The tangle in Durban, South Africa, reflects the centripetalization of problems and sorrows and dilemmas in faraway places when the United Nations comes to town.
The problem of U.S. involvement:
In 1973, I was a delegate to the United Nations and wrote a book about my experiences there, remarking that the General Assembly had developed into the most concentrated font of anti-Semitism in the world.
In 1975, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. defied the vote equating Zionism with racism by large histrionic gestures, but the vote carried and wasn't diluted until years later; now it's up for reissuance.
In 1977, philosopher/strategist James Burnham, writing in National Review, proposed that President Carter instruct his delegate to the United Nations to suspend voting on any motion by the General Assembly. The American representative, Burnham counseled, should continue to argue in the Assembly, to cajole, to wage diplomacy, to exhort. Just don't vote. Why? Because if you do vote, you become a constituent part of the plebiscitary mechanism. If the vote, Zionism equals racism, is passed 99-to-1, the lone dissenter has vested a greater authority in the vote than if it passed 99-to-0, the dissenter declining to participate in the vote.
The administration's decision not to send Secretary of State Colin Powell to Durban was an attempt precisely to diminish the parliamentary leverage of the impending negative vote. The ensuing decision, to withdraw even our second-level representatives, reaffirmed that withdrawal from the scene, but only after clumsy footwork.
The Israelis may not be vulnerable to the charge of racism, but are certainly vulnerable to the charge of apartheid. The aggressive maintenance of their settlements in the West Bank, which are the cause of suppurating collisions with the Palestinian world, such as it is, day after day, cannot be defended. They are arrant ventures in a kind of Israeli irredentism that fractures arrangements and accommodations, after wars and diplomacy dating back to 1948. The United States is better off not voting on the apartheid issue, reserving its strength and prestige for renewed efforts aimed at settlement.
The introduction into the Durban scene of demands by blacks, including American blacks, for reparations heightens the noncredibility of a conference ostensibly designed to mitigate racial problems:
In an ideal world, differences in race or ethnic background would nowhere be remarked. Such differences are less now than when the United Nations was founded, but progress is slowed when surrealistic claims are asserted. The idea that the United States, 2001, should affirm its attachment to racial equality by "compensating" blacks for slavery that ended 150 years ago is will-o'-the-wisp stuff: ideological candy, it could be dismissed as, but this candy is spiked.
Any American who has one toe in the door of reality knows that the $10 trillion (that is one figure that has been suggested as appropriate) is not going to be appropriated by Congress to make up for the sins of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Ten trillion is a nice round figure, equal, incidentally, to the value of everything produced in America in one year. The point here is less that reparations, so called, are not going to be made, as that to admit oratory calling for such reparations has the effect of consigning the work of the United Nations at its Durban meeting into utter irrelevance.
Now there is a sense in which this suits the purposes of an administration that signified its attitude toward what impended at Durban by announcing that Colin Powell would not go there. If this was to be a conference of nations committed to declaring that there was no difference between Zionism and racism, let their irresponsibility be dramatized even further by providing hospitality to people declaring that the United States has to compensate for great-great-grandparents who bought slaves, leaving moot who is supposed to compensate for the sins of those who sold the slaves.
The Cold War is over, and for that reason the United Nations poses less of a threat than it once did. But we are a member of a Security Council in which the People's Republic of China exercises veto power over major enterprises. The fiasco in Durban reminds us, or should remind us, that the administration should give something more than merely ad hoc thought to the matter of our dealings with the United Nations. A major contribution to this would be to adopt the Burnham reform: I.e, we will do everything to help the U.N., participating fully in its parliamentary life, but will decline to cast votes. Or be bound by them.