“At present, the United Nations closely resembles the American nation under the Articles of Confederation (1781-1789). The inherent problems with that system demonstrated the need for ‘a more perfect Union,’ which was duly accomplished with the signing of the United States Constitution. And just as Confederation led to true American federalism, so the UN is the precursor of a true United States of the World.”
If that analogy seems strained or even frightening, perhaps we should not worry too much about it, because the preceding passage only reflects the views of a tiny but well-financed pressure group called the World Federalist Alliance. The WFA expressed its opinions in a full-page advertisement published this past February in the New York Times and other papers, under a beaming and somewhat inane portrait of the group’s president and CFO, former presidential candidate John Anderson. Because of the particular event which called forth their prophecy, however, the WFA cannot simply be dismissed as a bunch of cranks. The WFA manifesto was directly inspired by a speech by President Clinton which, although virtually ignored by the mainstream press, contained a remarkable and wildly ambitious description of a new global federalism which is incompatible with any present notion of American sovereignty. And while American conservatives have long dreaded the erosion of sovereignty by means of various international conspiracies, the most perilous feature of die new vision is that Americans will be drawn ever more deeply into foreign wars and entanglements in pursuit of an unattainable global hegemony. Though nobody is seriously debating such proposals in any democratically elected legislature, legal and diplomatic developments over the last decade have gone very far toward making these “federalist” dreams a practical reality, and the lack of outrage is startling.
What exactly did Clinton say? The speech in question was given in October 1999 at the Forum of Federations Conference in Mont-Tremblant, Canada, and his major theme was “Federalism.” Given the venue, and the presence of many Canadian politicians, Clinton’s audience paid the most attention to his comments on the Canadian situation, and the relationship between die province of Quebec and the nation’s federal government. He was wideK quoted as defending the constitutional status quo. The American experience, he argued, proved the virtues of federalism. So far, so good, but he also made some surprisingly broad references which delighted the WFA. He declared:
I personally believe that you will see more federalism rather than less in the years ahead, and I offer, as exhibit A, the European Union. It’s really a new form of federalism, where the States—in this case, the nations of Europe—are far more important and powerful than the federal government, but they are giving enough functions over to the federal government to sort of reinforce their mutual interest in an integrated economy and in some integrated political circumstances. In a way, we’ve become more of a federalist world when the United Nations takes a more active role in stopping genocide in places in which it was not involved, and we recognize mutual responsibilities to contribute and pay for those things.
Clinton seemed to be speaking positively of a global situation in which individual states gave up power to supranational authorities in order to integrate political and economic development. Also, it is clear from the context that this happy process of forming new multistate leviathans was not merely to be confined to Europe, Canada, or Africa, but that this emerging “federalist world” would include the United States, which (according to Clinton’s worldview) had just led the way in preventing “genocide” in Kosovo. Taking him at his word, he was speaking overtly of a United Nations reconfigured with the vast intrusive regulatory powers of the present-day European Community, that deeply unloved and unlovely octopus currently smothering the national currencies of the individual nations under its sway. (Is that where he sees NAFTA heading?) Thankfully, he did not suggest that the United States might be drawn into a new global federation “to provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare,” and other evocative phrases which would have ignited a firestorm in the United States.
The most interesting feature of Clinton’s speech was his vision of how nations would be induced to accept some kind of federalism, namely, through common opposition to “genocide” and, by extension, to the glaring misdeeds of other bandit nations worldwide. The WFA likewise demands a world government “to adequately address global concerns such as genocide, terrorism, and environmental pollution.” In the 1990’s, the most powerful argument for integrating U.S. policy into a global “federalist” whole was this notion of joint action against the perceived abuses of small states, action which all too often was undertaken almost exclusively by American forces.
In this context, the concept of genocide is wonderfully useful, not least because it is so flexible. The word itself is so potent that it is all too likely to score an instant knockdown: Country X, we are told, is committing genocide against its people; therefore, we are intervening militarily. How can you oppose such a proposition? Criticizing the venture leads to supplementary questions of the have-you-stopped-beating-your-wife variety: “So you support genocide?” Or even sleazier, “So you would not have tried to save the Jews from Hitier in 1942?”
The problem is that the term “genocide” can be extended almost without limit. When, in 1994, the Rwandan Hutu tried systematically to eradicate their Tutsi neighbors through largescale massacres, that fit the description of genocide by most accounts, but Clinton is evidently not referring to that affair, because the United Nations conspicuously did not intervene or “take a more active role” in that unhappy country. He must be referring to the Balkans, namely to Kosovo and to the 1995 events in Srebrenica, when several thousand Bosnians were allegedly wiped out by Serbian militias. Though the event is commonly invoked to justify military intervention in other confrontations worldwide, Srebrenica is best seen as one atrocity among many committed by all sides in the convoluted events of the Balkan wars of the 90’s, and its use as a prime example of genocide is stark testimony to the devaluation of that word in recent political rhetoric.
“Global federalism” therefore implies international military action against sovereign states not in cases of true genocide, but in any confrontation in which civilians are being killed and the corporate news media have decided to demonize one particular side. Once that decision has been made, there is literally no limit to the possible expansion of the genocide concept: Think back over the past 30 years or so, and recall how the United States was accused of committing “genocide” in Viehiam; the Israelis, in Lebanon; the British, in Northern Ireland; American police, in urban ghettos; and so on, ad nauseam. Remember, several years back, how the CIA was supposedly using crack cocaine and AIDS to commit genocide of black Americans? There is real genocide—thankfully, very rare indeed in modern history—and there is the type of rhetorical “genocide” which basically implies that a given party is doing something to which its enemies wish to give the worst possible stigma.
Clinton’s federalism therefore implies an aggressive and indiscriminate interventionism of a sort which is also exemplified by liberal commentators such as Michael Ignatieff. This past February, Ignatieff published an op-ed in the hlew York Times entitled “The Next President’s Duty to Intervene.” His key point was that, with increasing regularity, public attention was being drawn to situations worldwide in which very bad things were happening: genocide, ethnic cleansing, and human-rights violations, with Rwanda and Srebrenica offering the starkest recent examples. Any consideration of presidential candidates thus had to begin with the question of which of them would be most likely to send in the bombers and the Marines once the distressing images had started appearing on CNN. The bombers would be under appropriately multinational control, of course: It’s so much more pleasant for the people of small nations to be massacred by planes with pretty blue U.N. insignia than the boring old red, white, and blue.
Moreover, this order has to be truly global, not just confined to regions of the world in which the United States has some kind of historical interest, lest cynics charge that human rights only matter when the humans in question are rich and white. For Ignatieff, the idea of intervening only to defend American strategic or economic interests is a token of moral bankruptcy, a sign that we would be willing to abandon the Jews or Rwandans or Bosnians to their fate: We should be all the more eager to fight where there is no potential benefit or gain, in a kind of neo-Crusader ethic that seems more appropriate for a Superman comic book than for any practical foreign policy.
For “Rambo” Ignatieff, as for Clinton, the new world federalism means enforcing the whims of the United States and other major powers not just by overwhelming military might but by a steadily increasing apparatus of international law, manifested in war-crimes trials, international courts, and extraditions of “war criminals”—in other words, of anyone who has made himself obnoxious to U.S. policymakers and media executives. The more states fight side by side, the more they will seek to enforce common standards and concepts of human rights, and the more they will realize their common share in a global civilization, which inevitably will be reflected in common political and legal institutions. Though the memory of NATO military attacks on Yugoslavia and other small nations is appalling enough, the emerging system of international political crime is, if anything, still more frightening. As in the case of genocide, what are being combated in these settings are not just atrocities, but violations of what American and European elites happen at a particular moment to view as human rights.
But what exactly are those rights? If civilians are being massacred by the tens of thousands, most of us would agree that war crimes are being committed, that human rights are being violated; but it behooves us to pay attention to developments at the cutting edge of liberal legal thought. Within the last decade, feminist activists have succeeded in vastly expanding the notion of “gender rights,” so that rape and denial of women’s equal status are now presented as on a par with actual massacre. Already, the United States has changed its immigration law to permit political asylum for someone whose gender rights are violated (for instance, when women are facing the prospect of genital mutilation). Currently, both religious and feminist activists are trying to extend the same definition to any woman, anywhere, who is involved in prostitution, on the principle that all prostitutes are pursuing their careers under duress and are thus a species of sex slave. Just this year, the United Nations has begun including full-time advocates of children’s rights in all of its international peacekeeping missions, to ensure that proper (Western) standards are imposed globally.
How long will it be before the United States and the Western European powers start imposing their standards on the nations which trample these supposed “rights”? It takes only a slight stretch of the imagination to see traditionally minded countries stigmatized as outlaws because they deny gay rights or women’s legal equality; because their age of sexual consent is too low (or too high); because they permit the corporal punishment of children, or fail to prevent teenagers from using tobacco or alcohol: And if any of those ideas sound preposterous, imagine the derision which the notion of gender rights would have evoked 20 or 30 years back. If the errant governments are not actually being bombed into submission (and never rule that out), then their assets could be seized, their officials arrested or harassed, and their economies subjected to sanctions. The new global federalism would, in effect, mark a revival of the most aggressive models of Victorian imperialism, though without the moral or religious ideals which justified that movement. “Global community” and “global federalism” are euphemisms for a military-backed power cartel of the most aggressive kind—and, ultimately, of Pax Americana.
At this point, we might recall what happened to the last effort at world imperialism, as the tendency by individual powers to enforce their will in every odd corner of the globe led to ever-increasing rivalries and conflicts with other major nations, culminating in the apocalyptic breakdown of the Old World Order in 1914. Well-intentioned or not, military interventions and “surgical” strikes have a bad habit of degenerating into bloody local wars, which in turn can turn into much bigger affairs. The more the United States becomes involved in “peacekeeping” ventures in defense of human rights and efforts to suppress “genocide,” the more likely it is that American forces will run into real bloodshed. The next Rwanda, the next Kosovo, will not necessarily be bloodless walkovers.
The ultimate nightmare is that well-meaning intervention will run up against a people who have not heard of global federalism, who have not yet decided to abandon all claims to sovereignty, and who will fight like hell to preserve their nationhood. To understand what this might look like, recall the occasion in 1993 when U.S. forces, in the service of the United Nations, attempted a “surgical” removal of a local warlord from his stronghold in the heart of Mogadishu. When the mission began to go wrong, the city’s people turned out in the tens of thousands to defeat the invader, some with Kalashnikovs, some with ancient shotguns, most with sticks and stones, and all prepared to lay their lives on the line to save their ruined nation. In the ensuing firefight, about a thousand Somalis and 18 Americans perished, along with U.S. policy in the Horn of Africa. (Read the excellent account in Mark Bowden’s depressing book, Black Hawk Down.) Now imagine the next time a “surgical” project of this sort goes wrong, and we are dealing not with poorly-armed and underfed Somalis, but with a better armed and more technologically advanced power which might defend itself with biological, chemical, or nuclear weaponry. There will be abundant opportunities for Al Gore to deliver one of his famous funeral orations, informing yet more bemused parents how their sons gave their lives in the service, not just of narrow nationalism, but of the United Nations.
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MEMO TO INCOMING PRESIDENT: In order to build upon recent achievements in the field of human rights, why not intervene forcefully to defend the human rights of the women of Afghanistan, so cruelly oppressed by religious fanaticism? It would be a stirring assertion of gender solidarity if the first U.N. forces on the ground were women Rangers or Special Forces, and maybe we could place a woman general in overall command: The news media would adore a Norma Schwarzkopf figure. The intervention itself should be a walkover, since the CIA assures us that the Afghans are a primitive people, unlikely to offer any serious resistance. . . .
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To use a really unpopular analogy, does anyone remember a quondam superpower called the Soviet Union? Remember, too, the absolute height of its power and influence around 1975-76, after the strategic policy of its American rival lay in ruins following the fall of Saigon? At that point, the Soviets decided to extend their military power to support communist regimes in Africa, Asia, and Central America; in other words, to project their moral and political vision across the globe. It was only a matter of time before one of these quixotic ventures turned very, very bad, and the ensuing Afghan war more or less destroyed the Soviet state. One global empire down—and one to go?
I never thought I would say this, but Michael Ignatieff is absolutely right. In the coming months, it is imperative to know what presidential candidates think about their “duty to intervene,” their readiness to support the global community, their willingness to send in the bombers anywhere across the globe in pursuit of truth, justice, and CNN viewers. Where I differ from Ignatieff, of course, is in the answer I want to hear. Any candidate who supports using the American Armed Forces to support woolly notions of “human rights” and international law enforcement is a public menace, and does not deserve to be taken seriously.
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