The Washington Post, August 12, 2002, Monday, Final Edition,
EDITORIAL; Pg. A15, 656 words, Reflections in A Gentle Mirror, William Raspberry

UNITED NATIONS -- What aspect of America's international policy causes you the most distress or the greatest disappointment?  It was, of course, the sort of fat-pitch question reporters don't like to ask. I asked it because I thought U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan would use it to provide a much-needed glimpse of how America is seen -- not by its enemies but by its thoughtful admirers.  He didn't disappoint.  Americans, he told a couple dozen African American journalists recently, are full of talk about a "global village" as an acknowledgment of the shrinking size and growing interdependence of the nations of the world.  "But a global village implies international cooperation in the collective interest," he said at a luncheon in the U.N. staff dining room.

And when it comes to international cooperation, America has fallen short.  He offered three specifics: Rejection by the United States, alone among Western nations, of the Kyoto protocol designed to slow global warming (President Bush said the treaty's mandatory pollution reductions were harmful to the American economy); the anti-torture convention passed over U.S. objections and the International Criminal Court, of which the Bush administration is particularly suspicious.  "Respect for the rule of law is so high on the American agenda," he said. "Why this contradiction?"   The reasons vary in their details. Fear that American businesses might be hurt by mandated reductions of greenhouse gases is different from fear that international do-gooders might stick their noses into the prison camps at Guantanamo Bay, and both are different from the fear that an International Criminal Court would jeopardize America's sovereignty.  

But as Annan sees it, all signatories to international accords agree to assume similar risks. The common thread, he said, is an American attitude that says, "One law for us, another for everybody else."   The Nobel Peace laureate acknowledged that the United States, as the world's lone superpower, has some special concerns. There are, for instance, those who would use international agreements as a pretext for intruding into American politics, or as a way of embarrassing the country through bogus prosecutions. But he believes sufficient safeguards are in place or, at any rate, achievable.   The greater difficulty, he believes, is America's tendency to reach out internationally when it suits its purposes (as in the fight against terrorism), but to assume a go-it-alone posture when international cooperation seems inconvenient. 

For instance: Why should we reject international inspections of the conditions at Guantanamo or the idea of providing some assurances that the prisoners are afforded due process, humane treatment or a chance to plead their cases? At least two things seem to be involved. First, America's almost automatic presumption that we are the good guys. The second is less attractive: the assumption that we are the strong guys who don't have to play by any rules that inconvenience us.  It's a little like the way certain personages feel when the airport security people become overly intrusive. Can't they see I'm not a terrorist? Or maybe the better analogy is to parents who haven't learned the folly of trying to exempt themselves from rules (such as buckling up seatbelts) they would enforce on their children. As Annan put it, "Leadership comes with some obligations."   It doesn't follow that, on every point, the secretary general is right and the U.S.  president wrong (though Bush does seem too much the isolationist for my philosophical comfort). But it does strike me that we ought to be paying more attention to the thoughtful criticisms of a man who has earned the right to make them.  

How much sense can it make to smash Kofi Annan's gentle mirror while asking, with great consternation, why so much of the rest of the world hates us?