At his speech at the United Nations last week, President Bush denounced the "19-year reign of fear" by the military dictatorship in Burma. About time our president starts denouncing reigns of fear instead of creating them. And about time our president starts standing up against human rights abuses instead of creating them. But having apparently decided that civil war in Iraq, drilling in the Arctic and torture in Guantanamo shouldn't be the legacy of his presidency, Bush faces two very ironic puzzles.
The first irony is that President Bush is calling on the United Nations to take action in Burma (known by dictators everywhere as Myanmar). This is the very same United Nations that Bush circumvented and undermined to launch his war in Iraq. At the time, he said, "if we need to act, we will act, and we really don't need United Nations approval to do so." <http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/03/20030306-8.html>. So Burma needs UN approval but the US doesn't. And the US doesn't need the UN to intervene on its own actions, just the actions of others.
Thus, ironic obstacle number one is that the president who couldn't get the United Nations out of his way fast enough is now imploring the United Nations to act. Is it any wonder the international body is in a weak position to do so, given that the US helped to weaken it? Note that, as of March 2007, the United States owed $1.968 billion in unpaid debt to the United Nations, accounting for 55% of unpaid debt to the body. <http://www.globalpolicy.org/finance/tables/core/un-us-07.htm>. Maybe, having been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, President Bush doesn't realize that if you want things to work, you have to pay for them --- like, for instance, the State Children's Health Insurance Program or, in this case, the UN. It would also help if we had troops to contribute to UN peacekeeping forces but our troops are busy "peacekeeping" elsewhere...
The second irony is that, absent a stronger and more effective United Nations, our hope for action around Burma is placed in the nations who have diplomatic and economic relations with Burma, and China is Burma's top trading partner. <http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1665574,00.html>. But under economic policies initiated by Clinton and sent into warp speed by Bush, the United States now buys more than it sells in the global marketplace. Most of the stuff we buy --- the cheap crap sold at Wal-Mart and the other low-wage, big-box stores --- is made in China. Our individual consumption and mounting consumer debt --- the average American household carries over $8,000 in credit card debt ( http://moneycentral.msn.com/content/SavingandDebt/P70581.asp) --- feed that dynamic. American companies profit off the cheap labor of the Chinese and the mounting debt of American consumers. Meanwhile, a country can't buy more than it sells. It has to finance the gap. So the US sells treasury bonds and other securities to other countries, of which China holds $407.8 billion. That means China literally owns a big, whopping chunk of the United States economy (second only to Japan, which holds a bit more).
Now imagine you owe someone $407.8 billion dollars. Let's call that someone China. You have massive, unsustainable debt and China controls almost 20% of it. You're not going to want to do anything that might piss China off or China might call the debt. And believe me, you don't have $407.8 billion --- or you wouldn't have had to borrow it from China in the first place.
Thus, ironic obstacle number two is that the Bush administration's hands are tied to push China to take action against Burma --- or the Sudan or Tibet, for that matter --- because the Bush Administration has auctioned off our over-consuming, race-to-the-bottom economy to the highest foreign bidder. By screwing everyone --- American workers and Chinese workers alike --- our economic structure guarantees that we're in no position to help anyone, either. Certainly in no position to be prodding China on human rights.
The answer to these puzzles, of course, is simple. Our country's fate has become linked with others, but not in the way it should be. Rather than embracing go-it-alone cowboy war planning, as we did in Iraq, we must join with other nations and build a strong and effective United Nations where we can, together, help solve the world's problems. And rather than hitching our economic wagon to the rough-and-tumble unpredictability of the global marketplace, and China's whims in particular, we must restore a more sustainable balance, where we trade with other nations when it makes sense but also rebuild our economic infrastructure here at home --- including jobs that pay well enough that we can afford to buy goods from companies who also pay their workers living wages. When desperate crises arise like that in Burma, it shouldn't be one nation like China --- or the United States --- pulling all the strings but the world community, all in it together, advancing democracy and justice. Sally Kohn is the director of the Movement Vision Project, working with grassroots community-led organizations across the United States to identify our shared, long-term vision for the future.