The United States is not always right

During the intense days after September 11 a top Labour minister observed: “The United States is not always right.” Will Helen Clark say that in the Oval Office next Tuesday?

“Not always right” is light years away from the “not often right” presumption by many of top Labour people’s ilk in the shadow of Vietnam in the early 1970s when the United States had a fondness for Latin American and Asian dictators. By contrast with that, Clark swiftly joined George Bush’s Afghanistan jihad.

But “not always right” is not — or not only — a fading echo of youthful excitements. It states an important truth.

The United States backed Saddam Hussein, even when he was gassing Kurds. Wrong, badly wrong. It backed the Taleban, to fight the “evil empire” (the Soviet Union). Wrong, badly wrong.

So some sceptical distancing is warranted. The government’s decision to send in the SAS was more domestic than international politics. As a party claiming the centre, Labour had no choice. The TV pictures from the country which does most to entertain us were too compelling.

But there is a deep difference.

Clark is a multilateralist. She thinks world institutions policing world rules are better than power blocks running rival police forces according to their special interests.

For a tiny country with negligible leverage, this has pragmatic logic. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) can get us heard in large capitals on unfair trade practices.

The United States is unilateralist. Bush made the point post-September 11. “You are with us or you are against us.”

New Zealand is with Bush in Afghanistan, with good, shared-values, reason. But is he with New Zealand — or any other country?

Articles in a range of magazines suggest not.

In November the Washington-based Foreign Policy magazine said the United States has “repeatedly found itself on the wrong side of lopsided international judgments”.

It detailed international treaties the United States has opposed: a land mine ban (140-0, with 18 abstentions), the International Criminal Court(120-7, with 21 abstentions), the 2001 Kyoto climate change protocol (178-1), a biodiversity treaty, a verification mechanism for a Biological Weapons Control Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty limiting export of small arms.

The article’s aim, written before September 11, was to delineate a serious divergence between the United States and Europe, which supported all those agreements. The two have also fallen out over treatment of the environment in the WTO and regulation of genetic modification — to which might now be added steel.

A London Review of Books article in February put this contrariness partly down to a narrow reading of the United States constitution as outlawing any international agreement which runs counter to it. A small arms ban transgresses the right to bear arms.

The article also saw much United States foreign policy as “an ongoing attempt to acquire new frontiers” where its citizens can roam free. This justifies interference in other nations to protect American citizens and commerce.

The Review’s third reason is power. Dominant nations have always made their law others’ law: Spain in the sixteenth century, France in the eighteenth and Britain in the nineteenth.

The London Economist this month, analysing the implications for the United States-Europe relationship of Bush’s intention to sort out Iraq, portrayed an egregiously powerful United States that sees itself as saving western civilisation and assumes a free hand. Other countries might join, but on United States’ terms — effectively, as one senior European leader has fumed in private, as vassals.

The parallels are Rome at its height and imperial China.

Next Tuesday Clark will enter the throne room. The tribute she will bring is the SAS in Afghanistan — a tiny but usefully symbolic thickening of the patina of international legitimisation for that venture.

Clark will also bring a directness Bush respects. She will talk free trade. Her focus will be on commonalities, not divisions such as Kyoto (and nuclear weapons).

But she will talk as a multilateralist. And she will be talking to a man who cannot comprehend what that might mean or why he should bother. The United States is not always right.