The United Nations, Darfur, and the Yellow Peril

by olgasoutstanding

When I started graduate school, I was often amazed by the responses of my classmates to complex problems.  A professor would ask what tools we could use to resolve a conflict, and inevitably two or three people would come up with “pass a law forbidding it” or “call on the U.N.” 

        In the real world, of course, the U.N. does not have unlimited power and resources.  In the real world, laws are often no more than window dressing, countries don’t agree on a course of action, and it can be hard to tell whether a particular intervention will produce the desired results.  Frequently, use of military or economic instruments will make things worse for the people on the ground in a given country.  Then there is the problem of the U.N.’s mandate in particular situations.  Often, U.N. peacekeepers (unlike NATO troops) observe atrocities and are powerless to stop them.  Sometimes, they are part of the problem, participating in sexual assault or rounding people up for extermination.

            I recently had a meeting at the office of my Congressional representative, Chris Van Hollen.  He is being advised by some very intelligent and thoughtful people.  During the meeting, Ken Cummings asked why more isn’t being done in Darfur.  Indeed, under the Obama administration, things have gone backward.  Part of the problem, of course, is opposition to President Obama.  More important is the reluctance of liberals to fight for what they believe in publicly.  I call this “the nice liberal problem.”  The left becomes so focused on being the good guys that they have trouble standing up for things that they have built their careers on (as Samantha Power and Susan Rice have built their careers on acting against atrocities).

            But Mr. Cummings also seemed to think that China is a big reason we’ve backed off on Darfur.  There is a deep level of cooperation between the government of Omar al-Bashir and China.  Sudan has oil resources which China wants, and China has invested heavily in Sudan.  Russia sells arms to Sudan, and Ukraine is a major supplier of arms and fighter pilots.  Both China and Russia are members of the U.N. Security Council, which is one reason U.N. peacekeepers are toothless.  Why do we naturally focus on China to the exclusion of Russia?

            In the 1980s, Japan was (we were told) poised to take over the world economically.  Today we are told that it is China.  China owns U.S. debt; China is huge; many things are made in China.  Chinese students score better than American students in math and science.  This yellow peril mentality is preventing us from focusing on what needs to get done.  Most of U.S. debt is owned by Americans.  China’s economy is large mainly because there are a lot of people in China.  Their per capita numbers are dismal.  They experience environmental crises that most people living in the U.S., Canada, or Western Europe can hardly imagine.  Manufacturing has moved to China, and this has certainly caused some quality control problems, but it’s part of a larger move of more developed economies away from low-quality manufacturing and into higher-quality manufacturing and service industries.  China is still several steps behind economically.  Finally, cheating is rampant in China.  Getting a poor test grade often results in deep shame for students and their families, and the suicide rate among students is high.  Test grades don’t provide a reliable assessment of China’s educational system.

            The United States can’t blame the United Nations for a failure to act in Darfur.  The U.S. government cannot blame China and Russia, either.  The U.N. was not elected by the American people.  It cannot and does not carry out all American foreign policy.  Instead, we need to look at the reluctance of Congress to hand the Obama administration any victory, even when the victory is less political and more humanitarian.  And we need especially to look at the reluctance of Democrats in general and the Obama administration in particular to prioritize genocide and crimes against humanity.  NATO took out Qaddafi, but Omar al-Bashir, who has been indicted for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, is free to rule a nation, travel, and accuse the International Criminal Court of racism over his indictment.  There is a culture of impunity when it comes to genocide, and the United States, with its long opposition to the ICC and reluctance to act in humanitarian interest, upholds it.  The U.S. has been using China and East Asians to symbolize our fears of the outside world since the mid-19th Century, and it’s time to stop.  China is not the reason for U.S. inaction.  The U.S. is the reason.