International organizations

In World Orders, Old and New, you say that the UN has become virtually an agency for US power.

The UN mostly does what the US—meaning US business—wants done. A lot of its peacekeeping operations are aimed at maintaining the level of “stability” corporations need in order to do business. It’s dirty work and they’re happy to have the UN do it.


If that’s so, how do you explain the hostility toward [former UN Secretary General] Boutros Boutros-Ghali?

In the first place, there was an element of racism there—even though the next choice, Kofi Annan, was also from Africa. W hen George [H. W.] Bush talked about “Bou-Bou Ghali,” nobody batted an eyelash, although I doubt very much that a presidential candidate in the US would survive very long if he referred to the former prime minister of Israel as, say, “Itzy-Schmitzy Rabin.”

There’s a lot of opposition to the UN on the extreme right. Some of it’s tied in with fantasies about black helicopters and loss of sovereignty to world government. But some of it’s simply a case of avoiding blame.

Take the atrocities carried out in Somalia, where the US quietly concedes that thousands of Somali civilians—perhaps up to ten thousand—were killed by US forces. If somebody threatened US forces, they’d call in helicopter gunships. T hat doesn’t sound so heroic, so the resulting catastrophes became the fault of the UN.

Similarly, the US evaded the burdens and difficulties of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia until things were more or less settled, then moved in and took over (effectively imposing a kind of partition between Greater Croatia and Greater Serbia). T hat way, the US could blame everything that went wrong on the UN. Very convenient.

It’s easy to focus anti-UN hostility on the secretary-general. Let’s kick him in the pants, and kick the rest of the world in the pants too. W hy should we bother with what other countries think about us anyway? Do you think the very critical UN report on the Israeli attack on the UN compound in Qana, Lebanon may have been a factor in undermining support for Boutros-Ghali?

It might have been a small factor, but who paid any attention to it? It was so marginalized that I frankly doubt it had much effect. Amnesty International came out with a study that strongly corroborated the UN report. T hat also disappeared very quickly; I’m not even sure it was reported on at all. These sorts of things can be brushed off very quickly when they’re inconvenient for power and career interests. Both reports are quite shocking, and confirmed by veteran journalists on the scene (notably Robert Fisk). But it’s the wrong story.

The basic reason there’s hostility to international institutions here is that they don’t always do exactly what the US orders them to do. The World Court is a perfect example. The US government isn’t going to accept being condemned by it—as it was in 1986, for “unlawful use of force” against Nicaragua. The Court ordered the US to desist and pay substantial reparations, and ruled explicitly that no aid to the Contras could be considered “humanitarian.” We don’t have to waste time noting how the US, the press and educated opinion reacted to this.

The International Labor Organization is another example. Not only does it stand up for workers’ rights, but it condemned the US for violating international labor standards. So it’s dismissed, and the US refuses to pay the roughly $100 million owed to it.

The US has little use for the UN Development Program or the Food and Agriculture Organization, since they’re mostly concerned with developing countries. UNCTAD (the UN Conference on T rade and Development) has, to some extent, advocated the interests of developing countries and has been an expert critical voice opposing certain Washington policies, so it’s been undermined and tamed as well.

As soon as UNESCO called for opening up the world information system, it was out of luck. The US forced it to abandon its evil ways, and significantly modified its role. The attack on these organizations is all part of reconstructing the world in the interests of the most powerful and the most wealthy. There’s lots wrong with the UN, but it’s still a somewhat democratic institution. W hy tolerate that?

The US attitude was expressed rather neatly by Madeleine Albright in a remark which, as far as I know, wasn’t reported. She was trying to get the Security Council to accept one of our punitive actions toward Iraq; none of the other countries wanted to go along with it, since they recognized that it was really just a part of US domestic politics. So she told them that the US will act “multilaterally when we can and unilaterally as we must.” So would anyone else, if they had the power.

The US owes the UN over $1 billion—more than any other country.

Of course. W hy should we spend money on anybody but the rich?

The World T rade Organization is the successor to GATT. Has the US been fairly happy with the WTO?

Not entirely. The US has been brought up more than once for violation of WTO principles, and was also condemned by the GATT council earlier. But in general, the US is more or less favorable to the WTO, whose mixture of liberalization and protectionism is pretty much tailored to the needs of powerful transnational corporations and financial institutions.

The Uruguay Round treaty that led to the WTO was called a freetrade agreement, but it’s really more of an investorrights agreement. The US wants to use WTO rules in areas it expects to dominate, and is certainly in a position to cancel any rule it doesn’t like.

For example, a while back the US forced Mexico to cut back exports of its tomatoes. It’s a violation of NAFTA and WTO rules and will cost Mexican producers close to a billion dollars a year. The official reason was that Mexican producers were selling tomatoes at a cost American producers can’t match.

If the WTO rules in favor of the European Union’s request to condemn the Helms-Burton Act [which strengthened the US embargo against Cuba] as an illegal interference with world trade, the US will just go on acting unilaterally. If you’re powerful enough, you can do whatever you want.

W hat do you think of the expansion of NATO?

I don’t think there’s a simple answer to that—it depends how the economic and political structure of Eastern Europe and Western Asia evolves.

As mentioned above, when the Cold War ended I expected that the former Soviet empire would pretty much revert to what it had been before. The areas that had been part of the industrial West— the Czech Republic, western Poland, Hungary—would essentially be reintegrated into the West, and the other parts, which had been T hird World before the Soviet Union, would return to that status,

with substantial poverty, corruption, crime and so on. Partial extension of the NATO system to industrial—or partially industrial— countries like the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary would help formalize all this.

But there will be conflicts. Europe and the US have differing expectations and goals for the region, and there are also differences within Europe. Russia isn’t a trivial force either; it can’t be disregarded and doesn’t like being excluded. There are more complex power plays, like the jockeying that’s going on around the oil fields in Central Asia, where the people involved won’t have much of a voice in the process.

In the case of NATO, there are other factors, like the special interests of military industry, which is looking forward to a huge market with NATO expansion and standardization of weapons (which are mainly produced by the US). T hat translates into another substantial taxpayer subsidy to high-tech industry, with the usual inefficiencies of our system of industrial policy and “state socialism for the rich.”