The Folly of ‘Going It Alone’ : U.N.-Bashing Is Not in America’s, or World’s, Interests

<i> Diana L. Eck is a professor of comparative religion and Indian studies at Harvard University</i>

When I was in the sixth grade in Bozeman, Mont., the conservative Republican governor of our state refused to proclaim United Nations Day on Oct. 24. My classmates and I were only 12 years old and most of us had not traveled outside Montana, let alone to far parts of the world, but we organized our first political protest, picket signs and all. To be against the United Nations seemed to us to be against the rest of the world. We were outraged.

When I listen to George Bush 30 years later, I still am.

In both of his debates with Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, the vice president has made the point that he thinks America’s interest in matters of foreign policy and peacekeeping are too important to be left in the hands of the world organization.

Yet on United Nations Day, 1988, we might remember that the U.N. peacekeeping forces won the Nobel Peace Prize this year. And that the United Nations played the primary role in getting the Soviets to begin their withdrawal from Afghanistan; that U.N. resolutions still constitute the framework for peace negotiations in the Middle East and in Southern Africa; that the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights has, for 40 years now, been our only international instrument for the protection and promotion of human rights.


America may be able to circle the globe from space, but our political, economic and environmental vision stops at the border. The Reagan years have been marked by a persistent retreat from real internationalism. Our bilateral arms treaty with the Soviet Union notwithstanding, the dominant “policy” has been introversion, isolation and unilateralism. And this at a time when none of our global problems can even be addressed in a meaningful way, let alone solved, without vigorous multilateral and international work.

Take the environment, for example. Is this an issue on which every nation can “go it alone?” Ask the people of the Pacific Islands where we once tested our nuclear weapons and where people know the deformation of what they call “jellyfish babies.” Ask the people of Europe whose soil, crops, food and milk were saturated with the radioactive fallout from Chernobyl. Ask the people of eastern Canada whose lakes and forests are dying because of acid rain blown in by American polluters. Ask the people of Bangladesh swamped by floods pouring in from India’s Himalayas.

Concern for the environment requires more vision that what Bush has called a “love for the out of doors.” The greenhouse effect, the effects of acid rain, the residue of nuclear testing, the fallout of nuclear accidents, the pollution of oceans and commons, the devastation of rain forests, the desertification of vast parts of Africa, the deforestation of the Andes and the Himalayas and the endless cycles of floods unleashed from those barren hills--these are not problems that any one nation can solve by “going it alone.”

So far, the only credible proposals for “going it together” have come from the U.N. Commission on Environment and Development. Headed by Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway, the commission members gathered information and conducted hearings throughout the world for four years. In our common future, they saw a clear relationship between the worldwide environmental crisis and short-sighted development and economic policies.


The commission wrote: “Most of today’s decision-makers will be dead before the planet feels the heavier effects of acid precipitation, global warming, ozone depletion or widespread desertification and species loss. Most of the young voters of today will still be alive.”

Last summer a Gallup poll revealed that 14% of Americans could not find the United States on a map of the world. And could we locate some of the other most obvious nations on a map? Britain? France? Egypt? South Africa? Again, Americans scored at the bottom of the heap as compared to children and adults of the nine countries tested. We cannot locate ourselves or our neighbors. We literally do not know where we are in the world. And the unilateralist, isolationist leadership of this country in the past eight years has not helped us to find out.

If ever we needed a great political Copernican revolution, it is now. The old assumption that nations and peoples of the world orbit around the United States, like Ptolemy’s belief that the heavenly bodies revolved around the Earth, is not only wrong and anachronistic; it is ignoble. The vision and compassion of the American people make us yearn to join with peoples of other nations with whom we share the planet, even those with whom we disagree, to work on common problems of environment, security and development.

Our global interdependence is not a romantic fiction, an invention or an ideology. It is a fact of this age. We on Earth are factually interdependent, but have not yet the vision to be interrelated. Unilateralism cannot lead us into the future. The United Nations, fragile as it is, is the only instrument we have today for addressing problems that we as Americans cannot solve alone.