e-mail us

Fall Books

America a unique catalyst for good or ill


Edited by Tom Barry and Martha Honey
Interhemispheric Resource Center (Box 2178, Silver City, NM 88062), 282 pages, $15.95 paper


By By Tom Barry with Eric Leaver
Interhemispheric Resource Center, 202 pages, $11.95 paper


Global Focus is an extremely ambitious and highly successful attempt to reassess the appropriate U.S. role in the post-cold war world. The editors have brought together 50 experts, including such authorities as Wayne Smith (on Cuba), William Minter (Africa), Michael Klare (Pentagon) and Admiral Eugene Carroll (Peace). They were backed up by a similar army of readers and consultants assembled by the Resource Center in a joint project with the Institute for Policy Studies. In 59 monographs the authors cover international trade, investment, cooperation and peace, Latin America, Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

The United States, the authors argue, has not yet readjusted foreign policy "from cold war assumptions to 21st century realities." Although no longer the global force it used to be, as competitors for markets and resources emerge in Europe and Asia, the United States is still the world's only superpower, "the only country with the preparation and experience to act for good or evil as a catalytic force in international affairs."

Particularly disturbing is the "thin democracy" the United States is promoting in Central America and elsewhere, a context that lacks freedom of expression, civilian control of armed forces and budgets, an independent judiciary and opportunity for citizens to participate in economic life. The United States maintains this facade of democracy "through narrow trade agreements, World Bank loans, IFM programs and the export of $15 billion in arms each year to oppressive governments."

The globalized economy that is a dominant characteristic of today's and tomorrow's world creates a fundamental challenge to workers everywhere. Wages and working conditions have fallen one percent a year for the last 20 years in the United States, and much more steeply elsewhere. More than 30 percent of the world labor force is unemployed or seriously underemployed. In the rich countries the number of "3-D" jobs (dangerous, dirty, difficult) done for very low pay by illegal or unprotected immigrants is rising rapidly. Prison labor is a growing part of the manufacturing work force not only in China but in the United States.

Even the strongest national governments cannot by themselves reverse these trends by labor laws and policies, and the United States consistently resists efforts at international cooperation to protect workers. Of 178 international conventions regulating everything from freedom of association to the rights of indigenous and migrant workers, enacted since 1919, the United States has ratified only 11. Its enforcement of such worker protections as it has incorporated in NAFTA and other agreements is weak and inconsistent, dominated by political considerations.

A recurring theme in this book is the distorting impact of the military-industrial complex on all aspects of national life. The consensus of the authors is that, without any threat to national security, we could shift enough dollars from the Pentagon to "provide dignified work to all U.S. citizens and address the hunger and poverty of poorer countries, which constitute a tinderbox of global insecurity." Specifically, the need for NATO today is questioned and its expansion is condemned.

In The Next Fifty Years Tom Barry presents the United Nations as the key institution for dealing with the global economy that is already here. The United States played the central role in creating the UN, and was a strong supporter as long as it could manipulate the UN for its own purposes. As a more militant Third World bloc emerged, the tide changed, so that by the 1980s the United States found itself in the minority more than four times out of five.

Its reactions have been childish, including refusal to pay its dues, which are now considerably more than a billion dollars in arrears. Instead of paying, this country denounces the bloated UN bureaucracy. Like all big structures, the UN has its inadequacies, but a former assistant secretary, Erskine Childers, put the issue in perspective by pointing out that the state of Wyoming, with only 450,000 people, has more civil servants.

Ironically, the United States resists moves by other members to reduce its proportion of the total budget (25 percent), because that would mean a cut in its ability to manipulate the world body.

Gary MacEoin is an author, journalist and Latin America expert. He lives in San Antonio.

National Catholic Reporter, September 5, 1997