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In discussions with frontline humanitarian agencies, it becomes clear that they are experiencing a mild backlash against global human-rights instruments. Some countries have become apprehensive of signing agreements for fear of later intervention by outside powers on grounds of noncompliance.

The use of the phrase “humanitarian intervention” to justify NATO’s war in Kosovo in 1999 confused the identity of humanitarian agencies. They believe that their actions constitute real humanitarian intervention; but what NATO did, and what U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan took up subsequently as a political challenge for the international community, is better described as “military intervention for humanitarian reasons.”

NATO’s unity held impressively for the duration of the war against former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. But the solidarity masked serious disquiet within the alliance, among governments as well as people, about the course and long-term consequences of the war.

The public unease of many non-Western countries did not stem from indifference to the brutality of ethnic cleansing. Rather, it was rooted in their dissent from a world order that permits or tolerates unilateral behavior by the strong, and their preference for an order in which principles and values are embedded in universally applicable norms and the rough edges of power softened by institutionalized multilateralism.

Only in a system in which the behavior of all is governed by the same set of rules can the weak hope to find protection from the predatory proclivities of the powerful.

Developing countries pose another challenge: Which values are Westerners prepared to give up in the name of universal human rights? Or is universalism just a one-way deal: What we Westerners have is ours, what you heathens have is open to negotiation?

The backlash against globalization can be traced to similar disenchantment with the inequality inherent in what was supposed to a rules-based economic order. Countries that engaged with the global economy have lifted themselves out of poverty, as in East Asia. Others that resorted to inward-looking protectionist policies, for example in South Asia, failed to achieve liftoff and suffered persistent poverty.

Yet, paradoxically, the last decade of globalization widened the gap between rich and poor, both within and between nations. Not only has globalization failed to deliver the promised riches. In addition, the experience of developing countries is that “free markets” functioning under rules framed, interpreted and enforced by the strong produce outcomes that are unjust and inequitable. Market transactions based on unequal market power subordinate the interests of the weak to the preferences of the strong.

The rich push for free trade in goods, services and investments. The only factor of production in which the poor enjoy a big comparative advantage is labor. Not one industrialized country is prepared to push for a borderless global labor market; every rich country fiercely resists eliminating national policy instruments for controlling the international flow of labor.

Developing countries’ voices are generally unheard and dismissed in the international discourse on globalization. The agenda and terms of the debate were set by Washington and the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization. The United Nations is the forum in which the poor and weak were supposed to be equal partners with the rich and powerful. The legacy of the ill-conceived drive to a new international economic order in the 1970s was to delegitimize the U.N. as the forum for international economic policy debate. Instead, the debate shifted to the Bretton Woods institutions whose top jobs are reserved for the rich.

The head of the World Bank must be an American, the head of the IMF a European and the head of the U.N. Development Program from a wealthy country. That is, all three are restricted to chief executives whose knowledge of poverty and development is likely to come from textbooks. There is still lingering resentment at the way Washington is seen to have reneged on earlier understandings and manipulated the selection process in imposing its choice for the top job at the WTO. The anger and bitterness contributed to the 1998 debacle in Seattle.

Similarly, at a recent conference in Singapore, many Asian participants complained that those who contribute money to U.N. peacekeeping have more influence over policy and choice of senior posts than those who supply the troops. Asians account for more than half the world’s population. Their weight in the U.N. system is nowhere near their true worth in world affairs. As the only permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, China has a particular responsibility to be vigorous in articulating and defending continental interests, not just national interests. Its task would be made easier if Japan and India took seats alongside China as additional permanent members.

The politics of donor-driven appointment of chief executives is at odds with the philosophy of recruiting the best person in the world for international jobs. It also dilutes receptiveness in developing countries to policy advice from such institutions. Can heads of major development agencies relate to the real-world policy choices confronting heads of governments in poor countries — the politics of regime survival and social cohesion as well as the economics of growth? Adjustment programs are often accepted under duress, not out of conviction. Hence, very often, their short shelf life.

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