Failure of Leadership

The United Nations summit meeting has ended. On the whole, the outcome of the deliberations of nearly 170 world leaders was disappointing. Secretary General Kofi Annan commented, "Obviously, we didn’t get everything we wanted." In particular, he called the absence of any commitments on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament issues a disgrace. In his own March report laying out the summit agenda, Mr. Annan had written, The progress in both disarmament and nonproliferation is essential.

After the failure of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review in May, the lack of commitment of the nuclear weapon states, and particularly the United States, to reduce their arsenals was a further, perhaps lethal, blow to the nonproliferation effort. The N.P.T., as Robert F. Drinan, S.J., pointed out in these pages (9/12), is a grand bargain in which non-nuclear states agreed not to develop nuclear weapons in return for gradual disarmament by the nuclear powers. How can non-nuclear states, like Iran, be expected to refrain from developing nuclear weapons when the nuclear weapons states renege on their commitments to disarm? This is especially the case when the Pentagon is floating a new plan to employ nuclear weapons to deter and pre-emptively destroy non-nuclear threats.


The summit’s failure to reach an agreement on curbing the small arms trade is equally deplorable. It is beyond comprehension how the United States could conspire with third world thugs to sustain a business that results in thousands of deaths in poor countries every year, many times the number killed in terrorist attacks. There was agreement, however, on a definition of terrorism, though exclusively of non-state terror, on the duty to protect innocents from genocide and mass violations of human rights, and on peacekeeping in post-conflict situations. All are important objectives, but the mechanisms for achieving them are still to be worked out.

From the beginning, based on the understanding that lowering the risk of armed conflict and terrorism involves combating poverty as a breeding ground of violence, the summit hoped to achieve a symmetry between issues of concern to the North, like terrorism, and those, like development assistance, of concern to the South. The millennium development goals call for halving world poverty by 2015. At a meeting of world leaders in Monterrey, Mexico, three years ago, Britain, France and Germany pledged themselves to allocate .07 percent of their gross national product to official development assistance by 2015. The United States also signed the so-called Monterrey consensus, but as of now this country allocates a far smaller amount, only .018 percent to foreign aid. Just as, in the past, U.S. leadership had a multiplier effect in stimulating development assistance from other countries, the weakness of its current commitment threatens to undercut the millennial antipoverty campaign. Traditionally generous donors, like the Scandinavians, are reported already to be expressing doubts about living up to their commitments.

Attaining the related millennial goals of halving global hunger and child mortality is also threatened. Hunger tragically contributes to child and maternal mortality, which together take the lives of hundreds of thousands every year. Mass starvation haunts sub-Saharan Africa, most notably Niger. Malaria takes a particularly deadly toll of small children across the region, and yet inexpensive bed nets and subsidies for new medications could save many young lives.

President Bush’s re-insertion of the term millennium development goals into his Sept. 14 speech to the General Assembly and his stated commitment to working toward those eight targets were positive developments, especially after Ambassador John Bolton tried to strike reference to the M.D.G.’s from the summit document. Of greater practical importance was the president’s affirmation that the United States is ready to eliminate all tariffs, subsidies and other barriers to free flow of goodsa key to overcoming poverty through self-sustaining trade. On the development front, the president has from time to time shown imagination and political courage (e.g., with respect to the Millennial Challenge Account and the African AIDS initiative), but the results to date have been meager. The test is whether he can persuade Congress to accept his commitments and the bureaucracy to implement them. As conflicted as the world is about U.S. foreign policy, it is painfully clear that very little progress can be made without U.S. leadership.

During the week preceding the summit, almost 2,000 representatives of nongovernmental organizations also met at the United Nations. They were given white wristbands with the words Voices Against Poverty. No Excuse: 2015. May the excuses finally be silenced and the global antipoverty actions begin in earnest.

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