee-jerk patriotism. The destruction of the Korean 747 airliner, causing the death of 269 people, by the Soviets was a public-relations Godsend for the Reagan administration, which manipulated and stereotyped the event into a crude propaganda coup. The Soviets were denounced as mass murderers who had, according to Reagan, ‘committed a crime against humanity’ by deliberately shooting down a commercial passenger plane. Moscow’s response was that they thought the 747 was a spy-plane and shot it only after repeated warnings. That complicated the black/white morality of the story. If the Korean jetliner was being used for spying, then the US would have to share the blame for the tragedy. Instead the Soviets were reduced to subhuman cartoons, denied their humanity as thinking, feeling people and turned into drooling, trigger-happy lunatics. Score one for the Reagan camp’s ideological battle against the Soviets.
It is this potential for hysteria and need for scapegoats which is most frightening about the Right’s attitude towards the world beyond its borders. There is no room for diversity in political thought or models of economic development. Nations and individuals with different beliefs, different experiences and different solutions are either misled or wrong. The legitimacy of their world view is rejected. And with it their humanity.