Thursday, June 08, 2006

America, Superpower of Rubes

A senior United Nations official named Mark Malloch Brown gave a speech the other day that can charitably be described as intemperate. In it he argues that the U.N. achieves great things, but Americans are ignorant of it because they have been flimflammed by right-wing media. The text of the speech is here. (The Belmont Club's brutal deconstruction of it is here.)

Economists like to use a technique called revealed preference. Whereas economic analysis typically uses preferences to draw conclusions about choices, sometimes it is useful to use choices – for example, the choice of words in a speech – to infer beliefs and preferences. And Mr. Brown’s speech is instructive in that respect. The part of the speech that is resonating most unsonorously is the following charge:

And today, on a very wide number of areas, from Lebanon and Afghanistan to Syria, Iran and the Palestinian issue, the U.S. is constructively engaged with the UN. But that is not well known or understood, in part because much of the public discourse that reaches the U.S. heartland has been largely abandoned to its loudest detractors such as Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. That is what I mean by "stealth" diplomacy: the UN’s role is in effect a secret in Middle America even as it is highlighted in the Middle East and other parts of the world.

First, note that the speech was given to an American group, in New York. One must conclude then either that he doesn’t expect the “U.S. heartland” to hear of his view that they are living in a right-wing bubble of ignorance, or that they can hear but choose not to. Either way the conclusion is the same: U.S. policy on the U.N. is in the grip of ignorant people. All of this suggests a dim view either of the American democratic decision-making process, of Americans themselves, or both. In particular, either these people have too much power, they are not sophisticated enough to sample enough information sources, they are in the grips of a media monopoly, they need to be led by their betters, or some or all of the above.

Second, he makes explicit criticism of a single country, the U.S., in ways that would be unthinkable, because of diplomatic courtesies, for any other country. Indeed, later in the speech he discusses countries in the developing world who are resisting reforms designed to shift responsibility for some issues from the General Assembly, where these countries enjoy representation without taxation, to the Secretary General. He cannot bring himself to use any names, but only refers instead to “a few spoilers.” This suggests that he doesn’t think the U.S. merits such courtesies. Intrinsically this is not as bad as it first appears, because this kind of criticism is part of the price of hegemony. But his criticism of U.S. politicians in particular – who engage in“unchecked U.N.-bashing and stereotyping”– is simply out of bounds by any normal diplomatic criteria. And yet, if the hicks in Iowabraska or South Pennsylhoma or those other big squarish states out there take objection to this, that will presumably be their problem.

Finally, it is striking how much he thinks that the main problem is a failure by U.S. leaders to get the message out to the American public. The possibility that the U.N. physician – a with its large number of fundamentally illiberal regimes who nonetheless are treated as indistinguishable from, say, a country with several hundred years of consensual government, its peacekeepers involved in child molestation scandals, its inadequacy to the task in Darfur, in the case of radical Islam, and elsewhere throughout the decades – might need to heal himself does not seem to have occurred to him. Psychologists call this tendency to selectively edit out the evidence in ways that leave the thinker feeling better about himself self-serving bias, and Mr. Brown seems to have a bad case of it.

This was not his finest hour, nor was Kofi Annan’s defense of him the next day. That Mr. Brown holds these views and yet is second in command at the U.N. is something that the "heartland" should consider in its deliberations.


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