Yet more than lead the charge for a reform of the world monetary system and the global economy, with all it entailed, the United States in the mid- to late 1970s also found a way to discredit much of the Third World’s anti-American, anti-Western discourse by creating new counter-discourses and institutions that bypassed the General Assembly. For the new members of the UN were not just demanding economic redistribution or nationalization; the Third World Project was also about vilifying a “decadent” United States for its own domestic economic inequalities, growing crime problems, unjust treatment of women and racial minorities, and support of dictators from Suharto to Ferdinand Marcos to the Shah of Iran. While some of these accusations—many of which were, of course, true—had a purely destructive element to them, they also were convenient to distract attention from the peccadillos of the Second and Third Worlds, too; it was easier to overlook the fact that one generation of Third World revolutionaries had overthrown and imprisoned another (which Boumediénne did to Ben Bella in Algeria), or that the vaunted “stability” of the Soviet Union stemmed in part from its willingness to massacre Russians on the streets (as it did in Novocherkassk in 1962), if one could work up a good sweat demonstrating “solidarity” with the Angela Davises of the world.
Unsurprisingly, none of this played well in the United States. While the UN was surprisingly popular among Americans for much of its early existence, with approval “generally around 80 percent or higher,” it had fallen to 49 percent, and by November 1971 it reached an all-time low of 35 percent, roughly similar to levels today. And given that Americans were the ones funding so much of the organization, this represented a potential crisis. As one State Department official Richard Gardner said, “the United States is now on a collision course with the very international agencies in whose future it has an important stake.” But rather than leave the UN—a perpetual conservative fantasy since those times—Washington took on a multi-pronged approach that has changed the way it approached internationalism and human rights since. Most ambitiously, in March 1975, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, argued in a blockbuster article (for which Kissinger is said to have missed an appointment in order to finish reading) that rather than walk away from the internationalist institutions it had built, Washington had to “go into opposition” against the redistributionist, anti-colonial wave of thought in the Third World, which he saw, intriguingly if not completely persuasively, as an inherited legacy of early twentieth-century British socialist thinking. Rather than give into UNCTAD’s demands for unrestricted loans, American statesmen needed to defend the “multinational corporation which, combining modern management with liberal trade policies, is arguably the most creative international institution of the 20th century.” Rather than being talked down to by tinpot dictators, the United States, even if it did so in opposition,
should resist the temptation to designate agreeable policies as liberal merely on grounds of agreeableness. There are harder criteria. Liberal policies are limited in their undertakings, concrete in their means, representative in their mode of adoption, and definable in terms of results. These are surely the techniques appropriate to a still tentative, still emergent world society. It is time for the United States, as the new society’s loyal opposition, to say this directly, loudly, forcefully.
These were nice words, but what did they actually mean in terms of concrete policy, funding, organization, and bureaucracy? Some initial steps were prosaic but crucial. The U.S. started delaying funding for the World Bank, and in 1984 it defanged UNCTAD with the replacement of the Sri Lankan firebrand Gamani Corea with the more muted and pro-American black Grenadan intellectual Alister McIntyre. But more substantial and long-lasting were the rise of the modern human rights movement and the NGO as key institutions of foreign policy that circumvented the General Assembly as the key internationalist institution. As the historian Samuel Moyn has written, it was with unexpected speed that human rights—whether in the ironic “anti-politics” form of Eastern European dissidents or the work of international lawyers at Columbia and Yale Law School in the 1970s—took off as a powerful alternative discourse to the obsession with nation-states’ sovereignty or colonialism that marked the General Assembly. New organizations like Helsinki Watch (later renamed Human Rights Watch) and Amnesty International showed that “ideas had power and governments could be shamed into action, even in the era of Henry Kissinger.”
What was more, the institutional and ideological changes were bipartisan; Reagan-era enforcers like Jeane Kirkpatrick and Alan Keyes not only sparred with Third World delegates at the UN but also played important roles in the expansion of so-called GONGOs (government-organized non-governmental organizations), like the National Endowment for Democracy, which provided fellowships and grants for would-be democrats from Iran, Xinjiang, and Central America. (Such organizations received money even when the United States withheld money from the United Nations.) It all amounted to a radical moral reordering of international order. Third World dictatorships might continue to scream about apartheid or Zionism, true; yet the diverse efforts of (primarily American) intellectuals and policy apparatchiks to re-imagine the world composed not of sovereign nation-states but of “sovereign individuals” (Norman Podhoeretz’s words) had by and large worked to make the former anti-colonialist, state sovereignty discourse seem out of date at best and an apology for despotism at worse.
Of course, not all of the results of this change have been happy ones. In part because so much human rights, pro-democracy energy was channeled into institutions outside of the United Nations, several of the institutions inside the UN that purport to stand for human rights have become embarrassing at best and actively harmful at worst. The United Nations Human Rights Council, a body which exists to conduct inquiries into human rights abuses, has been repeatedly criticized for including countries like Cuba and Saudi Arabia, focusing obsessively on Israeli treatment of Palestinians, and sponsoring resolutions that condemn the blasphemy of religion. These and other UN-sponsored institutions like the Review Conferences Against Racism (first held in Durban in 2001) typically combine anti-Semitism, hyper-defensiveness about criticism of Islam, and blinkered attention to the fate of religious or ethnic minorities in former Third World countries (think Hazara Shi’a in Afghanistan, Christians in Pakistan, or Middle Eastern Jews booted out of Arab countries from 1948 onwards) and have featured human rights luminaries like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—not an attractive ideological package.
Indeed, what if the new Western focus on “freedom” and human rights was turning out to be more trouble than it was worth? Consider the trajectory of Natan Sharansky, the Soviet Jew lionized by human rights advocates in the 1970s before George W. Bush hailed him as perhaps the most lucid distiller of what the President really believed about foreign policy. He had no less troubled an ideological trajectory. While the idea that Washington should stop doing business and seek, if possible, to change “fear societies” like Iraq and Syria into “free societies,” the more Sharansky drifted to the right within Israeli domestic politics, the more the position became muddled. By 2009, characteristically, he was seen arguing that democracies, to be strong, had to be based on distinctive group identities. This was a convenient position for a Likudnik, but also one that raised questions about the future of multi-national, multi-confessional “fear societies” like Iraq or Syria. Speaking about “freedom” and “democracy” was nice, but when one looked into the situation on the ground, there turned out to be precious few democratic republicans, much less actual liberals, in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria. No matter how much Americans wanted to dress up the Ahmad Chalabis and Hamid Karzais of the world as freedom fighters, the “universal” desire for freedom turned out to be less compelling than sectarian or ethnic impulses in the Kirkuks and Mazar-i Sharifs of the world.