Friday, 31 August 2007

Ugly unilateralism and following rights abuses

The sense of being let down hard spreads in areas of human rights and liberty (legal protection) as well. It was recognised that the US is a rights country, placing rights above rules and powers. Sacrifice of certain privileges serves the purpose of upholding rights for ordinary people; otherwise, the US is no different from some rouge states identified by US strategists as well as rights watchers. This myth has endured long enough for the US to house and entertain rights abuse victims from all over the world. As Seinfeld once passionately declared in that comedy show, whoever the people you don’t want, send them to the US, we will take them all. In countless Hollywood movie scenes, the Statute of Liberty in New York stood out as the ultimate symbol of this acceptance of and protection to genuine refugees and rights seekers. Rights are inalienable, above state persecution, and enjoyed by all.

This heart warming image, however, has since more resembled a bragging, sounding hollow for the first time in a post-Cold War world. The turning point is the Iraq war, with the attached horrible incidents of legal black holes in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and other US occupied territories, and of more recent shocking killing of 24 civilians in Haditha. How far backward a step the US has taken can be shown in Pentagon’s latest guidelines to their troops of giving their detained suspects basic Geneva Conventions protection and humane treatment. Those basic obligations and rights were offered universally early last century, and nasty violators in Japanese and German armies earned them eternal infamy. Rights can be instantly taken away by American military or civilian personnel, with little recourse or chance of an appeal. Justice is no loner relevant to those affected and victimised. In recent US-initiated conflicts, where the military was let loose, prisoner abuses bound to happen, in the hands of rank and file American soldiers and officers who passed years of their upbringing being taught to respect people’s rights. Human rights mean little in these closed sites, and abuses come in the basest, inhuman forms, comparable to those claimed to be used in Americans’ listed rouge countries. Those shocking abuses are in sharp contrast to lenient and over considerate treatment of those rights violators, who have enjoyed full legal defense for their gross misconduct and are given light sentences, in the name of serving American national interests overseas with distinction. That is an awakening, a terrible realisation that the US as the declared global rights defender can easily revert to be a rights violator when circumstances allow. Previous decorations of good deeds look so feeble these days.

If those exposed scandals of prisoner abuse and civilian killings are treatments non-Americans were subjected to, rights are visibly eroded also within the US, such as unauthorised phone tapping of millions of citizens. In the panic and sometimes hysterical atmosphere post September 11, draconian laws and rules came in haste to command people’s life in unprecedented ways, restraining civil liberties further by promoting public showing of patriotism. The well-known protestor Cindy Sheehan faced arrest several times, for her anti-war stance unpopular to the conservatives and her staging rallies outside the White House causing embarrassment and inconvenience to the Bush staff. An American activist was detained in Australia and deported back to the US for his peace appeal tour, classified as a possible threat to national security. Even country music stars Dixie Chicks got the axe and silenced for a number of years for their public ridicule of Bush junior. Under this chilling atmosphere, fear is bred deep and wide, fear of being targeted by terrorist groups, being constantly watched by the big brother with unbelievably sophisticated technologies, and, most of all, of being judged suspect of treason. Politicians and the public are cowed into not voicing their concerns in case being stitched with the label of unpatriotic to the country of God chosen. The media kept silent most of the time, avoiding annoying the administration and radical sections of the public at a wrong time and even cheer-leading the invasion of Iraq in humble and obedient ways seldom seen of this unique professional group which touts unrelenting pursuit of truth and accountability of the authorities. This is perhaps a rare time that rights give way to power, to concerted, choreographed sentiments, and to bolder fanatics, which has made a big dent on the solidity and sincerity of rights protection in the US in good times and bad. A uniformity of opinions seems not an impossibly distant reality in this land of diversity, even with recent expose by the media of certain government mishandling of affairs, essentially piecemeal and shallow in relation to issues of rights and principles.

The US government, in the heat of war effort and punishing offenders, failed to hold on to the bottom lines reserved to keep the basic human dignity in a civilised society managed by a civilised administration. They have also failed to defend the honour of the most powerful nation on earth and in history, proclaimed the only and last bastion of liberty and rights if all other places fall into dark ages. In truth, it fell hard by letting loose of its own disgraceful behaviours.

There are other serious concerns and deepened anxiety over the US’s disturbing behaviours, such as blatant double standards in domestic and international affairs, or a retreat from the proclaimed multiculturalism. Above all, the greatest let down of this century is the failure of the leading nation on earth to lead the right direction, which has caused considerable mischief and suffering. This is doubly disappointing, as the American way had to some extent proved a remarkable improvement on past trials and experiences in search of an ideal destination of the human race. That myth of ultimate achievement, an end of history, has been fast fading; no matter how strenuously and spectacularly Hollywood makes its splendid presentations of the nation, it ceases to be a magic. People around the world are now able to see that even the very best the US has to offer are only humans, rather than philosophy kings, and they unavoidable make mistakes as human beings, out of greed, self interest, misguided beliefs, and simply misjudgement. People can also through the statements and promises from the US government on rights, progress, destiny, the world order, etc. In surveys of recent years, the international image of the US has been on the way down consistently, tarnished badly by its irrational and unpredictable actions. The US has lost valuable credit and people’s confidence in good intentions of its policy or measures.

In regard to hopes and broken promises in this disorientated world, human societies are moving backward to the primitive stages of history when force and might, instead of unbiased rules and consensus, dominated the scene, resurrecting the very nature of law of the jungle. In a fashion reminiscent of the beginning of the 20th century, soon after the euphoria, carnage and brute force prevailed, and human beings exposed their base nature and thirst for gobbling up available feeds. Most of the bad things common in the early years of the last century recur in similar fashion and forms. Between these two historic moments, one hundred years apart, there are countless similarities to make people seriously wonder what progresses have really been made, in terms of behaviours, ambition and vested interests, despite phenomenal advancements of technologies and sophistication of organisation, and whether the human race tends to buckle under pressure in history and repeat past nastiness. This is indeed a great leap backward of gigantic magnitude.

The performance of US has not lowered people’s anxiety but heightened it. It has long been an open secret that the US no longer respects individual national sovereignty and international bodies like the UN. The former is selective, of course; the US protects its own sovereignty solemnly at any given time. When national sovereignty concerns an entity against another power, this concept is also fervently guarded by the US, in line with its grand geopolitical strategies. This has been demonstrated in its determined stance supporting an ally such as Israel or in nourishing an East European lightweight against Russia. When American interests and strategies overseas are involved, national sovereignty of others proves an egg-shell thin shield likely to be smashed through at will. The explicit disrespect is relatively new, when US governments are convinced that they could not count on the UN to grant vital endorsement every time they demand it. The real rationale behind the once glamorous global village myth is that it needs a big guy as the head of village which get things done his own way, with unquestioned support of all members. In the scenario of a “consensus” unattainable, the US decides on a different approach, a resolute abandonment of an internationalised solution under the UN.

The guiding principle is now ominously “with us or against us”. This is the equivalent of Americans saying “my way or the highway”. Although applying this slang to an international institution of UN sounds quite awkward and foolish, in reality the US has succeeded in effectively eroding those establishments through unilateralism and unmistaken demonstration of desire for hegemony. It is not that international bodies cease to exist; they rather cease to function properly and have lost even the nominal powers or restraints over what the US prefers to do against the wishes of other members, in particular those who are not bought or coerced. The Iraq war dispels the myth and disguise the US put on previously about its commitment to international cooperation and rule-observing. Failing to obtain a UN endorsement gives the US ample reasons to let loose of their contempt and grudge, thus sinking the last nail to the fate of the UN. Once people realised that one particular member of the UN can get away from stated obligations and seek own course of vengeance by force, the entire trust on this international body, along with all the hooplas of global village American style, crumbled. International laws and understanding of preventing war and penalising unprovoked aggression are dismissed flippantly. The reputation and credibility of the UN have since been seriously and publicly undermined. It may not be the official policy of the US to disband the UN, though a few American hawks did openly explore that possibility, but when US governments sense obstacles there to its strategies or schemes, they simply cannot repel the urge to lean on to unilateralism and make bold, unauthorised moves in the face of a stunned UN and simmering disagreement.

It is worth while exploring this unilateralism from another angle. Even though it stands at the opposite side of multilateralism, the question remains as since when has multilateralism in fact worked? Why unilateralism as a policy was so easily accepted? Multilateralism is meant to see justice and obligations in play both ways, rather than one-sided scrutiny over the less fortunate and voiceless. This rationalising, however, is not going to be played in real life, because only the powerful can make intruding request of search and investigation of other countries, with or without UN backing. The UN’s failure to accommodate and facilitate those demands from the weak exposes its weaknesses all along, suffering discredit and humiliation in the hands of a superpower and seasoned manipulator. Multilateralism is another casualty in this tilted arrangement of international brokerage.

Some showing of multilateralism existed simply because strategic interests of the US were not directly affected by talks and negotiations in areas of trade or cultural exchanges. Developed countries with considerable armed forces in general gave room for dialogues and tolerated certain inconveniences, such as voting and debating in the UN. Ultimate decisions were made by powers and allies, not by public will in a show of hands. Motions from poor and developing countries rarely got passed and fully executed. It is only the resolutions on international affairs from the US and allies which receive full attention and enforcement. This selective implementation of US resolutions then becomes farcical.

The transformation from some forms of multilateralism to ardent unilateralism by the US went seamlessly in a relatively short period of time. Multilateralism proves not genuine, lasting, and secured. It relies solely on the good will and tolerance of the superpower in a calm mood. Once vital interests are in some conceived jeopardy, the US sees little necessity to keep the pose of multilateralism, being overly expensive and exhausting, and would take the more effective strategy of unilateralism. There is this grievance the US harbours deeply that they wasted on sharing resources and decision making with large numbers of countries and it should now go it alone. The harsh reality of unequal status among countries does not sustain a feeble existence of multilateralism for long, and this misfit gives the US excellent excuse and incentive to switch to unilateralism by the early 21st century.

Tolerance implies the degree a person or society to tolerate certain unpleasant or unwelcome things, even if unwillingly. Dependence on others’ tolerance is a risky business, since this tolerance could possibly reach its upper limit and break. The moral standards of the tolerant are supposed to be high and stable, but these standards come to endure painful tests till a collapse occurs, similar to a person who snapped for a variety of reasons. Dependence on tolerance from the powerful is even riskier: that tolerance can be withdrawn quite easily and casually when real interests are viewed as affected or endangered, and there appears little room left for further handing out or decent sharing. Tolerance is nice and comfortable, but it clearly changes nothing between the giver and receiver, in terms of status, perceptions, and negotiating power. Behind this veil of tolerance under proclaimed multilateralism, the US chooses to leave the UN’s authority challenged and eroded, but not tolerate challenge to and questions about its own authority in interpreting events and making unilateral decisions. Tolerance merely marks the line the US draws between multilateralism and unilateralism.

Acceptance and recognition are more appropriate, accurate, and commendable notions in international relations than this somewhat reluctant and self-imposed tolerance. To recognise others’ right and views enhances the notion of multilateralism and minimises impulses and risks in taking up the military option so recklessly in international affairs. This requires accepting equal treatment and dealing of others, based on common interests and understanding of rights in coverage and depth. Acceptance and recognition have only been nominally adopted within the UN, in routine procedures and protocols, but have failed true tests numerous times when real clashes of interest came to a head. A sincere embracing by the US is seriously lacking, in its entrenched habit of toying with unilateralism and earnest quest for hegemony.

This policy choice of unilateralism is understandable in the context of a newly found zeal for hegemony. After all, the US is a normal country, not a holy country or another Holy Roman Empire.
This is a society of human beings with normal ambitions and shortcomings, and they make routine and odd mistakes, mistakes most people can quickly identify the absurdities with, except American establishments which hold an unwavering certainty of correctness and righteousness. It is odd that American politicians come under nearly daily ridicules and scrutiny, but their stance or approach to international affairs are mostly cheered on by domestic public opinions, an indication of how deeply entrenched the belief in superiority exist in this diverse and democratic nation.

The US uniqueness or exceptionalism has raised high expectations of many to follow a genuine world leader of no undesirable characteristics, expectations especially strong from those faithful who fled to the US to dismiss their own countries and cultural roots. In reality, the US did not escape the course of encountering series of failings. It has its own troubles, inability to solve domestic problems, economic disasters and mishandling, setbacks and low morale, lack of leadership, brutality, aggressions, and faults in management and corporate governance. The idea of US exceptionalism vanished at the time of the tech bubble burst, and the US went through familiar economic cycles, illustrating no immunity to market failures and upheavals. The US led wars in the early 21st century undoubtedly shocked many to submission at first, but the ensuing predicaments and quagmires exposed wide open the limited capability of the US to put things in order in other territories. The best it can do is to offer certain solutions and formulas and see what would happen. With genuine intention and support, some may work, but a forced transplant mostly fails.

It is convenient for people to forget the short time span of the US ascendancy. Placed in a very long term perspective, this is only one piece of progress in a nation, commendable but less impressive. Watching closer, those generalised as absolute truths cover mostly post WWII US spectacle. To define all developments with the experience of a nation in around half a century is over-simplifying, and to take up the US supremacy since the end of last century as permanent and perpetual is beyond rational deductions. A wiser option is not to view Pax Americana as the end of history, a misguided view begging people’s homage to such a hegemony. Leaving that guise aside, people will see the US more of another normal country on a familiar course of shifts and wobbles, even with its recent awesome strength and might. There is little sacred or mythical about it.

There seems little in the way of a US hegemony or domination of the world, and benefits from occupying such a high-up position flow generously indeed. The point is whether hegemony can be benign or accommodating, or extremely unilateral and overpowering that put other peoples off. This extraordinary American unilateralism has hijacked the vehicle of anti-terrorism to violate international laws and cause horrifying destruction. Terror does exist, in both modes of terrorist organisations and state terrorism. Without genuine multilateralism and true acceptance of diversity, rights and the universal sense of security are in a fast diminishing streak under the weight of unrivaled might of a single member of the international community.

No comments: