Thursday, June 08, 2006

Brown Speaks, the Giant Whines

Speaking at a recent conference sponsored by the Century Foundation and the Center for American Progress, the United Nations' second in command, Marc Malloch Brown, made what he called "a sincere and constructive critique of the U.S." by pointing out that Washington has recklessly blasted the multinational organization, complicated ongoing reform, and hid the organization's important role from a swath of its population.

No sooner had Mr. Brown's rare open criticism finished bouncing off the walls of the auditorium than the U.S.'s ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton, was hyperbolically accusing Mr. Brown, whose remarks he called "illegitimate," of committing what possibly was the greatest mistake ever committed by a high-ranking U.N. official. This, Mr. Bolton said, could severely affect the very future of the body, or minimally, the reforms that it so desperately needs.

As if this weren't enough, Mr. Bolton also accused Mr. Brown, a Brit, of having condescendingly and patronizingly referred to Middle America in his comments, as if the mention of a geographical area and the people within it had some deeply-hidden eugenic meaning. Aside for the fact that it is very presumptuous, on the part of the United States, to refer to itself as "America"—which, truth be told, is a continent comprising a great number of countries, of which the United States is but one—I can hardly imagine Ottawa, for example, taking exception to the mention of Central Canada and its people, or Beijing lamenting the usage of Central Chinese. There is no condescension here, only the reference to a specific constituent part of the United States that, as Mr. Brown rightly points out, is often being kept in the dark on international matters. If one thing, Mr. Brown, from whose hand I received my diploma in humanitarian assistance in 2001, is hoping to increase awareness of the organization within the U.S. so that its people can make an educated assessment of whether the supranational body is acting in their interest or not—hardly an act of condescension, one would think.

What is it, one wonders, with giants and their inability to brook criticism? One cannot help but draw comparisons with totalitarian regimes, which routinely bully others, disappear dissidents, and shut down vocal media. Has Washington become so powerful that it now expects criticism to be a strictly one-way street—in other words, that it's acceptable for the White House to defy and humiliate other parties, but that when that criticism bounces back, it's nothing short of treason? Not too long ago, the former Canadian Prime Minster, Paul Martin, met a storm of criticism when he publicly criticized the U.S. stance on the Kyoto Protocol. In fact, whenever Ottawa publicly disagrees with Washington, it is quite undiplomatically accused of "irrelevance" or compared to a "retarded cousin." It has become a recurrent theme over the years, and many are the individuals and states that have been subjected to this rule: do not criticize the United States, or else you will be called all sorts of names ("anti-American," "against freedom," or a plain supporter of terrorism), diplomatic and economic ties will be threatened, or, in the extreme, bombs will start raining on you. No matter the treatment, there is one constant: Washington's response unwaveringly leaves the author of the criticism with a bloody nose.

Is the United States, despite its go-it-alone attitude of the past few years, so unsure on its feet that it cannot brook a critical assessment of its polities by others (or even people within its own system, for that matter)? Why is the so-called city on a hill, this alleged example for the world to follow, suddenly unassailable? Have we entered an era of unipolar totalitarianism, with the U.S. at the top?

That the United States is an important part of the U.N. is beyond question. Without the former, the survivability of the latter would be seriously jeopardized. But there is no reason why the organization could not, on occasion, criticize it. After all, isn't criticism, of members and non-members alike, one of the fundamental reasons why the body was created? What would be its utility, to give but one example, if it weren't allowed to lambaste states from their failure to comply with human rights standards? I do not think that the U.N. has invidiously singled out the U.S. for criticism, or that, unlike the giant, it has done so with undue frequency. In fact, it is probably the unusualness of Mr. Brown's direct comments that has given rise to the political storm. This bespeaks tremendous immaturity on the part of the U.S. government, which rather than accept and build upon criticism, has the unfortunate tendency to lash out and deflect.

So much greater is the leader who turns criticism into a tool with which to sharpen his blade.

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