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Jewish World ReviewAugust 6, 2001 / 17 Menachem-Av, 5761

George Will

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The diplomacy of high-minded gesture -- OUR intellectual marines

Landing in little magazines

Capture a trend.

-- W. H. Auden

Nowadays treaties and United Nations conferences have supplanted little magazines as the preferred places for "progressive" thinkers to take the latest trends out for strolls in the sun. Hence the WCARRDXRI.

The administration may, in yet another episode of unilateralism and wisdom, boycott the U.N.'s World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. It will convene Aug. 31 in Durban, South Africa, to demand an end to, among many other things, poverty, AIDS, unemployment, wife battering and homophobia, and to demand more education, electricity, promotion of indigenous cultures and African access to the Internet.

The terms in the title of WCARRDXRI are wonderfully elastic ("related intolerance"?). But then, Americans know something about such terminological elasticity, having witnessed in their own law the evolution of the doctrine that almost any policy, custom or habit that has a "disparate impact" on a government-approved grievance group is presumptively an instance of racial discrimination.

The terms of high-minded treaties often are similarly inclusive. For example, the United States has ratified the Convention Against Torture, which defines torture as "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted." Is there any nation that could not be indicted under the convention by a prosecutor determined to make headlines?

Even Amnesty International, which wants the Bush administration to send a delegation to Durban, says WCARRDXRI may be promiscuous in casting aspersions. Consider that judgment in light of the fact that Amnesty International says NATO was guilty of war crimes in Kosovo, and its 1999 annual report on human rights abuses devoted twice as much criticism to Australia as to North Korea, four times as much to the United States as to Cuba and seven times as much to Israel as to Syria.

One of the Bush administration's complaints about WCARRDXRI is that it may revive the infamous 1975 U.N. resolution (repealed in 1991) equating Zionism and racism. Although the term was not coined until 1892, Zionism, like the Italian Resorgimento and many other forms of national aspiration, is a product of the French Revolution, which seeded the world with the idea that people with cultural affinities can best achieve fulfillment through a revived nation. Zionism, an especially defensible nationalism, holds that the Jews, having had a uniquely hazardous history, deserve a common future. But WCARRDXRI is bedeviled by Arabs who, leaving no stone unthrown in their war to delegitimize and then destroy Israel, want WCARRDXRI's declaration to not capitalize the "h" in Holocaust, lest capitalization seem to acknowledge the reality of that event, which many Arab media and schools deny.

Another Bush administration complaint is WCARRDXRI's likely call for reparations for slavery. Such a call might have wonderfully entertaining aspects. Lionel Shriver of the Wall Street Journal Europe notes that reparations might require Ivory Coast to compensate middle-class American blacks for having sold the Americans' African ancestors into slavery 200 years ago.

However, a sufficient reason for boycotting the Durban confabulation is that we have had a surfeit of the diplomacy of high-minded gestures. Jeremy Rabkin, professor of constitutional and international law at Cornell, notes that President Clinton cavalierly signed treaties that he knew the Senate would not ratify, and hence he would not submit for ratification. The Kyoto protocol on global warming is an example of what Rabkin calls "momentary mood enhancers" that leave U.S. diplomacy "in a fantasy land of good intentions."

The treaty establishing an International Criminal Court is another. In a quintessentially Clintonian act, President Clinton signed it, then urged the Senate not to ratify it, saying he did not agree with the version he signed. However, under the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, a nation that signs a treaty is, even before ratifying it, obliged not to act in a way that undermines it.

It is time to stop seeking national safety behind parchment barriers such as the unverifiable and unenforceable 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. A new protocol that purports to fix that convention is the latest example of gesture diplomacy. An unenthralled President Bush has cast a cold eye on this protocol.

Bush can continue lifting foreign policy up from frivolousness by refusing to lend to WCARRDXRI the dignity that would derive from U.S. participation. Critics will say this would "isolate" the United States. But for the United States, to be alone is to be in good company.

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