Ending American Triumphalism
[Eric Alterman is a columnist for The Nation
and MSNBC. He is the author, most recently, of
Who Speaks for America? Why Democracy Matters in Foreign Policy
(Cornell University Press, 1998)]
If you ask Melvin Goodman, the U.S. remains unsure of its role in
the post-Cold War world.
This week's Issue of the Week: Be Careful What You Predict
Pope John Paul II rose to the balcony of St. Peters last week to
celebrate World Peace Day. "I wanted to remember that the
secret to true peace lies in the respect for human rights," he
reminded the assembled multitudes. "The recognition of the
innate dignity of all the members of the human family ... is the
foundation of liberty, justice and peace in the world."
Alas, as we enter the final year of the 20th century, it would
appear that the greatest levels of human achievement are not in
science, medicine, the arts or industry, but in political hypocrisy.
Not to pick on the Pope per se, but in his World Peace Day speech,
he did find a moment to ask, "How can one forget the death
camps, the sons of Israel who were cruelly exterminated and the
Yet he could hardly find a moment to examine the Catholic Church's
own morally deficient record when called upon to take a stand on
that cruel extermination.
Who among us shall cast the first stone? During the past two
decades, we in the West have stood by as genocide no less cruel has
been perpetrated on the peoples of Cambodia, Rwanda and to a lesser
extent, the nations of the former Yugoslavia. In each case, we had
what we considered to be sound strategic reasons for allowing the
slaughter to continue, but not once did we stop thinking of
ourselves as the kinds of people who would not abide genocide.
No leader of any great power has entirely clean hands, but as the
world's only remaining superpower, the United States also is the
world's greatest hypocrite. While we reserve the right to lecture
other nations, we have been slow to abide by important international
and regional human-rights treaties. The United States is one of only
two countries that has failed to ratify the U.N. Convention on the
Rights of the Child. (The other is Somalia.)
Even when the United States has ratified human-rights treaties it
often has done so only halfheartedly, with major reservations. For
example, it has reserved the right to use the death penalty against
juveniles, expressly forbidden by the International Covenant on
Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Moreover, we dominate the global
market for arms and security equipment exports, supplying arms,
security equipment and training to governments and armed groups that
commit torture, political killings and other human-rights abuses in
countries around the world.
We also profess a dedication to ridding the world of poverty and
disease but, in fact, do more to spread it than ameliorate it. In
Iraq the United States above all nations insists on maintaining
sanctions. A recent U.N. Report said that "40,000 more children
and 50,000 more adults now die each year in Iraqi hospitals than
died before the sanctions were imposed." Rates of polio,
diphtheria, tuberculosis, malaria and viral hepatitis also have
The recently resigned head of the U.N. humanitarian effort is
Iraq, Denis Halliday, explains that sanctions "are starving to
death 6,000 Iraqi infants every month, ignoring the human rights of
ordinary Iraqis and turning a whole generation against the West."
Yes, Saddam Hussein is a monster, and yes, his arsenal is quite
worrisome to everyone in the region. But what good is starving the
Iraqi people to prove it?
The sanctions have been in effect for nine years, and Hussein
looks as prosperous as ever. His weapons are just as deadly. But
many millions of innocent people are dead, and they are not his
victims but ours.
Some telling statistics
Much the same can be said of our policy toward that pathetic Cold
War relic, Fidel Castro's Cuba. Since it stopped receiving more than
$4 billion a year in Soviet aid, Cuba has become an unabashed basket
With a highly educated population, doctors make less than $30 a
month and must moonlight as cab drivers for tourists to make ends
meet. Some educated women with professional skills choose
prostitution at resort hotels as a way out of poverty. The average
monthly salary is 207 pesos, or about $10.
Again, by what moral calculation can the United States justify
worsening the plight of these people simply because we do not
approve of their leader?
Conservative politicians speak of poverty, disease and their
causes as conditions of life rather than problems to be addressed,
but this is itself a political choice. Consider the following
statistics, released last week in the annual U.N. Development
Of the world's 6.8 billion people, 4.4
billion live in developing countries, the rest in rich industrial or
transition countries. The three richest people in the world own
assets that exceed the combined gross domestic products of the
world's poorest 48 countries. Among the 4.4 billion people who live
in developing countries, three-fifths have no access to basic
sanitation, almost one-third are without safe drinking water,
one-quarter lack adequate housing, one-fifth live beyond reach of
modern health services, one-fifth of the children do not get as far
as grade five in school and one-fifth are undernourished.
The amount of money necessary to provide basic education for
children worldwide is less than Americans spend on cosmetics. The
cost of installing water and sanitation for everyone would be less
than is spent on ice cream. Reproductive health services for all
women would cost approximately what Americans and Europeans together
spend on perfume. And basic health care and nutrition for the entire
world would cost less than Americans and Europeans spend on pet
The question of the year
Certainly, the problems above are more complicated than the
numbers make them seem. Curing poverty and disease is more than a
matter of money, no doubt. It is also a matter of culture, delivery
systems and adaptation of traditional ways of living to the modern
But it is also very much a matter of money. And money spent is, to
a considerable degree, a matter of politics.
During the next year, we will no doubt continue to obsess about
Monica Lewinsky, the "politics of personal destruction,"
campaign-finance reform and 24-hour tabloid television. It would be
nice, however, if somewhere in our busy lives we could find the time
to discuss the vast gulf between the people we profess to be and the
people we are -- and what, if anything, as the millennium
approaches, we might like to do about it.