The United States recently suffered two embarrassing setbacks in the United Nations.
First, we were voted off the UN's Human Rights Commission, where we have had a seat since the group was established in 1947. In a secret vote to choose three countries from a regional grouping that includes Western Europe, the US finished behind France, Sweden, and Austria. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice called the loss an outrage. She attributed it to a backlash by those countries that don't like being judged and don't like US leadership in defending human rights.
However, about the same time, in another secret ballot, the US lost its seat on the UN's International Narcotics Control Board. Another explanation for this double defeat therefore might be that America is simply misunderstood by other nations.
They don't understand why we refuse to join in international efforts to reduce global warming, landmines, and the use of children as soldiers. They can't figure out why we not only oppose an international court to punish those who commit genocide and other war crimes, but threaten retaliation against countries that support the idea.
They are perplexed that when we do sign a treaty, we can casually jettison it so billions can be spent on the son of "star wars." This move provoked such a negative reaction that the No. 2 and No. 3 men at the State Department were dispatched to consult with our European and Asian allies. "Consult," in this case, meant telling them personally what they had already read in the newspapers. These countries also might not understand why we are proposing to weaken international efforts against money laundering and other financial crimes in the name of "tax competition."
The confusion abroad is probably not limited only to our international posturing, but could include our domestic politics as well. Other countries might have put France, Sweden, and Austria first because they wonder whether the US is such a strong democracy after all.
They might accept that under our system the man who lost the presidential election could get 540,000 more votes than the man who won. They do question, however, the fact that the margin of victory could amount to a few hundred votes in the state run by the winner's brother, where the official charged with assuring the integrity of the process was running the winner's campaign.
They won't understand that the Republican rioters in Miami were just exercising their constitutional right to interrupt the effort to get an accurate vote count. They might also not comprehend the legal logic behind the decision of the majority in the Supreme Court that said, in effect, a recount is permissible, but only as long as it is impossible.
While the motivation of other countries that caused them to remove us from the two UN bodies is hard to guess, the reaction of the US Congress is not. The House voted to withhold a payment to the UN of $244 million that it had agreed to a few months back. This money was meant to cover part of our debts at the UN, but the House mandated it shall not be paid until the US is restored to the Human Rights Commission.
Whether this legislative action will have the desired effect remains to be seen. One thing is for sure: It has cemented the claim that the US is now the world's only super pouter.
Dennis Jett, who served as US ambassador to Mozambique and Peru, is dean of the International Center at the University of Florida and author of 'Why Peacekeeping Fails' (St. Martin's Press).
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor