“If any of this gets out of this room, I’ll kill the person responsible”
By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 23rd April 2002
Tony Blair might believe he belongs to an international coalition, but George Bush has other ideas. Bush’s international war against terrorism has not stopped him from waging a parallel war against co-operation.
Two weeks ago, the US Ambassador to the UN in Vienna failed, for the first time, to attend a meeting of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. This may suggest that America is no longer prepared to abide by the rules against the testing of nuclear warheads. A week ago, the Washington Post revealed that the Pentagon had told the CIA to investigate Hans Blix, the chief UN weapons inspector, in the hope of undermining his credibility. When the CIA failed to discover any evidence of wrongdoing, the deputy defense secretary is reported to have “hit the ceiling”.
On Friday, the United States government succeeded in dislodging Robert Watson, the chair of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Dr Watson had been pressing member nations to take the threat of global warming seriously, to the annoyance of the oil company ExxonMobil. Last year it sent a memo to the White House requesting that he be shoved.
Yesterday evening, after a week of arm-twisting and secret meetings, the United States government forced the departure of Jose Bustani, director-general of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. As this column predicted last week, this is the first time that the head of an international organisation has been dismissed during his term in office. The tactics the US has deployed in the past few days to oust Bustani offer a fascinating insight into the way its diplomacy works.
On Friday, the US ambassador organised an illegal meeting with American members of the organisation’s staff. He explained that he had arrived late as he’d been trying to find a replacement for Mr Bustani (this is also an illegal manouevre). He told the meeting that the US had been encountering “great difficulty finding people of the right calibre” because no one wants “to be associated with a dying organisation”. This was news to the staff, who had previously been told by the US that sacking Bustani would revive the OPCW. But the ambassador explained that if the replacement is “like Bustani … we will say ‘screw the organisation’. We’ll dismantle our [chemical] weapons independently and monitor them ourselves.”
The US had promised that the directorship would pass to another Latin American. But the ambassador was kind enough to note that “Latin Americans are so characterised by sheer incompetence that they won’t be able to make up their minds.” He warned the meeting “if any of this gets out of this room, I’ll kill the person responsible”.
To help obtain the result it wanted, the US appears to have paid for delegates to attend the “special session” of the OPCW it convened. Micronesia said it couldn’t come, but that the US delegation could vote on its behalf (another illegal move). On Sunday the US claimed that Bustani himself had offered to resolve the situation by exchanging his deputy for an American. Yesterday, it was forced to admit that this claim was false.
This month’s attempts to damage international law follow America’s unilateral abandonment of the anti-ballistic missile treaty, its successful sabotage of the Biological Weapons Convention and its rejection of the Kyoto protocol on climate change; the UN treaty on gun running; and the international criminal court. America is pulling away from the rest of the world, and dragging our treaties down as it goes. Given that it is in danger of alienating the very nations from whose allegiance it claims to draw its global authority, why is the US going to such lengths to destroy international cooperation? I think there may be several, overlapping reasons.
The first and most obvious is that there’s no point in possessing brute strength if you are not prepared to be brutal. The US establishes its power by asserting it. Other nations are kept in a constant state of apprehension about what it might do next, which helps to ensure that they step back from confrontation.
It is also clear that at least three of these recent attempts to undermine international treaties are being pursued with an eye to the impending war with Iraq. As the American plans for destroying Saddam Hussein appear to involve new “bunker busting” nuclear weapons, the nuclear test ban treaty (which the US has never ratified) must be ignored. The US justification for war with Iraq is that Saddam Hussein may possess weapons of mass destruction. So the two foremost obstacles to war were Mr Blix and Mr Bustani, who have proposed non-violent methods of getting rid of these weapons. While the US government doubtless has genuine concerns about weapons of mass destruction, these are not the principal reasons for wishing to conquer Iraq.
War would enable the US to re-establish its authority in an increasingly wayward Middle East, while asserting control over Iraq’s vast oil reserves. Iraq is also daddy’s unfinished business: for George W, it’s personal. War is popular: the more bellicose President Bush becomes, the higher his ratings rise. It justifies increasing state support for the politically important defence industry. Arguably, war also serves as a re-legitimisation of the state itself. The Republicans argued so forcefully in the 1990s for a “minimal state” that they almost did themselves out of a job, as many Americans began to wonder why they were paying taxes at all. War is the sole irreducible function of the state, and the ultimate justification of the greatly concentrated powers and resources this “minimal” entity in the US has accumulated.
But the underlying reason for these unilateral breaches of the law is that the rest of the world allows them to happen. Hundreds of readers of last week’s column sent letters to the British foreign secretary asking him to stand up to the US. Brian Eno organised a petition signed by celebrities as diverse as Robbie Williams, Damien Hirst, Salman Rushdie and Bianca Jagger, in the hope that, even if it won’t listen to anyone else, our government might at least respond to Cool Brittania. But on Friday, the first member state to co-sponsor the US resolution to sack Mr Bustani was the United Kingdom.
It is not hard to see why other nations should seek to appease the United States. If the US can be persuaded to keep supporting global treaties, ministers argue, it will not retreat into dangerous isolationism. But once America sees that other nations will submit to its demands, it will continue to bend the treaties to suit itself until the entire framework of international law collapses. More dangerous by far than US isolationism is the unilateral demolition of the world’s agreements, forcing every nation to live by its own rules.
Let Mr Bush walk out in a huff if he can’t have his way, but let him be sure that if he does so, he can no longer expect to receive either moral authority or material support for anything he wishes to achieve abroad. For all the US government’s talk of splendid isolation, that is the kind of loneliness his administration does not seem ready to accept.