ATLANTA -- From our Declaration of Independence's recognition that the
new nation owed "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind," we have come to
pretty much not giving a rat's patootie.
The United States is a sour and reluctant participant in the U.N. World Summit
on Sustainable Development. Where more than 100 heads of state are attending --
including most of Europe's -- President George W. Bush was having none of
it. Secretary of State Colin Powell will show up only for the last two days of
the 10-day Johannesburg meeting.
Granted, the conference is likely to be more jaw-jaw than action and whatever
resolutions it finally passes probably will be long on ideology, short on practicality.
These affairs are the Olympics of posturing.
Even so, the conference is engaged with issues that the larger part of the
world understands as critical and urgent -- the ticklish business of both protecting
the environment and accelerating Third World development to narrow the gap, which
is widening instead, between the Earth's prosperous millions and poor billions.
Most nations see far greater danger in environmental degradation that threatens
the biosphere and in the social grievances that great disparities in income are
piling up than they do in Saddam Hussein.
These are legitimate concerns and deserve thoughtful attention.
Instead, the United States, once a world environmental leader, comes to the
table blowing off environmental worries as just so much claptrap cover for anti-capitalist
sneaks. (And President Bush unveiled a new environmental step typical of his administration:
to prevent forest fires, let timber companies cut down the trees! Why did nobody
think of that before?)
The conference finds the United States, nowadays a client state of the energy
companies, working with Saudi Arabia to fight a resolution urging developed nations
to adopt renewable energy wherever possible -- wind, solar and such.
The Bush administration is certainly correct that a substantial part of world
poverty is the handiwork of hopeless governments. Simply dumping aid on them is
futile -- or worse, enabling. Here's betting the conference chickens out on
chiding its many despots and thieves.
But bad regimes often can be bypassed. Nongovernmental charities reach needy
populations directly, and multinational programs against common problems such
as AIDS can dodge empowered kleptocrats. The president has proposed a modest increase
in assistance, but even with that, the American effort trails that of most developed
If we shy from being a large part of the solution, we at least could stop being
a large part of the problem. One result, for instance, of the increasing privatization
of world water resources, as urged by market absolutists, is that a growing number
of people have no access to safe drinking water. They can't afford it.
And farm subsidies and tariffs -- here our holier-than-thou European friends
are even worse offenders than we are -- keep Third World food stuffs out of lucrative
markets, spiking one of the prime means to broader development.
Increasingly unilateral and exceptionalist -- the "What, Me Worry?" kid of
international affairs -- the United States is often these days simply absent from
the broad concerns of much of the world and sullen when on hand. We are doing
ourselves no favor.
© Copyright 2002 Star Tribune