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Silence Will Not Debunk the Right's Dark Fantasies

April 21, 1996|G. John Ikenberry | G. John Ikenberry is associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. He is writing a book about postwar settlements and the creation of international order

WASHINGTON — Americans have grown increasingly paranoid. Spurred by last year's Oklahoma City bombing, many harbor elaborate fantasies of black helicopters and jack-booted shock troops of the "new world order" swooping down from the sky to rob them of their guns and liberty. At the heart of this evil lurks the United Nations, the vanguard of a conspiracy of East Coast elites, stealth agencies, the Federal Reserve and secretive international groups like the Trilateral Commission. Reports of shadowy copters in the deserts of the Southwest even led Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R-Ida.) to convene an investigation because, she said, her constituents were so unnerved.

These fantasies have been most fully embraced by militia groups and the radical right, but they are also spreading into the political mainstream. GOP presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan's "America First" campaign appealed to these views. And it is not just the United Nations that is threatening America; the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and other multilateral economic bodies are said to be ready to undermine U.S. sovereignty.

Such views have intimidated mainstream politicians. When U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali suggested that new sources of funding, such as a "tax" on airline tickets, might be needed to support growing U.N. responsibilities, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole quickly joined Sen. Jesse Helms and Sen. Judd Gregg in sponsoring a bill barring any U.S. payments to the United Nations if independent sources of funding are established. According to Dole, Boutros-Ghali's comments were evidence that "the United Nations continues its out-of-control pursuit of power."

But U.N. supporters share the blame for all the bashing of the international organization. When far-right extremists unwind their dark fantasies about the United Nations and its goal of world domination, they should be forcefully reminded of three things.

* The United Nations and the other multilateral institutions are largely American creations that reflect the U.S. philosophy of international order. The postwar American idea in the 1940s was to construct a set of multilateral organizations to deal with security and economic relations by providing a sort of rule-based infrastructure for world politics. When economic and political conflicts arose, mechanisms and standards of dispute resolution would be in place. In trade as well as security, conflicts would be captured and domesticated in a cage of multilateral rules, safeguards and procedures for dispute resolution.

This was the genius of the United Nations and its sister multilateral institutions. Think of the multilateral institutions that the United States created after WWII as a great experiment in "power conservation." The United States did not just use its overwhelming power to get its way on day-to-day foreign-policy issues; it used it to create institutions that would survive long after that relative power declined. This was an investment strategy never before seen in world politics, and we still reap the rewards today, as other countries have accommodated themselves to this American-style international order.

* The United Nations and other multilateral organizations extend and reinforce U.S. politics and economics. The principles embodied in these institutions can help amplify and justify the policies of leading countries like the United States. The U.N. Security Council resolutions can help isolate rogue states and add legitimacy to U.S. foreign-policy actions.

The norms and principles of the multilateral economic institutions also strengthen the U.S. position. It has historically been in the interest of leading economic states to open foreign markets to trade and investment. The WTO and its predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, have been extraordinary vehicles of tariff reduction and trade expansion. They strengthen the hands of states seeking fair and reciprocal agreements. They reflect a vision of world economic order more fully embraced by the United States than any other country.

Of course, such an institutional order is a double-edged sword. To be legitimate, these rules and norms must be observed by all parties. Other states have used WTO norms and rules to criticize the United State--as Japan did during last years's auto dispute when it charged that the Clinton administration's threat of unilateral tariffs violated WTO standards. This criticism surely added to the pressure for a settlement short of the use of unilateral tariffs.

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