Bush's legacy will be NGOs with a truly global vision

by Jean-Paul Marthoz Jean-Paul Marthoz is Editorial Director of Enjeux Internationaux and a former Director of Human Rights Watch 04.08.2008

A year from now, the Bush administration will be history. Opinion polls around the world assessing the unpopularity of the current US president suggest that the departure of one of the most controversial administrations in American history will be greeted with a deep sighs of relief, particularly among "liberal" European NGOs.

The war in Iraq, the Bush administration's "opting out" of major international human rights and humanitarian law conventions as well as its dogged opposition to the Kyoto climate change protocols have seriously deepened the gap between Washington and the dense network of European civil society groups. Meetings between these NGOs and official US representatives have been tense, but few. Dissent, even from well-meaning and middle-of-the-road voices, has been coldly rebuffed. The "entente cordiale" that had generally prevailed during the Clinton years now seems light-years away.

Will this chilly climate warm up with a new team in the White House? The answer will depend on who's at the helm in Washington, and a lot can happen before the polls in November. A new terrorist attack or an economic meltdown might change all the parameters.

The wider question is whether a real divide exists between Europe and America when it comes to assessing relations between civil society and Washington? European NGOs have mostly been treated by the current US administration just like their US counterparts. Whatever their field of activity - the environment, global justice, peace, human rights - the overwhelming majority of NGOs on both sides of the Atlantic have been submitted to the loyalty test famously set by President George W. Bush: "Either you are with us, or you are against us". Most left-leaning or liberal NGOs have ever since dealt with the US government under the assumption that they would be seen as adversaries or even enemies.

In spite of Europe's conventional discourse on common values, there is no such thing as unanimity in the European NGOs approach to the US. Conservative, middle-of-the-road or liberal NGOs all hope for completely different results from the coming presidential election.

In defiance of the Bush era's turbulences, courteous transatlantic dialogue has been maintained as best as possible by such "Washington establishment" institutions as the German Marshall Fund, the Aspen Institute and, in the security policy area, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). In the non-governmental universe, the Washington-Brussels relationship has thus been dominated by groups or personalities firmly opposed to the current administration. Former Vice-President Al Gore has attained an almost god-like stature in Europe with his dedication to the campaign against environmental Armageddon. US-based organisations like Human Rights Watch or Human Rights First! have been welcomed as the acceptable face of America by European progressive and liberal circles. These US groups' harsh criticism of the Bush administration has provided Europeans with a sustained flow of solid information to slam George Bush as well as an alibi against accusations of anti-Americanism.

The liberals have not had a monopoly on political activism in Brussels. A number of right-wing groups have found the Bush years quite helpful for their own outreach in Europe. Helped by a surge of conservatism in some European countries as well as by pro-Bush governments in some of the newcomer EU members, they have been building increasingly powerful networks across the Atlantic. European and US conservative Christian groups have rallied to apply pressure on the European parliament and repeal the "liberal consensus" on matters like reproductive rights or the theory of evolution. Neo-conservative intellectuals have strengthened their transatlantic relations in the wake of the Iraqi war and banded together to push for more aggressiveness against Iran and more leniency towards Israel.

Most leaders of European NGOs are keenly aware of the impact that US political and intellectual debates can have within the EU. In the last 50 years many "European" discussions on both left and right, have in fact been framed by US authors or activists. During the swinging Sixties and most of the morose Seventies, US influence was mainly liberal: the US student counter-culture influenced the 1968 revolutionaries in France and Germany; the writings of Rachel Carson and Ralph Nader inspired our European ecological groups and John Kenneth Galbraith, Michael Harrington and Irving Howe became intellectual icons in social-democratic circles.

But by the early 1980s, it was the Reagan conservative revolution that was being exported to Europe, and it helped shift the centre of gravity of European politics. The French "New Philosophers" drew most of their thinking from the writings of US public intellectuals and neo-cons like Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz and Allan Bloom. European apostles of the "free market, free mind" ideology found most of their inspiration in US think tanks. Ironically, the European backlash against the "Washington consensus" is also made largely in America. Anti-globalisation and anti-corporate groups here in Europe have found their Messiah in US radical academic Noam Chomsky, and the new progressives have turned to New York Times columnist and Princeton economist Paul Krugman for incisive and well-argued alternatives. If in November 2008 the Democrats win both the White House and Congress there is bound to be a new atmosphere in Washington. Among the main beneficiaries will be America's NGOs. The legion of experts and policymakers currently "parked" in liberal think tanks during their years in the wilderness, will find positions in the next Democratic administration. Will European NGOs be able to join the party? Yes, to the extent that there will be a friendlier team in Washington. But the change is bound to be limited. Historically there has always been an asymmetry in the capacity of US and European NGOs to affect policies in each others' political arenas. While both the US government and America's private foundations have a wellestablished tradition of funding European NGOs, the European response in that field has been close to nought. Most EU civil society organisations' invisibility in Washington contrasts with the presence in Brussels of such strong US groups asAmCham, the EU-American Chamber of Commerce in corporate matters, with other US-based NGOs having acquired influence in EU institutions that at times overshadows that of native European groups.

Brussels-based NGOs of US parentage, together with transnational groups with a strong American presence like the International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch, will play an active role in the re-shaping of US-EU civil society relations. They know both sides of the street, are close to the Democrats and have developed lobbying skills on Washington's K Street and in the corridors of the Congress that could very efficiently be applied to the Brussels power game.

What no one yet knows, though, is whether a new Democratic administration would really be a break with the recent past? Mainstream NGOs in the US have for years been pleading for more enlightened and principled American leadership on key world issues, yet starryeyed optimism is definitely not on their agenda. The Democrats' victory in the 2006 mid-term elections has not produced the "liberal surge" that many NGOs expected. The Democrats' acceptance of Michael Mukasey, the Bush nominee as the new US Attorney General - a man who is reticent about calling waterboarding illegal - has been widely seen as a capitulation, not to say a bad omen for a future Democratic administration.

The eight years of the Bush presidency will not easily be unravelled. Observers point out that although a more positive EU-US relationship can only emerge with the return of "liberal internationalists" like the Clintons to the White House, they also emphasise that US unilateralism has become a much more entrenched, bipartisan and institutionalised phenomenon than many Bush-bashers want to accept.

Does it matter? Although the US undoubtedly remains the world's only superpower, many NGOs tend to think that it is less so today than in the 1990s, when Bill Clinton's Secretary of State Madeleine Albright spoke of America as "the indispensable nation", and former French foreign minister Hubert Védrine theorised about the US "hyper-puissance". Confronted with a Bush administration bent on exempting itself from major international obligations, and ready to gamble US credibility in ill-fated adventures, both European and American NGOs have learnt to live without the US government. They have broadened their advocacy outside of Washington Beltway and, after trying to engage with an apparently more responsive European Union, they also have set their sights more distantly still. Recently at the end of a long strategy meeting one leading US group concluded that whatever the US presidential election may bring, its own advocacy focus should shift to a multi-polar strategy embracing China, India, Russia, Brazil and Turkey, and their growing impact on the planet.


This article was provided by EUROPE'S WORLD.

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