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Lost in translation

At the U.N., Bush was pushing freedom, but all the Third World wanted to talk about was equality.

September 26, 2007

The clash between North and South America is as enduring as ever, but its rhetoric is evolving. Gone are the crude tirades about imperialist oppression and the exploitation of the world's poor by greedy corporations. Now it's all about the competition between liberty, the preeminent value championed by President Bush, and equality, the primary concern of his leading ideological adversaries, presidents Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

Bush laid out his liberty agenda before the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday. He ably anchored his argument in the U.N.'s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 1 of which states, "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." He said the U.N. must promote freedom "from tyranny and violence, hunger and disease, illiteracy and ignorance, and poverty and despair." He went on to scold unnamed "extremists" and name the names of tyrannical or violent regimes worldwide: Belarus, North Korea, Syria, Iran, Myanmar, Zimbabwe, Sudan and Cuba. (The Cubans, as is their habit, walked out and released a statement calling Bush a "criminal" who has "no moral authority to judge any other country.")

Bush is to be applauded for having the courage, in the face of criticism of his own human rights record, to speak the truth to the assembled tyrants. Yet he failed to mount a compelling response to a compelling moral challenge facing the United States: How to lessen the global inequality that, more than freedom, tops the political agenda in the developing world?

The inequality agenda was clear in speeches this week about climate change, the theme of this year's General Assembly. While leaders from the industrialized world droned on about the need for action, the developing world's heads of state delivered a stark message: You're creating the warming, but we're the ones who are going to suffer most from it. "It is unacceptable that the cost of the irresponsibility of a privileged few be shouldered by the dispossessed of the Earth," Lula said. He also lambasted "farm subsidies that make the rich richer and the poor poorer" and attacked as "anachronistic, predatory and senseless" the notion "that profits and wealth can grow forever, at any cost."

In a speech that followed Lula's, Bush discussed U.S. aid for fighting HIV and malaria. Yet other than opining that the poor ought to be free to participate in the global economy, he offered no new ideas about how to reduce the inequalities of wealth and power that continue to rankle the world. The point is not whether Bush's economic worldview is smarter than Lula's (of course it is). The point is that if the United States wishes to exercise global leadership, it must not only articulate but implement a global anti-poverty, anti-warming policy that compels the respect and admiration of its intended beneficiaries.

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