Fri Jan 28 19:52:32 2005.
 

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by Chanakya Sen

Think locally, act globally

The American presidential election debates contained interesting references to global crises, mooted mainly by the pro-multilateralism candidate John Kerry. What caught my ear was the challenger’s initial take on western Sudan, enmeshed in heap of other crises that the incumbent was accused of neglecting. “Darfur has a genocide.” When moderator Jim Lehrer asked for elucidation and why neither candidate is thinking of sending in troops to prevent that “ongoing genocide”, both Bush and Kerry agreed that it was genocide that claimed the lives of 50,000 civilians and displaced more than 1.5 million. Kerry alleged that American troops were over-extended by the Iraq-obsessed Bush administration and he would do more because “we could never allow another Rwanda.” Bush replied that the African Union was capable of handling the saving-of-lives job and that the US would only step up humanitarian assistance. With Kerry’s defeat, it is certain that the hands-off approach to Darfur will prevail in Washington.

Ironically, it was Colin Powell that first nominated the indiscriminate attacks on ‘Black Africans’ by the Sudanese government and the Janjaweed Arab militias as genocide. The United Nations, the European Union and the African Union admitted serious ‘war crimes’, ‘ethnic cleansing’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ being committed in Darfur, but none promiscuously bandied the ‘G’ word. Northern Uganda and eastern Congo are currently in similar dire circumstances as Darfur, but Colin Powell did not marshal the same hyperbole for those disasters. International aid workers and regional experts hesitated calling the Darfur violence genocide because the ground realities are more complex than the simple Arabs-annihilating-Blacks template. Renowned scholar Alex de Waal has pointed out, “there are no discernible racial or religious differences” between the attackers and the victims in Darfur. The so-called Black Africans in this region are Muslim, not Christian. The groups that have been targeted cannot be considered distinct ethnic communities and the intent of the marauders are also mixed, not extermination of a particular race or religion.

So, here is the puzzle: Why did the Bush administration raise a hue and cry about genocide in Darfur, that too without following words with urgent action? The adverse influence of fundamentalist Christian missions on Bush’s domestic and foreign policies is one cause. Throughout 2004, American evangelicals kicked up a storm, shooting off open letters to the White House demanding stringent action against the Sudanese government accused of victimising ‘black Africans.’ Claiming to be “reaching out to Muslims in the name of Jesus”, these lobbies worked hard to insert not only the US army but also more proselytising faith-based relief workers into Darfur. Their motive, well couched in humanitarian rhetoric, is to re-convert the ‘black Africans’ who forsook Christianity due to intermixture with and pressure of Arabs. Undoubtedly, the Islamist Sudanese government has also employed charitable institutions like the Islamic Dawa organisation to buy souls in the reverse direction, i.e. Christians and animists to Islam.  

If one reads between the lines of vote bank politics, Bush was keeping church allies on his side by ratcheting up ‘genocide’ in Darfur, while Kerry was courting the same lot by raising the profile of one of their pet campaigns in Africa. The pity is that for the whole hullabaloo over genocide, the US did barely anything to actually help prevent mass killings by the Janjaweed. Lip service was all that the sufferers in western Sudan got from the table of the mighty. Such are the hazards of thinking locally and acting globally, the upended version of an enlightened principle.

Homebred religious pressures alone do not account for the misplaced terminology that emanated from Washington. Few know that Darfur holds one of Africa’s biggest unexploited oil resources, greater than those in the Gulf of Guinea or Angola. American oil giants are banned from operating in Sudan since 1997 and other western extractors face pressures from Washington to disinvest and leave the country. Eyeing the rare opportunity, Asian oil companies set up shop and now dominate the rigging in western Sudan. China, India and Malaysia have substantial shares in Sudanese oilfields. US-sponsored UN resolutions urging embargoes on Sudanese oil exports as sanctions for the Darfur ‘genocide’ are understandably unwelcome in Beijing, Delhi and Kuala Lumpur, capitals of industrialising countries that sense an economic threat if Sudanese pipelines are gagged. Human Rights Watch has already launched a broadside titled, China’s Thirst for Oil Prolongs Genocide in Darfur. What is missing in this piece of the jigsaw is acknowledgement that Darfur region was militarised due to western thirst for Sudanese oil in the first place. Both the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) in Darfur are direct or indirect recipients of American funding and arms.

Thinking locally and acting globally is not limited to the US government. It is a shortsighted malady affecting most states’ foreign policies. The rationale for this selfish behaviour is informed by the magical phrase ‘National Interest.’ Defending and promoting supreme national interest, however arbitrarily defined, is considered the obligation of foreign policy makers. Drawing from Machiavellian theory, a sound foreign policy is considered that which brings the best deal for one’s own country even if it hampers global causes.

National interest is a slippery concept that overrides alternative visions of what a country’s national interests are. A more appropriate wording should be ‘ruling party/dispensation’s national interest’, since the opposition, civil society, independent experts and the people themselves may have their own priority list of what constitutes national interest. Professor Samuel Huntington considers no national interest acceptable to all unless a country has a clear sense of ‘national identity.’ Since foreign policy is trumped by domestic policy (bread-and-butter issues) in most electoral battles, the determination of national interest is left to the narrow circle of elites who win power and to their ideologues in the media and academia.

Every time a foreign minister or President justifies an external action in the name of national interest, alternative views that see no national interest (or national loss) in the said action get sidelined or suppressed. Insofar as democracy grants lawmaking power to elected officials, the official view of national interest triumphs over the dissenting views, but a genuine democracy allows the dissenting views to be circulated for public debate. The dissenting view can, over time, be anointed as the official view if the opposition comes to power at a later date. Therefore, alternative proposals of what truly comprise a country’s national interest are never illegitimate or unworthy. Some ideas take time to gain wider acceptance in democratic space.

Our dilemma arises from frustration that some ideas, no matter how lengthy their gestation period, never gain the status of official national interests. I am referring to global interests like human rights, environmental conservation and disarmament. How easily and how often have states violated basic human dignities, endangered the environment and proliferated weapons by maintaining that it was in their respective national interests?

Sceptics argue that until a ‘world government’ with police powers turns up, global interests will not be seen as complementary to national interests. This prescription suffers from reliance on force and compulsion. Global interests, by their very nature, cannot be forced upon states. What would work is creation of a global institution that constructs ‘enlightened self-interest’ for each of the 191 states of the world and offers consultancy to them, disproving the zero-sum-game between this concept and national interest.

But even where, thus, opposing interests kill,

They are to be thought of as opposing goods

Oftener than as conflicting good and ill.

                                                                     ­­­----Robert Frost, ‘To a Young Wretch’  


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