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Anger in Johannesburg on U.S. absence


The hope is for regime change. If the bully, supported by weapons of mass destruction, refuses to enter into dialogue, then one day maybe he’ll simply disappear. But time is short, and the stakes are getting higher.

How long can decent people wait?

The subject of this column is not Saddam Hussein. Yet it does relate to the pending U.S. war against Iraq. This column is about our president, George W. Bush, and the way people in other parts of the world view us. It is based on notions gathered on numerous trips abroad and on the forceful comments coming from South Africa this week.

Seen from Johannesburg, the site of the U.N.-sponsored World Summit on Sustainable Development, Bush is the bully who represents U.S. arrogance and disregard -- the man who won’t come to the table of world concern for human misery.

Seen from Johannesburg, it’s the United States -- not Iraq -- that is the greater threat to life on the planet. This is a hard pill for many Americans to swallow. But swallow we must or we won’t stand a chance of finding lasting peace in the Middle East, or in our own cities and towns.

Summit organizers had so hoped for Bush to show that they moved up the dates so as not to conflict with events commemorating 9/11.

So large is the anger in Johannesburg at the Bush snub that a popular jazz club in that city has started a poetry contest to express disdain for Bush’s environmental policies. The most derisive verses win.

Officially, there is “great disappointment”; unofficially, based on nongovernmental organizations’ comments and those of thousands of environmental protesters, there is bitterness.

Seen from Johannesburg, the United States lives in opulent isolation. It is a nation of greed and selfishness, its economy flush with Middle East oil and polluting sport utility vehicles. (Environmentalists say that the switch from an average car to an SUV causes more energy waste in one year than if one left a refrigerator door open for six years.)

Development experts know well there is only one world and the United States cannot live in denial forever. They also know that as the world’s largest economy and its chief polluter, U.S. cooperation and the action of our government are required if global warming and growing global inequities are to be addressed.

Outside U.S. borders, there is little talk about noble U.S. democratic traditions, embedded in our Constitution. From a distance U.S. calls for democracy ring hollow. Those calls cover larger ambitions for global dominance. Overseas, there is a sense that democracy in America comes at the price of dictatorships elsewhere. Even normally friendly allies swallow hard, seeing our government cozying up to repressive regimes when “economic interests” so require. Consider only Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait, or the generals of Indonesia, to name a few of our “friends.”

The decade that followed the Rio de Janeiro summit in 1992 -- and its Agenda 21 -- was largely time wasted. That’s the depressing truth and context for the new summit.

Collective frustration at U.S. indecisiveness and inaction has fueled anger against the United States and our trade, not aid approach to global economic ills. Agenda 21 included an international aid target of .7 percent of gross domestic product for the richest industrialized nations. Shamefully, U.S. aid, at .1 percent, is the lowest of any industrialized nation in the world.

That’s not the generosity we claim.

Denmark gets the honor of being the most generous of developed nations, at 1.6 percent, followed by The Netherlands, Sweden and Norway, all at .8 percent.

Until we grasp the meaning of these numbers and what they say to the wider world, we live in disabling blindness. In this darkness our government plans war and calls upon other nations to join us in a fight against terrorism.

With the U.S. president absent from the summit, Secretary of State Colin Powell is carrying the Bush banner. But Bush rhetoric, focused on free trade and democracy, will not carry the day. It comes across as weak and self-serving. Especially when Bush has only recently approved billions in U.S. farm subsidies that make it impossible for African and Asian farmers to compete.

Early on, and with U.S. encouragement, the summit’s themes were to be water, energy, health, agriculture and bio-diversity.

In a challenge to the White House, summit organizers expanded the list to include:

  • Population (seen as expanding from 6 billion to 8 billion by 2025).
  • Climate change and global warming (Leading scientists see the planet warming by between 3 and 11 degrees Fahrenheit in our lifetimes.)
  • Fresh water (Nearly half the world’s people will experience water shortages by 2025; 90 percent of water consumption goes for agriculture.)
  • Pollution (Acid rain and smog are causing serious health problems in the developing world.)
  • Tropical forests (Between 1960 and 1990, 20 percent were lost.)

Earth Summit 2002 might not change the world, but it can remind us that somewhere, if not in Washington, if not in the Bush administration, thousands of world leaders are focused on some of the most compelling global issues of our time.

Tom Fox is NCR publisher. He can be reached at tcfox@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, September 6, 2002