Friday, September 1, 2006

Policing or nannying the world?

Malcolm's attention was caught by John R. Hamilton's opinion-piece in today's Washington Post: Scold War Buildup, The Perils of Foreign Policy by Report Card. Here is the essence of the charge:

The degree to which public reports accompanied by the threat of sanctions have been institutionalized in U.S. policy is stunning. A partial list:

Each year we issue detailed human rights reports on every country in the world, including those whose performance appears superior to our own. We judge whether other countries have provided sufficient cooperation in fighting illegal drugs. We place countries whose protection of intellectual property has been insufficient on "watch lists," threatening trade sanctions against those that do not improve. We judge respect for labor rights abroad through a public petition process set up under the System of Generalized (trade) Preferences. We publish annual reports on other countries' respect for religious freedom.

And more: We seek to ensure the adequacy of civil aviation oversight and the security of foreign airports through special inspections and categorizing of government performance. We ban shrimp imports from countries whose fishing fleets do not employ sea turtle extruder devices and yellowfin tuna imports where the protection of dolphins is in our view inadequate. We report on trafficking in persons and categorize the performance of every country where such trafficking is a problem, which is just about everywhere. And we withhold military education, training and materiel assistance from countries that do not enter into agreements with us to protect our nationals from the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.

This is, at best, applying decent standards to international behaviour and world trade. At worst, it is coca-colonisation. It is worth going through Hamilton's list, item by item, and ticking them off one-by-one, which is what Malcolm did. Here goes:
  1. Human rights. Well, yes. All the western nations use this as a ploy in reaching for the high-ground when dealing with lesser breeds without the law. What a pity none of us live up to the satndards we demand of others. Indeed, in the present climate, can we do so?
  2. Drugs. Undoubtedly so. The finger points in very specific directions. However, now that British NATO forces are in the Afghan province of Helmand, to what extent are they complicit if they do not paraquat the poppies? And why not add sex-traffickers to the list? -- oh, that appears down the list: a long way down the list.
  3. Intellectual property. A bit more doubt here. While it may be wrong for some backstreet operator in Borrioboola Gha ripping-off, say, a Hollywood blockbuster or a choice product from Redmond WA, what about Aids drugs for Africa? Equally, this "intellectual property" thing allows the US to police cyberspace (for good or ill). It also obtrudes into all sorts of other operations:'s prissiness about material derived from the on-line UK censuses it "owns", for example. Why should public information from a century ago, freely supplied by its original owners, be fenced in for commercial gain, merely because of formatting it for the Net? Then there is the curious propenisty of certain mega-corps to slap a patent on anything in sight (and the likelihood of the US Patents Office to endorse such). Someone, somewhere is trying to patent breathing, Malcolm opines.
  4. "Labor rights". Nice bit of ambiguity there. On the one hand US public decency properly requires minimal working conditions (e.g. Apple's recent problems with Foxconn; before that Nike in Viet-nam and Pakistan): good on that point. On the other hand, US corporations seem none to keen on the workers organising their own self-help (e.g. Wal-Mart's control of Asda). And we all prefer our food, clothes and shoes at rock-bottom prices.
  5. Religious freedom. O dear, FDR really handed us a shit-sandwich there. What are the limits on the "second freedom"? At what point do we bomb backwoods madrassas, or shut down the Finsbury Park mosque? At what point, this side of genital mutilation, is the boundary of legitimate religious freedom?
  6. Airport and aircraft security. In general: yes, please. However, it is very much in the hands of Jobsworths who seem maliciously to enjoy their arbitrary powers. A bit more subtlety (perhaps in profiling and applied technology) needed here, Malcolm feels. And definitely lessons in politeness for the uniformed grunts of the Department of Homeland Security.
  7. Malcolm is on the side of shrimps and dolphins every time. In passing, though, he notes these restrictions are significant commercial advantages to the Bubba Gumps and John Wests in the US and world food industry. When it comes to drilling for oil (at worst, a pretty filthy business), marine life in general gets short-shrift.
  8. People-trafficking. Yeah, we've touched on that already.
  9. As for the military, that involves more permutations of relative morality than Malcolm feels he can cope with, this early in his day. The ready cliche is "Do as I say, not as I do".

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