by Sebastian Mallaby
The case for humanitarian foreign policy sometimes has a wispy feel: We declare that American deeds should match American values and hope that nobody asks how, or how far, or what precisely those values are. But the humanitarian case is more practical than it sounds. For if the U.S. government refuses to reflect our moral sense, people are likely to rise up, denounce official cynicism and pursue humanitarianism through private channels.
To see how this is so, consider the story of Eric Reeves and Madeleine Albright. Albright, you will recall, is the secretary of state; Reeves you won’t have heard of. He is a lover of Shakespeare and Milton who teaches at Smith College. He also is incensed by something Albright said about Sudan’s humanitarian disaster.
In a meeting last December, Albright suggested that, much as she deplored the country’s suffering, “The human rights situation in Sudan is not marketable to the American people.” Sudan’s Muslim government may condone the enslavement of black people from the south; it may have pursued a war that has cost nearly two million lives; it may regularly bomb schools and hospitals. But Albright and one of her officials declined to call this “genocide,” explaining that this might require the United States to do more about it.
With all the pressures on a secretary of state, Albright’s position was halfway understandable. America already is trying to get peace talks going between the government and the rebels; it has imposed sanctions on the government, which is more than can be said for the feckless Europeans. Moreover, Albright has championed humanitarian interventions elsewhere. She fairly judged that America cannot wade chest-deep into every crisis.
Reeves, however, has a different perspective. He does not look at American diplomacy in the round; he focuses only on Sudan, and he is sufficiently outraged to have taken leave from his job to draw attention to its plight. Albright’s talk of marketability galvanized him and a collection of allies to prove that Americans do care. And by harnessing the quirks of our globalized economy, they have been surprisingly successful.
The war in Sudan, Reeves noticed early on, is like so many in Africa: It is fueled by natural resources. In Sudan’s case, that resource is oil, which is extracted by a consortium of Chinese, Canadian and Malaysian companies. To secure the oil fields, Sudan’s government has intensified its attacks on the civilians who live nearby, destroying agriculture, torching villages and pursuing a scorched-earth policy that amounts to ethnic cleansing. The oil revenues then go to purchase arms to redouble the government’s war effort.
Happily for Reeves, Sudan’s reliance on international oil firms creates an opening for the kind of campaign at which Internet-enabled activists excel. Reeves fires off e-mails denouncing the oil firms that seek profit in Sudan’s agony. He has mined the Web for information on his targets and is squeezing them systematically.
His first target was Talisman Energy, the Canadian member of Sudan’s oil consortium. Reeves has published a score of articles in the U.S. and Canadian press publicizing Talisman’s role in Sudan. Following these efforts, several pension funds–including California’s massive public employees’ retirement system–have dumped Talisman stock, and Reeves hopes the pension funds of New York State, New York City and Wisconsin will follow.
Next, Reeves took on Sudan’s Chinese partner. As luck would have it, China’s state oil company was preparing a listing on the New York Stock Exchange, so Reeves and allies ranging from Tibet activists to the labor unions began a movement to boycott it. This scared many investors off, and the IPO ended up netting only $ 3 billion, less than half what was expected. Earlier this month Reeves scored another victory: Fosters Resources, a second Canadian firm that had announced oil plans in Sudan, backed off after its financial supporters grew nervous.
More recently the campaign has come to Washington, almost on Albright’s doorstep, with speeches and marches put on by the Sudan alliance. These events draw a mix of supporters, from the Black Caucus to the religious right. Apart from Sudan, these allies have little in common. But all are repeating Albright’s words: not marketable.
At a time when humanitarian intervention is under attack in Sierra Leone and Kosovo, and when human rights groups feel they have suffered a defeat on China, it’s worth remembering Sudan’s lesson. America can’t fix all the world’s problems, and moral outrage can’t be the sole basis for foreign policy. But if America’s leaders relapse into amoral word-mincing, they are likely to be embarrassed by ordinary folk like Eric Reeves, whose understandable outrage hisses through a thousand modems.
[The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.]