WE USED TO be better at idealism, as a new book on Eleanor Roosevelt's remarkable work in international human rights makes clear. It also leaves you wondering: What the dickens would she have made of the United States losing a seat on the very commission she helped found 47 years ago?
''A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,'' by Mary Ann Glendon, came out just as the United States was finding itself for the first time without a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Commission. Mrs. Roosevelt - with her keen eye for where a problem lay - would likely have recognized a number of reasons.
Four Western nations were vying for three seats, and the three others worked much harder to get them. France reportedly started lobbying six months back. Also, there was the sizable dose of ''we'll show you'' - a feeling in some parts that the American colossus could use some consciousness-raising.
We've looked pretty obstructionist in the last several years, opposing treaties to ban land mines, regulate the seas, provide universal access to AIDS medications, and establish an international criminal court. Our Senate failed to ratify the nuclear test ban treaty. And we've long refused to pay our dues, making a beggar of the UN.
President Bush has stepped still further toward unilateralism, rebuffing a global warming treaty, pushing missile defense, and spurning the existing arms-control regime. And he has yet to send his UN representative nomination to the Senate.
Also recognizable in the process was something much more welcome - the effect of the spread of democracy. More nations are more avidly pursuing their own interests, as their press and publics clamor for them to. In short, we are discovering a truth likely to become increasingly familiar: Being the world's strongest power does not make us omnipotent. Other nations have strengths, too, and competing interests - and they are joining forces to pursue them. The developing world has spawned a bloc called the G77. Now 133 strong, they can command two-thirds of the UN's votes. The European Union, meanwhile, is at 15 countries and growing.
Then, of course, there's the fact that, while we may think we are entirely admirable, not everyone agrees. True, we can't touch what one observer rightly called the ''rogues' gallery of human rights abusers'' who have retained their seats on the commission. But some of our behavior is problematic even in friends' eyes, and we'd do well to ponder how others see us.
The French-American Foundation conducted a poll recently asking the French public to select ''images that come to mind when you think of America.'' Perhaps you would think of, say, ''freedom.'' And 20 percent did pick that. Or how about ''generosity''? Four percent chose that. The big draws were ''violence,'' at 67 percent and ''power'' at 66 percent. Also, ''inequality'' at 49 percent and ''racism'' at 42 percent.
But introspection doesn't come as easy as indignation. ''I don't like our diplomats walking around the UN with little signs on their backs that say, `Kick me,''' said Representative Henry Hyde, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, as he sponsored a measure to withhold some UN funding in revenge. It passed in the House and awaits Senate action.
Better we should set to work trying to regain our seat, while continuing our dedication to the human rights goals Mrs. Roosevelt so bravely pursued almost half a century ago. They're still far short of achievement, of course. But Hyde might ponder the analogy raised by his fellow Illinoisian, Abraham Lincoln, whom Glendon quotes on the concept of ''equality'' in the Declaration of Independence:
''[The drafters] did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. ... They meant simply to declare the right so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.
''They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society which should be familiar to all: constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colors, everywhere.''
The progress has been neither fast nor sure, but the pursuit of it is well worth some annoyances. The effort to achieve human rights standards, as a wise piece on Glendon's book in The New York Review of Books puts it, represents ''the frontier between civilization and barbarism.'' It's not just idealism, but pragmatism, too, that bids us to continue the effort.
Geneva Overholseris a syndicated columnist.
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