By Simon Jenkins (THE GUARDIAN, 30/05/08):
Gazing briefly at the Eurovision song contest this week I could not rid my mind of a quite different image, that of Nato’s multilateral force headquarters in Kabul. There was the same flag-waving and confusion of purpose, the same small-state rivalry and cynical balancing of interests. There was the same belief that, simply by being international, a so-called community of nations was forged.
For Eurovision and Nato, read the Olympics and Burma, read the Moscow cup final and Darfur. Read the European parliament, Fifa, the World Bank, the Organisation of African Unity, the European parliament. I was brought up to regard “international” as synonymous with saintly. It was a concept to supplant the rude nationalism of the 20th century in a worldwide concord of peace, ruled by a clerisy of selfless bureaucrats; Dag Hammersköld out of Albert Schweitzer.
Today the word “international” suggests tailored suits, tax-free salaries, white Land Cruisers and Geneva. The Eurovision contest is run by the European Broadcasting Union with 400 staff in Switzerland, with no risk of oversight or reform. It takes after the International Olympics Committee, which now charges its host taxpayers $20-30bn for two weeks of extravaganza in the name of bogus world brotherhood. Fifa, the international football regulator/promoter, forces thousands of English fans to travel to Moscow to watch their teams act out an insult to the great game – a penalty shoot-out stunt staged because television cannot bear a draw.
It may seem crude to leap from such mundane activities to world peace, but the ruling assumption is the same, that internationalism legitimises itself. It rises above (never below) the nation state and its rulemakers owe allegiance only to an ideal of global community, which means whatever they choose. The ever-more numerous world bodies to which the British Foreign Office subscribes need never pass the eye of any National Audit Office.
It was only when America briefly withdrew from Unesco and capped its contribution to the UN that steps were taken to curb that organisation’s waste and corruption, which culminated in Kofi Annan’s obscene 2000 “poverty summit”, which I watched as it gridlocked New York and emptied it of lobsters and champagne. The only good thing to emerge from the warped brain of America’s former UN ambassador, John Bolton, was his reform package, and he blew it. Nor can Europe talk. The EU still cannot get its accounts past any reputable auditor nor control the outrageous expenses of its parliamentarians.
This laxity turned to ghoulishness when Save the Children last week revealed the atrocities against women and children committed by UN peacekeeping troops in Africa. Soldiers thought that the sacred carapace of the blue beret put them beyond ordinary jurisdiction. In a similar, if less brutal, spirit, the World Bank for decades forced indebtedness on bankrupt countries, lest someone cut its gargantuan budget.
We are all still hardwired to treat international as a good thing. In the process we have abandoned the constitutionalism and accountability that should govern any form of government if it is not to run amok. The one facet of neoconservative America that I share is frustration with the UN and related organisations’ inability to walk the talk.
It took the UN three weeks just to visit Burma, despite the clear threat to humanity of the regime’s response to the cyclone. Meanwhile an American relief convoy is still sitting inert offshore. Ask me which humanitarian intervention is the more plausible and I will reply, ask those facing catastrophe in the Irrawaddy delta.
On these pages earlier this week, the former UN undersecretary, Shashi Tharoor, rang an alarm over the emergence in America of a demand for a “league of democracies”, substituting for the UN’s globalised inertia. Proposed, by left and right alike, is a coalition of the voting classes, somehow defined and clearly under the leadership of America, to stand out against the half of the world still in the grip of authoritarianism.
Tharoor argued cogently that this would be a regressive move, dividing the globe “just when there has never been greater need for a system of universally applicable rules and laws that will hold all countries together in a shared international community”. Excluding China and Russia and polarising the world into goodies and baddies was not the way to get things done.
On this score I think I would relax. A league of democracies would soon turn into another G8, Council of Europe or Nato political committee. It would stage conferences, demand that something must be done and do nothing but upset those excluded from the fun. But the proposal reflects a craving for an internationalism that is not producer-captured by the UN and others.
The Americans are right, that if you want something done in the world, get a nation to do it, not an inter-nation. I may be opposed to both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but there is a significant difference between them noticeable to any visitor to their capitals. In Baghdad, America is unmistakably in charge and the world follows. There is a clear line of command that leads, however misguidedly, to Washington. Things get done.
Afghanistan is the opposite, the embodiment of Tharoor’s globalism in practice. Some 30 nations piled into Kabul after 2001, under the banners of Nato and the UN. There was and remains no coherence, no agreed strategy and a perpetual feuding over rules of engagement, use of air power and policies for anti-corruption and counter-narcotics. Things do not get done.
Some 10,000 UN, Nato and NGO officials and their hangers-on fall over each other in the streets of Kabul. Command structures overlap. It is a recipe for failure. Yet because the “international community” has given Afghanistan its blessing, the intervention must be benign. It is the ultimate feelgood war.
Some of the best people I know have struggled to do good abroad. They have sacrificed career, home and hearth to help others, even to advance the noble cause of world government against all odds. Thus there are worthy campaigners for a global rule of law, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, but they are let down by the longwinded international court in The Hague. This moves at the speed of the slowest jurisprudence because it accounts to no one.
Filling this accountability deficit has long been debated by NGOs such as the Red Cross and by UN agencies. It obsesses the few UN activists who know they must reform or lose out to American unilateralism, or to such botches as a league of democracies.
No organisation has a right to live forever purely for being international. Yet such are the bureaucrats who crowd Geneva’s nameplate-land, with no more accountability than their neighbours, the Swiss banks. And they grow incessantly. The G8, once an informal “library chat” of world leaders, has inflated into a chauvinist display of competitive extravagance. As goes the G8, so goes the world.
Until internationalism can acquire a more robust accountability, there will be more Burmas and more Iraqs. The superpower and the nation state will reassert global sovereignty. International must stop flying first class.