On May 8 of 2001, I published a piece on TIME.com — now only available in cached form — that foresaw some of the consequences of the by-then already obvious aggressive unilateralism of the Bush Administration (i.e. even six months before 9/11). And it was based on a true story that anyone who was at Milnerton Primary School in 1973 would remember…
When the U.S. was unceremoniously voted off the U.N. Human Rights Commission last week, I was reminded of my final year in junior school. That year, the established political order on the playground of Milnerton Primary had been dramatically destabilized by the arrival from some other school of a lad we shall call Benito, an exceptionally large (he’d been held back twice) and exceptionally nasty bully. Not only did Benito show no respect for the established pecking order of bullies and victims, but his heft also allowed him to impose his will on even the most violent of the pre-adolescent thugs who preceded him on the playground. Indeed, Benito showed no outward signs of human affect; if he’d been a dog he’d have been put down.
Benito’s reign of terror created an untenable situation not only for those of us who had over the years constructed a modus vivendi with the established bullies, but also for those bullies themselves, who were now vulnerable to unthinkable humiliation at the hands of the brutish child-man.
One Friday afternoon, though, Benito got his comeuppance: Challenged by a lesser bully to a routine after-school brawl by the bicycle shed, Benito seemed unfazed as a crowd gathered expectantly. Ordinarily, he could have dispatched the challenger without breaking a sweat. But at a given signal, Benito found himself set upon, not just by the challenger, but by a hitherto unthinkable alliance of lesser bullies, jocks, do-gooders and former victims. It was over in seconds, Benito limping off, his shirt ripped, his nose bloodied and — the ultimate humiliation for the bully among bullies — tears streaming down his meaty cheeks. And with that, the old equilibrium was restored. Benito was forced by a harsh lesson to respect the traditional hierarchies within which each of us knew our place.
Benito’s fate may hold a clue to what happened to the U.S. last week at the United Nations, although the humiliation was hardly as sharp and the result may turn out to be quite the opposite from the one intended by those who engineered the slap-down. That, of course, would be the Europeans, whose quiet withdrawal of their traditional support for Washington facilitated a victory for China and Cuba’s campaign to keep the U.S. off the commission.
And this was no one-off, either. The U.N. revealed Tuesday that a second vote on the same day had seen the U.S. candidate lose his seat on an international panel monitoring narcotics trafficking. Clearly, the Europeans and others on whose votes Washington has traditionally been able to rely are trying to send a message. “There’s something happening out there,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said of the votes. “Clearly, I think it’s fair to speculate there may be issues related to how we handled ourselves.” Indeed, following Boucher’s invitation to speculate, it’s not difficult to see what might have irritated America?s allies to the point of joining an unlikely coalition of friend and foe to thwart the U.S. in an international forum.
President Bush came into office having promised that he would conduct his foreign policy with “humility.” Remind the Europeans of that today, and chances are they?ll laugh bitterly. The new administration’s stance on everything from missile defense and the Kyoto treaty on climate change to dealing with Iraq, rapprochement with North Korea and the proposed international criminal court of justice suggests that the new president sets little store by the opinions of traditional U.S. allies whenever those may be in conflict with his own.
Indeed, President Bush’s attitude on questions such as Kyoto and missile defense (despite the current PR campaign on the latter) has been “too bad if you don’t like it; that’s what we’re going to do.” And that’s left the Europeans smarting at what they perceive as the new administration’s arrogance and insensitivity.
There are other, extraneous factors at work, too — $580 million in unpaid American dues to the U.N. is still locked up in Congress despite an agreement last year to pay up. And the impending execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh once again highlights a moral schism between the U.S. and its European allies over capital punishment — despite the fact that some 70 percent of Americans believe in the death penalty, it is anathema in Europe. In fact, his record as Texas governor made the death penalty one of the primary sources of disapproval of President Bush in European public opinion.
The slap-down at the U.N., of course, is purely symbolic. Washington retains its dominant status in the international body, particularly because of its veto power in the all-important Security Council, and is sure to use its influence to play a major role in the Human Rights Commission. But the vote was clearly a blow to the prestige of a nation that sees itself as a global champion of human rights.
But while the schoolyard bully Benito was chastened all those years ago by a nasty surprise at the hands of an unthinkable alliance, the effect on Washington of the U.N. vote may be quite different. If it was designed to get Washington to take international forums more seriously, the Europeans’ gesture may have been ill-considered — because it may achieve exactly the opposite result, amplifying U.S. skepticism over involvement in the U.N. And therein lies the tragedy of the breakdown between the U.S. and its allies: They want Washington to play a leadership role in world affairs; at the same time, situations from Iraq to Kosovo are reminders that the U.S. can’t do without the United Nations in the pursuit of its own national interests. The U.N. vote was ultimately a reminder that the real beneficiaries of the current discord between Washington and its allies are America’s enemies.