A tattoo of war drums over Colombia has begun and can be expected to increase in volume and frequency. National Public Radio’s "Morning Edition” has been doing a five-part series on "the crisis in Colombia.” The first few reports have had some decent reporting and managed to convey at least some sense that the issues are more complex than white-hat government vs. black-hat drug trafficker-guerrillas.
But the producers had to know that from a policy-propaganda perspective one function of such a series is softening up public opinion (or at least that sector that takes NPR seriously, for better or worse a not insignificant portion of movers and shakers) to the idea that Colombia is facing virtually intractable problems and it might be necessary for the United States to move in sometime soon and try to fix things.
Of course, the reporters managed to find a "man on the street” in Bogota who expressed the opinion, with some regret but also with some force, that things were so bad that it might well be for the better if the United States sent in more military aid and military forces.
Completely missing (all right, there’s a segment left) was anybody who expressed the notion that the most constructive thing the United States could do for Colombia would be to call off the War on Drugs, yet another manifestation of the increasingly warlike mentality of the U.S. government. The drug war is what fuels and enriches the narcotraffickers, who have become more decentralized (and therefore more difficult to control) since the assaults on the Medellin and Cali cartels. Without the drug war neither the left-wing guerrillas nor the right-wing paramilitaries would have as much access to money and to relatively sophisticated weapons. Nor would as much be at stake, since the monetary rewards of victory would not be so great.
The United States, through its drug war, has helped to wreak great havoc in Colombia. It can and perhaps should try to ameliorate the damage not by inserting its soldiers and other warriors more deeply into Colombian life but by calling off the ongoing war that has so complicated an already violent and complicated political situation.
KOFI’S HUGE AMBITIONS
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan is at it again, expanding on the ambition for sovereignty-shattering power that has so characterized his tenure. On Tuesday, as reported by Barbara Crossette in the New York Times, he presented a "sweeping plan” for the United Nations to take full control of East Timor and "guide the territory to statehood over two to three years.” As Ms. Crossette had it, this plan reflects the "grim conclusion” arrived at no doubt with great regret and not the slightest bit of eagerness "that the savage rampages … left the organization with no choice but to take control of administration and defense as soon as possible.”
I suppose we’ll wait a bit longer for NATO or the UN to decide that the savage tyranny on Cuba requires either organization to take control as soon as possible.
The first question, of course, is whether it would actually be a good idea to guide East Timor to statehood as that concept is understood (or not understood) in the international community. We may be living in the twilight of the era of the nation-state; indeed, Kofi Annan, with his other recent remarks to the effect that when human rights are violated borders don’t matter much has done his bit to bring on the end. It’s at least a question worth entertaining whether new political entities should be created in the form that has proven so fragile in these latter days
The next question, of course, is what kind of state the United Nations would be likely to create. The usual preference among the elites who make up the floating crap game known as the "international community” is to create a welfare state with the full panoply of government programs and entitlements it has taken Western countries decades to erect. That’s putting the cart before the horse trying to redistribute wealth before allowing a capitalist system to operate long enough to create some wealth to redistribute.
RESISTANCE ON THE HORIZON
In this respect, a conversation I had with Hugo Paemen, Ambassador to the United States from the European Union, who was in Southern California for a speaking engagement, might be worth recounting. If he is at all representative of thinking among European diplomats and leaders, Kofi Annan’s remarkably candid intentions to undermine national sovereignty on a wholesale basis might be causing some second thoughts.
Paemen, born in Belgium but now the very model of the cosmopolitan "European” diplomat, was as charming and as attuned to the undertones of questions posed to him as good diplomats usually are. And of course he is an active and enthusiastic participant in the process of at least blurring national sovereignty now occurring in Europe with the introduction of the Euro single currency and the "harmonization” of a broad range of laws and policies now taking place under the aegis and supervision of a gaggle of centralizing bureaucrats in Brussels.
Still, he didn’t wait for a question to express the opinion that Kofi Annan’s remarks on the necessity of international intervention wherever human rights are threatened has caused most Europeans to want to step back for a while and think about some of the implications rather seriously before rushing headlong into a New New World Order. The basis of international relations refined after World War II (and based on precedent and practice before that) includes as a fundamental principle the idea of noninterference in the internal affairs of sovereign states, he reminded us. While being aware that the system was subject to change, need to think long and hard before changing those regnant myths (my term, not his).
Hugo Paemen’s background is in trade negotiations rather than defense policy, which might have colored his attitudes. But he seemed more ready to question the idea that military action should be the virtually inevitable response to troubles in far-flung parts of the world than many American diplomats. He stressed the fact that trade and investment between the United States is so large and so important to both sides that a matter like the "banana war,” while annoying and something of a distraction, is more lke a fly buzzing around than a real threat to multilateral trade.
He explained the European perspective on the banana war that the E.U. decided to give preferential treatment to banana-growing countries in Africa and the Caribbean that provide 15 percent of the bananas imported into Europe because the countries are poor, substantially dependent on the banana trade and (many of them) former European colonies. The Europeans were willing to take the hit involved in WTO-authorized countervailing US tariffs on (mainly) European luxury goods because they still believe the preferential treatment is the right thing to do.
Paemen explained the banana war, but he also gave the distinct impression that he found the entire episode tiresome and unnecessary that it was a shame diplomats and trade negotiators had had to spend so much time on it. He also stressed that Americans were misguided if they believed that the steps toward European union presaged an effort to build a large-scale military power. "We don’t want to be the policemen of the world,” he said. "We weren’t eager to intervene in Kosovo and that was right on our doorstep.”
HOLDING THE US BACK A BIT?
The implication, not quite explicitly stated, was that maybe it wasn’t all that necessary for the United States to mobilize NATO and bomb Kosovo and Serbia quite so closely to smithereens. The Europeans went along with it (although the French and Germans expressed reservations, apparently more forcefully in private than in public) but one senses reluctance not only to be the world policeman themselves, but to have either the United States or the United Nations perform that function.
I’m trying not to read more into the discussion than was there. This was an experienced and fairly subtle diplomat talking with an American journalist who wasn’t too shy about letting it be known he had doubts about American actions. Diplomats are usually skilled at creating impressions without ever putting them into words that can come back to haunt them. He may well have been playing to the small audience of the Orange County Register‘s Editorial Board.
But I get a sense, not just from this conversation but form recent meetings with other European diplomats, that many Europeans are deeply troubled by the eagerness of the current American administration to play world savior. In some ways, it might not be so much the policy of intervention as the clumsiness and amateurishness (and in some cases the carelessness and failure to concentrate and think things through before acting) most Europeans see as characteristic of US diplomacy that is so offensive.
Thus it might become more difficult, as second thoughts about Kosovo and Kofi take root, for the United States to assemble the figleaf of multilateral cooperation and consent the next time the administration wants to rush in where angels fear. Not that European diplomats are likely to be an especially brave or forceful lot when confronted with American eagerness backed by British complicity, but they just might act as a modest restraint on American imperial ambitions. Most of them had their imperial period and have little desire to return to it.
So we might have to depend on European diplomats quietly lobbying behind the scenes the next time the Americans want to lob missiles? It’s something of a paradoxical, perhaps even a chilling thought. But maybe we have to take our allies, even the halfhearted ones with different motives, where we can find them.