Perhaps Madeleine Albrightís abject apology to the presumptive Masters of the Universe at the United Nations for the unfortunate and retrograde comments made by North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms the week before was predictable. You could even argue that it was amusing. But it was unfortunate and contained some dubious assertions, reflecting some dubious attitudes.
Senator Helms, you may remember, had appeared at the U.N. at the invitation of the current U.S. ambassador to the UN, Richard Holbrooke, in what appeared to me to be a gesture of resigned reconciliation with an outfit he has criticized in the past, but looked to most media observers like a savage attack on the world organization and a ringing statement of isolationism. He did use the occasion to offer some criticisms of the UN and to convey some of the misgivings some Americans have about the world body.
Americans will become impatient, he said if the UN seeks "to impose its presumed authority on the American people.íí More than a few Americans, he continued, "see the UN aspiring to establish itself as the central authority of a new international order of global laws and global governance. This is an international order the American people will not countenance."
This was a rather mild and civil bit of criticism of an organization that has received and deserved much harsher words, some of them from Sen. Helms. Even Ambassador Holbrooke, appearing that night on "Nightline" (fully aware, of course, that he will have to deal with the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee whether he respects him or not), praised Sen. Helms for having entered into the hostile precincts of the UN at all. And while he was careful to emphasize that he didnít agree with much of what Sen. Helms had to say, he applauded the appearance as a statesmanlike gesture. But most of the media and the foreign policy establishment reacted as if Sen. Helms had firebombed the place or maybe ordered a nuclear strike on the Tower of Babel on the East River. Among certain of the enlightened and anointed ones in our society, the United Nations remains one of the most sacred of the many sacred cows these worthies worship.
Even Sen. Helms, although he was so bold as to utter a few remonstrances, has in actions joined the worshippers. There is no question, despite the misconceptions of the headline writers, that he is and has long been an internationalist, though more because he thinks the United States needs to lead than because he respects the "international community" of professional freeloaders. And he worked with the insufferable Sen. Joe Biden to put together the Helms-Biden bill to pay the United Statesí supposed arrears in UN dues in exchange for almost certainly empty promises of fundamental reforms in the UN institutional structures.
Thatís sad. There were moments in the late 1980s when you could at least get agreement in some establishment quarters to the general proposition that the United Nations was an ineffectual and somewhat anachronistic institution and that the world would not be notably worse off if it were to disappear. To be sure, much of the disappointment was due to the fact that the UN had not turned out to be the harbinger of an enlightened World Government but a debating society for the pampered and pretentious.
I think the most important event in the resurrection of the UN in the minds of otherwise intelligent and sometimes realistic internationalists was George Bushís lovely little war in the Persian Gulf. A veteran internationalist and elitist, George the Elder used the UN as the framework to build a coalition against the evil Saddam and praised it continually as the indispensable instrument of bringing in the New World Order.
Plenty of otherwise conservative and nationalist Americans came to see the UN as an essentially harmless and sometimes useful instrument of American imperial power. Armed with new respectability and with the institutional framework to conduct weapons inspections in Iraq after the famous victory, the UN seized various opportunities to rebuild its image among American elites.
The UN is still essentially a debating society that should be a laughingstock among intelligent people. But it has proven useful to certain avatars of the empire who believe it can be used without waxing so strong as to become an actual threat to American dominance. And the chattering classes have reverted to their natural instincts revering international institutions like the UN Perhaps they donít see it as the "last best hope" any more, but as a useful instrument in the ongoing project of prodding the unwashed masses into supporting actions that will take us beyond the parochialism of being most concerned about mere American interests.
As a true (or aspiring) member of the class of the anointed, therefore, Madeleine Albright felt the need to make it clear as if anyone had any doubt that she was no Jesse Helms.
"Let me be clear," she told the Security Council during a laughable meeting on peace prospects for the Congo. "Only the president and the executive branch can speak for the United States. Today, on behalf of the president, let me say that the Clinton administration and I believe that most Americans see our role in the world quite differently than does Senator Helms."
She went on to aver that "We strongly support the United Nations Charter and the organizationí purpose. We respect its rules, which we helped to write. We want to strengthen it through continued reform and we recognize its many contributions to our own interest in a more secure, democratic and humane world."
She groveled so abjectly that even the Associated Press reported that her remarks "drew intermittent chuckles from foreign ambassadors seated around the Security Council table."
What about her contention that "only the president and the executive branch can speak for the United States?" Well, the constitution does say that the president is the commander in chief of the armed forces. He also has the power to make treaties "provided two-thirds of the Senators concur." With "the advice and consent of the Senate" he can appoint ambassadors and other officials.
It is a popular modern notion that the president is the sole conductor and formulator of foreign policy in the United States. But the constitution doesnít specifically give him such authority. He can only make treaties and appoint ambassadors with Senatorial concurrence. The Congress, meanwhile, is specifically given authority to declare war, to provide and maintain an army and navy, to define and punish piracies and felonies on the high seas and to regulate commerce with foreign nations. It has the power to lay and collect taxes and provide for the common defense. Indeed, the founders were so desirous of keeping the real power in the body supposedly closest to the people (and farthest from the potentially monarchical pretensions of the executive) that they specified that "All bills for raising revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives."
None of this suggests that "only the president" can speak for the United States. The power to make protestations of representing the country and of contesting those claims was purposely diffused and kept a bit ambiguous. You could even claim that in a government that respected the US Constitution as written, the power of the purse would be seen as the ultimate ability to speak for the country and that power was specifically not vested in the president. But the idea that any one person could "speak for" the entire country would have struck the founders as ludicrous. Maybe an ambassador stationed overseas, with proper safeguards, could be said to speak for the country on a certain limited number of matters to certain limited audiences. And after a proper declaration of war the president had the power to carry it out. But no one person could be said to embody the entire country, to speak for it or to represent its will. If anything, the president of the kind of government envisioned in the constitution would have no more justification for claiming to "speak for" the entire country than a soapbox orator in the park on a Sunday afternoon.
The 20th century, of course, has seen an astounding growth in executive power, aided and abetted by a Congress filled with politicians only too eager to abdicate their responsibilities to the people, and an intellectual class of worshippers of near-absolute power. So the idea that the president has the sole power to conduct foreign policy does not seem as foreign to us as it should.
But accepting the notion let alone proclaiming and celebrating it betrays a predilection for absolutism and arbitrariness. Even in the US government as it exists today, the president is faced with numerous checks on his ability to conduct foreign policy, let alone "speak for the United States." The president is not a dictator or the embodiment of the common will.
Madeleine Albright, so worshipful of imperial power, might wish that it were so. But it isnít yet. If it ever is our freedom will truly be gone.
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