The Most Multilateral of Moments

November 16th, 2001
By Naomi Klein

This weekend, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf asked the U.S. to show a little love in return for his cooperation. Specifically, he is fixated on some F-16 fighter jets, sold to Pakistan and then withheld because the country was developing nuclear weapons.

It’s the kind of back-scratching diplomacy we’ve come to expect since September 11: an aid package here, a loan there. And then there are all the smarmy understandings that the U.S. will look the other way when the Chinese or Indonesian militaries beat back liberation movements within their borders, since all state repression seems to be part of the war on terrorism now.

Are these back-room pay-offs and gentlemen’s agreements really going to be the only legacies of September 11, or is there more the world community could be demanding during this, the most multilateral of moments?

Facing an enemy that respects no border, the Bush administration has made many demands of the world community since September 11: military support, intelligence information, police force cooperation, and the collaboration of financial institutions. It has asked for the harmonization of border controls and of airport security. It has requested land bases, air space, and asked its allies to put its citizens’ lives on the line.

Surely there is more that our governments could be asking in return. Some may think it crass to talk quid pro quo’s when a nation is still recovering from the horrors of terrorist attacks, and is now struggling with fresh trauma after the crash of American Airlines Flight 587.

But what about the kind of quid pro quo that might actually help fight terrorism-before and after it happens? Such mechanisms exist, but they require political will, particularly from the U.S. And it won’t come without a fight.

Many who support the bombing of Afghanistan do so grudgingly: for some the bombs seem to be the only weapons available, however brutal and imprecise. But this paucity of options is partly a result of U.S. government resistance to a whole range of more precise and potentially effective international instruments.

Like a standing international criminal court, which the U.S. opposes, fearing its own war heroes might face prosecution. Like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty on nuclear weapons, also a no go. And all the other treaties the U.S. has refused to ratify, on landmines, small arms and so much else that would have helped us cope with a heavily militarized state like Afghanistan, especially as the Northern Alliance take Kabul.

So why, post-September 11, are so few world leaders willing to use the limitless demands being made by the U.S. as an opportunity to insist that international cooperation is a two way street? Not one of the European leaders—previously so outraged by George W. Bush’s abandonment of the Kyoto Protocol—has made cooperation contingent on concrete changes in U.S. attitudes towards internationalism. Neither, most negligently, has United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Behind the scenes, some European leaders say they believe the terrorist threat has taught the U.S. a lesson: clearly, no country, no matter how strong, is an island. Some quietly predict that September 11 will usher in a new age of international cooperation on everything from Aids to aid, from nuclear disarmament to fairer trade.

But with so little being done to turn this optimistic vision into reality, an opposite scenario is rapidly unfolding. Instead of a new era of global cooperation, the U.S. is engaging in the same buffet-style internationalism (pick and choose what you like) that was its hallmark pre-September 11.

For example, in Marrakech last week, countries came to an unprecedented consensus on implementing the Kyoto Protocol. With dependence on oil leading to both environmental and political instability, the need for action is urgent. Yet the U.S., the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, wasn’t even at the table.

In Doha this week, the U.S. was at the table, but seemingly, not to negotiate. The U.S. delegation to the World Trade Organization made it so clear that it had no intention of heeding developing country demands on drug patents and agricultural dumping that Murasoli Maran, India’s Minister of Trade, called the meeting "a mere formality and we are being coerced against our will."

The tragedy is the missed opportunities. September 11 could indeed be a turning point for international human rights and common security. Already, many American citizens view themselves as part of a world community in a way unseen since the Second World War. But if that feeling is to translate into equitable and lasting international agreements on arms, trade and environmental sustainability, it can’t be politely hoped for, it will have to be negotiated.

The U.S. made it clear from the start it wouldn’t negotiate with the Taliban. What about the rest of us?