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Week of July 1, 2003

Program 0326


UN After Iraq | Transcript | MP3

Barbara Crossette | Transcript | MP3

Iraq’s Women | Transcript | MP3

Iraqi Marsh | Transcript | MP3

US Empire | Transcript | MP3

Bangladesh Ambassador | Transcript | MP3

China’s SARS Cover-up | Transcript | MP3

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.

JAMES PAUL: It sure was high drama. In fact, I was in the council chamber on some of those momentous occasions and it was, sometimes you could cut really the atmosphere with a knife.

KRISTIN MCHUGH: This week on Common Ground, the debate over the future of the United Nations.

[Musical interlude]

MCHUGH: Plus, the early search for the next UN Secretary General.

BARBARA CROSSETTE: The Secretary General of the United Nations has basically no power on paper. He is a servant of the General Assembly, which is a kind of parliament. He is a servant of the Security Council, which gives him orders. What power he has is from his own inner strength and his own convictions.

MCHUGH: And,the race to restore Iraqi’s marshlands.

ANDREW NATSIOS: Soldiers reportedly killed tens of thousands, burned their communities to the ground, poisoned the water, destroyed the livestock, and planted unmarked land and water mines throughout the region.

MCHUGH: These stories—coming up next.

[Musical interlude]

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UN After Iraq

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MCHUGH: Common Ground is radio’s weekly program on world affairs. I’m Kristin McHugh. Keith Porter is off this week. Even though the war in Iraq is over with, the debate over the future of the United Nations continues. Some analysts believe the international governing body’s stature suffered greatly when the United States launched the war without UN approval. Others argue it’s far from over for the UN, but that the international organization is at an important crossroads. Nathan King reports from New York.

[The soundtrack from an old newsreel, starting with a trumpet fanfare.] This is the charter of the United Nations. It begins with the words, “We the peoples.” “We the peoples…”

NATHAN KING: An old newsreel, reporting on the first session of the United Nations over half a century ago. The sense of hope after the Second World War that went into the international community was strong. But now, just a few years into our new century, there is a big question mark hanging over the future of the United Nations. The Iraq crisis showed divisions as never before. Months of rancorous debate in the Security Council produced little agreement on whether a war against Iraq should be waged, although there were moments of high drama.

JAMES PAUL: It sure was high drama. In fact, I was in the council chamber on some of those momentous occasions and sometimes it was, you could really cut the atmosphere with a knife.

KING: James Paul heads the Global Policy Forum a think tank that monitors the United Nations and he believes the failure of diplomacy is having severe consequences.

PAUL: There was very, very deep differences among council members. For the rest of the Council members there was this concern about the US really beginning to go into an imperial mode, insist on having its own way in everything that was going on in the Security Council virtually. And so there was the beginnings of an opposition to the United States. And I think that was extremely important in these recent events.

KING: Whatever the rights and wrongs of the debate on the Iraq War, the fact that France, Russia, and other members of the Security Council were seen as trying to limit American power could be very damaging for the future of the world body. Many in Washington, both Republican and Democrat, have long viewed the UN as a restraint on America’s might. And after a successful war against Iraq the White House may be tempted to bypass the council again.

JEFF LAURENTI: The question of launching wars unilaterally, after the end of the Cold War had seemed to put that kind of behavior into the dustbin of history, it does matter because it suggests the genie may come out of the bottle.

KING: Jeff Laurenti is Executive Director of Policy Studies at the United Nations Association for the USA. And he’s one who believes Iraq may prove to be a crossroads for the United Nations Security Council. He fears that the frustration with the United Nations in the US may mean that the current administration may only try and fully involve the United Nations if things start to go wrong in Iraq and by then it might be too late.

LAURENTI: Many think very possible—many worry—Iraq turns out to be Lebanon to the 10th degree, hotbed of insurrection, of hostility, of incidents—then the UN option will look smarter and wiser, although at that point it might be much harder to drag the UN in and hand control of the tar baby to the UN.

KING: Iraq, of course, is not the first issue to divide the Security Council—Israel and the Middle east, Vietnam, and the French war against Algeria, and the Russian occupation of Afghanistan—are all examples that highlight the inability of the UN to act in many situations. But the Iraq debate created such deep divisions, and anti-French feeling, that editorials in the Wall Street Journal and other papers called for reform of the Security Council. Why should the world body, ask some, provide built-in vetoes for the victorious powers from World War II if this no longer reflects the current global balance of power? The call for reform, however, is likely to be a nonstarter. A decade-long look at Security Council reform has come across many obstacles.

LAURENTI: Additional permanent members would be a disaster on the Security Council. It’s bad enough to have five permanent members with their vetoes. What if you had 10 with their vetoes? You really couldn’t deal with anything.

KING: Some say the nature of the United Nations is fundamentally flawed, but they also believe that the UN is necessary. As war winds down in Iraq the United Nations may seem to be more relevant. Agencies such as the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and the International Atomic Energy Agency may be needed to help reconstruct the country and bring it back to health—a mission they alone know how to do. And despite the divisions of the past year the American public still seems to believe in the United Nations. Jeff Laurenti at the UN association of the USA says in the end, polling shows support for collective security.

LAURENTI: What’s interesting is that polling since that, since the war began, suggests that for the aftermath people are no more willing to rely on the United States to set the world aright by itself than they had been before, and that you still have the same 3-to-1 majorities that say that for most international problems, go to the UN and have the US just be one of many in carrying out common policies.

KING: The United Nations can only be as strong as its members want it to be. Far from being an international overlord, the organization is hostage to great power politics. Sometimes it is relevant, sometimes it will be sidelined, but despite its flaws replacing the UN would be difficult to imagine. Over the past half century it has survived the Korean war, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Cold War. Ironically the ferocity of the debate surrounding Iraq proves that many in the world still care deeply about the United Nations relevance. For Common Ground, I’m Nathan King in New York.

[Musical interlude]

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Barbara Crossette

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MCHUGH: One of the big challenges facing the United Nations in the next few years will be finding a successor to the popular secretary-general, Kofi Annan. He is in only the second year of his second five-year term, but a prominent journalist recently kicked off the public speculation about who might follow in Kofi Annan’s footsteps. Barbara Crossette spent many years at the New York Times as their United Nations bureau chief. Now she writes a column for UN Wire, an independent daily publication on international affairs. Common Ground‘s Keith Porter spoke with Barbara about her column on the next secretary-general. She pointed out many insiders believe the job should go to someone from Asia.

BARBARA CROSSETTE: The members of the UN are divided into regional blocs and they are very concerned about making sure that there’s regional balance, geographic balance. And with that, of course, cultural balance. So that in the UN one area doesn’t seem to dominate too many of the high offices, the assumption being—and it’s always been an assumption, it’s not written in the Charter—that this very high job should be rotating a bit around the world so that the UN isn’t always led by a particular region. Since each Secretary General does bring a kind of, you know, his advisors and sometimes his friends from his previous jobs and so into the picture, a region can, in fact, develop a much higher profile at the UN by having a Secretary General. So Asia feels that it’s been so long since it had a Secretary General that it’s way overdue.

Now, since I wrote that column, in fact, a very interesting thing has happened. And that’s the appointment of Sérgio Vieira de Mello to be the United Nations Special Representative in Iraq. I had mentioned farther on down the column that if the Asians couldn’t get together behind a candidate there were others out there. And Vieira de Mello has been thought to be very eager to be considered a candidate for this job. Now we all know the United States has to support or at least acquiesce in the choice, or perhaps even pick the next Secretary General, depending on who’s in the White House. And this of course gives Sérgio Vieira de Mello a very, very high profile. And he was the American’s choice for Iraq. So he’s already got stars on his shoulders. And if he pulls this Iraq job off with great credibility this may, in fact, boost him to pretty high ranking in the candidate field. So, in fact, it’s now even more timely for reasons that maybe no one would have predicted.

PORTER: Barbara, remind our listeners what the technical procedure is for selecting a Secretary General.

CROSSETTE: Well, the Security Council makes the choice and sends a name to the General Assembly for a vote. It’s normally assumed that it’s the Security Council, and in the last, very brutal session in 1996, that was the last really disagreement, was over whether Bhutros Gali would get a second time. And it’s quite clear that it’s not just the Security Council, it’s the permanent five members with vetoes—Britain, China, France, the United States, and Russia. But in that case it was really a standoff at first between—surprise!—the United States and France. France wanted a French speaker and they had other Africans in mind. But in the end everyone settled on Kofi Annan because the United States pushed it so hard that it made it impossible for Bhutros Gali to stay in the race.

PORTER: Barbara, earlier you mentioned one potential future secretary general. Give us some other names that you hear floating around UN headquarters.

CROSSETTE: Well, I mentioned Sérgio Vieira de Mello because he would now be considered an outsider if we follow through on the idea that people think it’s Asia’s turn. Asia has some candidates. Surin Pitsuwan, the former foreign minister of Thailand, is an interesting case because he is a Muslim, Harvard educated, living in a Buddhist country—Thailand—and represents that kind of a cultural mix and a religious tolerance. Kishore Mahbubani is the Singaporan—he was the foreign secretary, is now their ambassador at the United Nations. There is a lot of question about whether Singapore will really fight in this race. And the country has to support the candidate in all sorts of ways. But he is, he has been around the international system for a long time. And then in India, Shashi Tharoor, who is now Undersecretary General for Information at the United Nations, is thought to be interested in the job. He has not had any official backing from India.

None of these people I’m mentioning now have declared their candidacy. Only one person has and that is the foreign minister of Sri Lanka, Tyrone Fernando, but he is not considered a serious candidate. He really has no international visibility and his declaration of candidacy was considered a little bit strange by an awful lot of people. My own feeling is that there is a real dark horse out there, and that’s Han Sung-joo from South Korea. He’s an extremely brilliant intellectual in international policy and certain on Korean Peninsula affairs. As interestingly, the Koreans have just made him ambassador to Washington. It was a surprise choice. He has also been foreign minister of South Korea. And this, of course, will put him in a very interesting place, because as the United States works through what to do with North Korea he will be a key figure. So the United States will get to know him very well also, the Bush administration in particular. Again, a lot of this will depend on what administration is in power in 2004 when this next decision has to be made.

PORTER: Sometimes I hear people dream about having some big fish as Secretary General, some former head of state like Jimmy Carter or Mary Robinson, Nelson Mandela, Vaclev Havel. Is there any chance we could ever have some, some big name secretary-general like that?

CROSSETTE: It’s possible. Many people feel that the politics of the UN won’t allow it, that many people would bridle at the thought of a person with that much political power. And I might add the big permanent Security Council members are often most likely to object to this sort of thing because they feel a bit upstaged by a person like that.

PORTER: One last question for you, Barbara. A lot of people just think of the secretary-general as the world’s top bureaucrat. So tell us why it matters who this person is. I mean, what impact does the actual person have on the organization.

CROSSETTE: The Security Council is so free-floating and so much a control of the member nations and the five permanent members that, that he really can’t do much. But this is where his own personal power kicks in. The secretary-general of the United Nations has basically no power on paper. He is a servant of the General Assembly, which is a kind of parliament. He is a servant of the Security Council, which gives him orders—set up a peacekeeping mission here, do this there, do that there. And so, what power he has is from his own inner strength and his own convictions. And his own ability to do things like speak in public, to go to the Security Council and try to persuade them to accept a course of action that they might not want, to go from country to country to country asking for more cooperation, whether it’s in peacekeeping or even in allowing the United Nations to position itself in places where there are problems. A lot of this depends on the Secretary General’s own persuasive powers.

MCHUGH: Former New York Times correspondent Barbara Crossette writes about the United Nations for UN Wire.

MCHUGH: The changing role of Iraqi women, next on Common Ground.

[Musical interlude]

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Iraq’s Women

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MCHUGH: Decades of war killed millions of Iraqi men. Now, despite their numbers, women haven’t had a majority voice in Iraq for a long time. More than three decades ago, the Ba’athist regime started out as both secular and socialist. After the first Gulf War, Saddam Hussein chose to Islamicize Iraq, to adopt an image of being a faithful Muslim, which won him support from the conservative Shi’a population, but also reduced women’s role in Iraqi society in the name of Islam. Today, the question is, what role will women play in Iraq? Priscilla Huff has more.

KATRIN MICHAEL: How you are dealing with me? I am Iraqi person, I am Christian. Okay, how can you give me, my human rights? I am human rights, Iraqi human rights, how you are dealing with me as Iraqi, Christian woman. Where is my right, please?

PRISCILLA HUFF: Katrin Michael’s question is one being asked by millions of Iraqi women. She is triply marginalized in Iraq. She is not just a woman, but also a Chaldean Christian and ethnically Assyrian. She fears her human rights will be trampled, especially if Iraq’s majority conservative Shi’a population imposes a fundamentalist Islamic regime. Dr. Abdulaziz Sachedina of the University of Virginia says modern democracy has different demands than faith-based traditions.

DR. ABDULAZIZ SACHEDINA: If the traditional interpretation of the text, of the legal system, predominates then you have a sort of a continuum between traditionalism and the new demands of modernity. If we are talking about democracy and the empowerment of women, or gender equality or, I would say, gender egality, then that’s where culture and religion are intertwined. And they are intertwined in such a way that religion and culture work together to suppress the voice of the women.

HUFF: Dr. Sachedina says Islamic law has very practical and negative impacts for women, giving the example of negotiating a marriage contract.

DR. SACHEDINA: It’s not the woman who does it, it’s not the bride who’s going to do it, it’s the family who’s going to do it. And not only it’s the family, it’s the men in the family who are going to do that. And there she does not have a voice to represent her own concerns about how exactly the child custody is going to take place in the future, what will be her right to divorce, because under the Hanafii law among the Sunnis, a woman cannot write down in the contract. It is null and void if she says, that, “My husband, if he marries a second wife, I have a right to divorce.” She can’t write it down, because according to Hanafii law, this is null and void.

HUFF: Current Iraqi family law—marriage, divorce, child custody—is an example of where women stood in Iraqi society at the end of the regime of Saddam Hussein. Born in Iraq, Zainab al-Suwajj is now the Executive Director of the American Islamic Congress.

ZAINAB AL-SUWAJJ: The challenge that we have is, right now is how to empower women in the society in Iraq. It’s been not easy. We need more voices, we need more representatives of women there.

HUFF: Zainab al-Suwajj believes new roles for women in Iraq must be learned and taught.

ZAINAB AL-SUWAJJ: The first steps, is my hope is that women will take the lead in developing the most basic institute of civil society, especially the education system.

HUFF: The Bush administration is advocating a larger-scale approach. Don Steinberg works with the women’s issues group at the State Department.

DON STEINBERG: On the question of creating a ministry of women’s issues, I hope the conclusion was indeed to do this. And I think we’ve found in similar situations all around the world that the creation of a women’s ministry serves to focus people’s attention to mainstream issues, to provide a conduit for foreign assistance to enter, to serve as a watchdog on the education, and the health and the housing ministries, to ensure that women’s issues are adequately reflected in those areas.

HUFF: Nasreen Mustafa Sideek is the Development Minister for the Kurdistan Regional Government. She wants women to have a broader role.

NASREEN MUSTAFA SIDEEK: It’s good to have a women’s ministry, but we should not look at it as the solution for all of our problems, I think it have more impact to have a health minister woman, to have an education minister woman who’s a woman, a Prime Minister who is woman.

HUFF: While this big picture stuff would impact the lives of Iraqi women, others are convinced, the culture of fear, the mindset problems coming after nearly 25 years of Saddam Hussein’s one-man rule of terror—are a bigger problem for the daily lives of Iraqi women.

SANAAM ANDERLINI: It’s very difficult to even initiate the notion of a mindset of what human rights are. That, that’s a very difficult thing to bring about.

HUFF: Sanaam Anderlini with Women Waging Peace, believes the key to the future for Iraqi’s women is to ensure their personal security.

SANAAM ANDERLINI: There has been an accepted norm of sexual abuse and prostitution and trafficking which very directly impacts women. And from my conversations with people, in Iraq this is an issue that there is still a lot of silence around, but it was something that was perpetrated from the very top and it’s a cycle that needs to be broken, because if you have impunity around these issues, it will carry on and it will be perpetuated.

HUFF: Iraqi women, especially those who have experienced Western democracy and liberal society agree, the challenges to bringing better lives to all Iraqi women are huge. And the pot of resources to initiate those changes comes from the same allocation to repair the infrastructure, retrain Iraq’s vast security forces, and other tasks for the new government. Zainab Salbi of Women for Women International is convinced her experience working in very traditional Afghanistan has given her the key to success in improving Iraqi women’s lives.

ZAINAB SALBI: You need to incorporate men in that process, in the process of empowering women. One hand cannot clap on its own. Men are fundamental in increasing women’s rights and promoting women’s economic opportunities. So how can we can get there and how can we educate them, how can we get their awareness, how can we get their support in the process? It is possible. What could be destructive is ignoring them and imposing new values on them without even, you know, getting them to understand what’s being talked about.

HUFF: The answer may not be found in the top-down imposition of an American-style democracy. It may be a one-to-one process to convince all Iraqis that women with rights will mean a better future for everyone. For Common Ground, I’m Priscilla Huff.

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Iraqi Marsh

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MCHUGH: In southern Iraq, along the border with Iran, there’s a large swath of land that just three decades ago was covered by the largest wetland in the Middle East. But between the often-brutal policies of Saddam Hussein and the natural forces of human development, much of this marshland has been drained and many of its inhabitants forced to leave. The new Iraqi leadership now faces the enormous task of reviving the marsh ecosystem and repatriating the refugees and displaced persons. Judith Smelser reports.

[Sounds of water and wildlife from the marshes of southern Iraq.]

SMELSER: Some believe these marshlands inspired the Biblical Garden of Eden. Created from the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, at the very heart of human civilization, this legendary paradise has provided shelter for scores of animal species and for a human civilization that’s been around for 5,000 years.

[Sounds of water and wildlife from the marshes of southern Iraq.]

SMELSER: But in just a few decades, the marshlands have been all but destroyed and thousands of the so-called marsh Arabs have been killed or displaced.

[The sounds of combat.]

SMELSER: The Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s took a terrible toll on the marsh dwellers. Since the marshlands straddle the border between the two countries, the idyllic setting was transformed into a battlefield. But things deteriorated even further after the first Gulf War in 1991. Shi’ites in the area staged an uprising, which was quickly suppressed by Saddam Hussein’s regime. The Iraqi leader then engaged in what is widely understood to have been a deliberate program of punishing the Marsh Arabs.

ANDREW NATSIOS: Soldiers reportedly killed tens of thousands and some estimates are as high as between 50 and 100 thousand; burned their communities to the ground, poisoned the water, destroyed the livestock, and planted unmarked land and water mines throughout the region.

SMELSER: Andrew Natsios, the head of the US Agency for International Development, spoke at a Washington seminar that looked specifically at the state of the marshes and their people.

NATSIOS: The population numbered more than a quarter of a million in 1990, according to some estimates and may have been reduced to 20 to 40 thousand.

SMELSER: Tens of thousands fled into neighboring Iran; others were internally displaced within the marshlands. Some westerners who have visited the area since the end of the most recent Iraq war have discovered that there may actually be more Marsh Arabs left than most estimates suggest. But whatever the number, those who do remain are struggling. Among the punitive actions the Iraqi government took in the early ’90s was a program to drain the marshes, magnifying the effect of dams built upstream on the Tigris and Euphrates as early as the 1950s. As a result, two of the area’s main marshes have shrunk to less than 10% of their original size, according to USAID’s figures. Not only did the drainage program severely damage the area’s delicate ecosystem, but it also decimated the farming and fishing lifestyle of the Marsh Arab culture. Now that Saddam Hussein’s government is out of power, some in the international community see an opportunity to reverse some of that damage. After the first Gulf War, Emma Nicholson, who’s now a member of the European Parliament, founded a charity devoted exclusively to helping the Marsh Arabs. She hopes the region’s fortunes will soon begin to change.

EMMA NICHOLSON: This is rural regeneration and fishing regeneration of a wide variety of products that were produced and marketed over 5,000 years in a self-sustaining, mixed farming economy of the type and style that we all wish still survived. It did and it does, but it had been reduced to a very low level.

SMELSER: Nicholson now has the attention of the US government. USAID chief Andrew Natsios suggests his agency could give Iraqi scientists and environmentalists tips on wetland management.

NATSIOS: They certainly have skills, but we have learned, for example, in AID a lot about river basin management across national boundaries. AID has extensive experience in this in Latin America, in North Africa, and now in the Lumpopo and the Zambazi river systems in Southern Africa.

SMELSER: He also mentioned the importance of funding for marsh preservation and regeneration, without specifying who would provide that funding.

[Sounds of water and wildlife from the marshes of southern Iraq.]

SMELSER: Along with the immense technical challenge of reflooding the marshlands and trying to return them to their former pristine state, there’s also the complex question of refugee resettlement. Victor Tanner of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies says that will be no easy task.

VICTOR TANNER: Not everyone may want to return to where they came from, but everyone has a right. If justice is to be done, everyone has a right to either return, or to some form of compensation. This will be extremely hard on the marsh Arabs because there’s very little documentation on what land belonged to whom, and indeed much of the land was communally owned.

SMELSER: Emma Nicholson says that information does exist—but only in the minds of the marsh Arabs themselves.

NICHOLSON: Already we’ve found a quarter of a million of those people, all of them in one way or another off the land in which they were born, their grandfathers were born, and as one of them said to me, “We go back to Sumerian days. We’ve always been here.” So they’re the only people who know where those various different families have the right to go back and live.

SMELSER: One of her main concerns is that the marsh Arabs themselves are allowed to guide the regeneration of their land and the resettlement of their people. But it’s clear the massive project can’t be done without outside help. And Nicholson believes the international community has a moral obligation to provide that help.

SMELSER: In Nicholson’s view, it’s time for the world to undo what it failed to prevent in the first place. And it’s her hope that someday the Iraqi marshlands can once again be a place of paradise, instead of a place of pain.

[Sounds of water and wildlife from the marshes of southern Iraq.]

SMELSER: For Common Ground, I’m Judith Smelser.

MCHUGH: This is Common Ground, radio’s weekly program on world affairs.

[Musical interlude]

MCHUGH: I’m Kristin McHugh. Coming up this half hour on Common Ground, is the United States building an empire?

NIALL FERGUSON: Regime change and nation building, to use contemporary euphemisms for empire, can make the world a safer place, a more prosperous place, and this will be beneficial not only for Americans but for everybody else.

MCHUGH: Plus, one family’s diplomatic tradition. And learning lessons in China about SARS.

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US Empire

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Related Links
Council on Foreign Relations
Afghanistan From World Press Review
Iraq From World Press Review

Tell Us What You Think

MCHUGH: Guess who said this: “Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators. It is not the wish of our government to impose upon you alien institutions. It is our wish that you should prosper even as in the past when your lands were fertile, when your ancestors gave to the world literature, science, and art and when Baghdad city was one of the wonders of the world.” You might be thinking that it’s President George Bush, or perhaps Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. If so, you’d be wrong. In fact, the words are from a 1917 proclamation issued by another occupier of Iraq, the British General F. S. Maude. Scholars are taking another look at the British experience in the region in light of recent events. More broadly, they’re examining Britain’s imperial past and asking what it tells about America’s current role in the world. In short, is the United States building its own empire, in everything but name? Malcolm Brown has more.

MALCOLM BROWN: At its height, the British empire encompassed about a quarter of the world’s area and population.

[The sound of modern combat.]

BROWN: Now, especially after the demonstration of American military power in Iraq, some comparisons are being drawn.

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Britain’s world role in the 19th and first half of the 20th century does, in fact, remain the sort of only really helpful comparison for Americans trying to get some perspective on what we’re doing or not doing.

BROWN: Walter Russell Mead is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He says imperial Britain confronted many of the problems now faced by the United States. It’s a comparison that would not be accepted by those currently at the helm of what some are calling the American empire.

[The sound of a jet landing on an aircraft carrier.]

BROWN: Despite all the military trappings of his May 1st visit to the USS Abraham Lincoln, to announce the end of major combat operations in Iraq, President Bush did not sound like a man with imperial ambitions.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Other nations in history have fought in foreign lands and remained to occupy and exploit. Americans, following a battle, want nothing more than to return home.

BROWN: But a number of academics and commentators say, in effect, it’s time to call a spade a spade. Among them, British historian Niall Ferguson.

NIALL FERGUSON: The idea this isn’t an empire is the result of the suspension of disbelief by American people, who think that they are so different that when they have bases on foreign territory it’s not an empire, when they invade sovereign states like Iraq, it’s not an empire.

BROWN: Professor Ferguson argues that the United States has been engaged in empire building for much of its existence. He says most Americans won’t acknowledge that, or use the “e” word, because of its negative associations.

[The sound of applause at a conference.]

BROWN: Niall Ferguson and Walter Russell Mead discussed whether history was repeating itself at a recent Council on Foreign Relations event in Washington. Ferguson says that while there were many “evils” associated with the British empire, it grew into a “force for good in the world.” He says that one of the lessons for the United States is that empire can work.

FERGUSON: Using military force, but also investment, regime change and nation-building, to use contemporary euphemisms for empire, can make the world a safer place, a more prosperous place and this will be beneficial—would be beneficial—not only for Americans but for everybody else.

BROWN: Walter Russell Mead says there are things that the United States does better than the British; notably, its relations with the non-Western world, which he predicts will play a growing role in the future.

MEAD: If the British system was “Hegemony 1.0,” the US system does represent a kind of an upgrade. And the American flag is not quite as much in the faces of other peoples as the Union Jack was.

BROWN: As he says that, Mead warns that the growth of American power and influence leaves even some close allies, in his words, “alienated” and “appalled.” Professor Ferguson argues that the current US role in the world has some other weaknesses. Among them, what he sees as a lack of appetite for so-called “nation-building.” He asks whether the US is likely to emulate the British, who had government representatives in Baghdad for 40 years. Ferguson says that part of the reason is that graduates with the right qualifications from elite US schools prefer a corporate career.

FERGUSON: There are relatively few Americans out there on the ground in hot, poor countries, by comparison with the numbers of British people who went to hot, poor countries in the 19th and 20th century.

BROWN: Walter Russell Mead counters that the US has other ways of exerting its influence. Meanwhile, both men differ on the durability of the US project.

FERGUSON: An empire that doesn’t recognize its own mortality is likely to be a pretty short-lived empire.

MEAD: Rivals we have. Hostile powers we have. A potential successor, I don’t yet see. And so, I think we may not be all that close to the end of the unipolar moment.

BROWN: Those views provide just a glimpse of the current academic debate about America’s global role. If there’s a consistent theme, it’s that; whether you call it empire or not, whether you regard it as a good thing or not, the US wields perhaps unprecedented power. For Common Ground, I’m Malcolm Brown in Washington.

MCHUGH: We’d like to know what you think. Is it appropriate to use the word “empire” to describe the US role in the world today? And does the word “empire” have the same meaning as it did 100 years ago? Please send us your comments and we may use them on the air. Our e-mail address is [email protected]. You can also send us feedback via our Web site at

[Musical interlude]

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Bangladesh Ambassador

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Related Links
United Nations in Bangladesh
Bangladesh From World Press Review

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MCHUGH: Earlier in the program journalist Barbara Crossette stated the UN ambassador from Bangladesh is being mentioned as an early candidate for the next United Nations Secretary-General. Iftekhar Chowdhury certainly has the background. He comes from a family of diplomats. His father and two brothers all worked in foreign service. Recently, Common Ground‘s Cliff Brockman talked with Dr. Chowdhury about a variety of topics, ranging from his family and life as a diplomat, his country, and the future of the United Nations.

IFTEKHAR CHOWDHURY: It’s true that it was a family tradition. My father was also in the Service. But those days, this was in 1930 when he joined the service, the Civil Service on the Indian subcontinent was a very strong tradition. And it continued to remain in Pakistan and Bangladesh. And somehow our family was attracted by it. It was extremely competitive to get in, of course, but this was, we thought, almost a Hobson’s Choice for us when we were children.

BROCKMAN: Will that continue on in your family?

CHOWDHURY: Unfortunately—or fortunately—no. Because we have one daughter but she’s history of art student specializing on Tushio. This is 13th century Sienese painting.

BROCKMAN: What’s a typical day like in the life of a UN ambassador?

CHOWDHURY: Well, it’s a busy one. It’s an extremely challenging post, and particularly if you’re representing a country like Bangladesh, one of the world’s largest countries, 130 million people, but a developing country nevertheless. Which is testing out a new paradigm, as if it were, in the world. It is a country which over years has been able to develop a strong middle class, a vibrant civil society, pluralist institutions which are very democratic, sometimes intensely democratic. But perhaps the contribution that Bangladesh can make to the world is to show itself as a paradigm for societal changes brought about on its own iniatiative. Ideas like micro-credit, nonformal education from, for woman. You know, the whole Gramin experience, etcetera. This was essentially Bangladeshi. It has brought about a tremendous change in society. It has empowered women. It has sort of started a Protestant revolution as if it were. So, that is the kind of model that we have evolved.

And being in the United Nations gives me the opportunity to project Bangladesh in this manner. So we do that. We are trying to bring development center stage in UN activities. And which makes, makes for a very, very busy career even on a daily.

BROCKMAN: You mentioned a couple of things there, if I could ask you about them. One is the changing role of women in your country. Tell us about that.

CHOWDHURY: It is a very important change. Fifteen, twenty years ago Bangladesh was a conservative, it was a Muslim country. It was also very conservative. It still is a Muslim country and, of course, people are very attached to the religion. But there is a tremendous change that is ongoing. And this change has come about as three successful programs in empowering women. We have done that by providing women education, providing them small credit which mainstreams them into the economy, and now that has had the positive result of marginalizing fundamentalism and that kind of extremist thinking. So it’s a very mainstream society largely. And it is a society devoted to changing itself positively for the better.

BROCKMAN: You mentioned micro-credit. What is that?

CHOWDHURY: Micro-credit is an institution whereby small amounts of money are advanced—to largely women—in order for them to procure a capital good, which is again used for economic advance or commercial purposes. It is an extremely successful project which has brought women into the mainstream economy.

BROCKMAN: How does the job of a diplomat change from assignment to assignment. New York, Geneva; capitals like Washington, Paris. What’s the best posting for a diplomat?

CHOWDHURY: Largely you can dichotomize a modern day diplomat’s work into bilateral or multilateral. Time was we used to say, “A diplomat is sent abroad to lie for the good of the country.” But today he or she has to be extremely professional. For example, project the image of the country in a positive way, interact with other peers, whether it’s a bilateral post, which means some of the stations that, or capitals you named—Paris, Washington are bilateral—whereas New York, Geneva would be multilateral. So, interact with your peers, interact with the host society, try and advance the perceived national self-interest of your country in every possible way. At the same time work together with others to create a harmonious region, sub-region, and ultimately, a world.

BROCKMAN: One last question. With the dispute between the United States and the UN over the Iraq war some people have made some dark predictions about the future of the UN. Do you think the relationship can be healed between the UN and the United States and that the UN can survive?

CHOWDHURY: It is very rare for a major actor in the UN system not to have at some points in time certain conflicts within the UN. The UN is a conglomeration of the total membership of the nations of the world. So, it is wrong to say that one has a dispute with the UN as such. Perhaps with some members of the UN, perhaps with the Secretariat, perhaps with some key players. But I cannot imagine any country having a problem with the totality of the United Nations.

In any case, a large part of the United Nations function is in development in the social and economic sphere. Eighty percent of it in many ways. In which the United States continues to be a very, very key stakeholder and very major participant. I have not seen any evidence that there has been a dampening of that involvement. You perhaps referred to the problems in the Security Council. That is not a problem. I mean, this is what diplomacy is about. You have your differences, you iron them out. And you are there to make sure that in spite of the differences there is a, there is a broader harmony within which you operate for mutual advantages.

BROCKMAN: Ambassador Iftekhar Chowdhury is the Permanent Representative of Bangladesh to the United Nations. For Common Ground, I’m Cliff Brockman.

MCHUGH: Coming up next on Common Ground, China struggles with the SARS aftermath. You’re listening to Common Ground, radio’s weekly program on world affairs.

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China’s SARS Cover-up

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MCHUGH: Many say that China’s bungled efforts to cover up the spread of SARS has tarnished the country’s image almost as much as the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Reporting from Beijing, Celia Hatton retraces the political response to the outbreak in China and examines how this dramatic episode might affect the country’s political landscape.

[The sound of a busy restaurant.]

CELIA HATTON: At a busy restaurant in Beijing, it’s hard to believe that just two months ago, this entire city of 13 million people was reduced to a ghost town by the threat of a deadly disease. Now, people have returned to Beijing’s busy streets, this time without their face masks. Businesses are reopening their doors and although international tourists are still conspicuously absent from the city’s landmark attractions, Chinese sightseers are flocking to the great monuments once again. On the surface, it seems as if a health crisis had never happened. But although the medical battle against SARS seems to have been won, the political fallout from the cover-up of SARS in China has yet to be determined.

[The sound of a busy restaurant.]

HATTON: To begin, many wonder, why did Chinese officials wait so long before acknowledging the rapid spread of SARS in Beijing? Andrew Thompson, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, believes that no one had any idea that the outbreak of atypical pneumonia in southern China would lead to a national health crisis. According to Thompson, government leaders were distracted by the formal hand over of power from President Jiang Zemin to his successor, Hu Jintao.

ANDREW THOMPSON: That emphasis really sidelined what was, at the time, particularly back in November, a fairly small disease outbreak that, you know, might have been likened to an E.coli outbreak or you know, potato salad at a church picnic here in the States.

HATTON: However, Tsinghua University Sociology Professor Jing Jun notes that SARS became so widespread in Beijing that high ranking officials couldn’t ignore it any longer.

JING JUN: The SARS virus is a smart virus. In the past, all viruses end up hurting the poor, but SARS selectively take a proportionate sample from each segment of society and affected them. So, the rumor was that even Zhongnanhai, the central seat of the Chinese government where the highest ranking officials and their families live, had to be isolated, each section, because there was a nanny working for, in the area, got infected. And there were high ranking officials who got infected. I mean, it really reached very, very high up.

HATTON: When it came time to acknowledge that Beijing had a huge problem on its hands, Executive Vice Minister of Health Gao Qiang took the stand at a nationally televised press conference. Speaking through an interpreter, he admitted that the government had made major mistakes.

GAO QIANG: [via a translator] In terms of our work, the Ministry of Health was not well prepared against the sudden public health hazards and its epidemic prevention system is relatively weak. Following the outbreak, the MOH failed to institute a timely and unified mechanism for collecting, processing, and reporting the relevant information nationwide and it has not given out clear cut instructions or effective guidance.

HATTON: As soon as the groundbreaking press conference was over, China’s state-controlled media made another revelation: for the first time in the Chinese Communist Party’s 50 year history, two officials—the Minister of Health and the Beijing Mayor—were fired for incompetence on the job. Andrew Thompson says that this announcement had a specific target.

ANDREW THOMPSON: They call it beating the chicken to scare the monkeys. It’s an old Chinese saying and it holds very true in this case that by retiring these two fairly senior officials, all the other senior officials got the message that this was something to be taken very seriously.

HATTON: Jing Jun says that it was the nature of SARS that really prevented officials from getting away with the cover-up.

JING JUN: In Beijing, they thought they could get lucky, they could press down, you know, the reports a little bit and then could get full support from everyone and then could get it under control. It didn’t. It really didn’t. So, the lesson was that, for dealing with SARS on the part of the Beijing government, was that they didn’t really understand how epidemics work, how disease work. And they could have covered an industrial incident, but not this one, not an infectious disease. It just became so rampant.

HATTON: But it was an accident of a different kind that lead many analysts to believe that SARS had reminded the Chinese government that in the age of modern communications, it was becoming increasingly difficult to orchestrate a cover-up.

[The sound of a Chinese television news anchor reporting on an accident on a Chinese Navy submarine.]

HATTON: On May 2nd, Chinese media broke the news of a submarine disaster in the Yellow Sea that reportedly killed 70 Chinese sailors. Many pointed to the bungled SARS epidemic to explain why the highly secretive Chinese military would admit to such a mistake. Andrew Thompson.

ANDREW THOMPSON: The case of rumor, sort of driving the SARS epidemic within cities really made it pretty clear to them that covering up this disaster wasn’t going to work very well. Chances are good that the sailors on board that vessel had cell phones and it’s very hard to stop the spread of information at this point and I think SARS kind of highlighted that.

HATTON: Many hope that SARS will be the start of a information revolution that greatly reduces what the Chinese government considers to be a state secret. Ray Yip is the head of UNICEF’s Health program in China. As a health expert who has worked in China for many years, he thinks that SARS has taught the Chinese government that it is nearly impossible to ignore a problem of this magnitude.

RAY YIP: The early part of the SARS crisis, some of the senior government officials are hoping this can be swept under the rug and go away. And sort of proved that was a totally untenable approach and forced the government to come clean to say basically, “We made a mistake. We mismanaged it. We are now restarting it.” And this might change the whole political landscape in the future, how problems and crisis can be handled. And the tendency of hiding it or underplaying it may hopefully, will become a less likely phenomenon.

HATTON: But Professor Jing Jun has his own theory as to why the cover-up lasted so long. He believes that China’s recent string of successes, including Beijing’s successful bid for the 2008 Olympics and the mainland’s entrance into the WTO, created an atmosphere where no one could believe that anyone or anything could burst China’s bubble.

JING JUN: China was doing so well. I think that there was self-delusion that, you know, China could be just an exception and there was no readiness for a crisis like this. There was no imagination that something really bad can hit a country and then can bring the country, could stop the country from making progress for a little while. Absolutely no. And you could tell that by watching television every day, and all these pretty girls dancing and saying, you know, how great China was. [laughing] All of a sudden, we are hit by a crisis and a lot of people panicked.

HATTON: It remains to be seen how long it will take before the level of confidence that existed before SARS will return to China. Few could have predicted that a respiratory illness like SARS could have been the tool that would have caused the Chinese government to admit to mistakes on national television, to fire two top leaders for incompetence and to publicly apologize for a military accident. Only time will tell if these trends towards government transparency and accountability will hold. For Common Ground, I’m Celia Hatton in Beijing.

MCHUGH: That’s our show for this week. If you have questions or comments about today’s program, visit our Web site at or e-mail us at [email protected] . Please drop us a line—we’d love to hear from you. Transcripts and information on how to order copies of this and other Common Ground programs are also available on our Web site: I’m Kristin McHugh. Keith Porter is our executive producer. Cliff Brockman is our Associate Producer. B.J. Liederman created our theme music. Additional compositions by Wink Music.

ANNOUNCER: Common Ground is a Stanley Foundation production. The Stanley Foundation: promoting public understanding, constructive dialogue, and cooperative action on critical international issues. On the Web at

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