World Heritage Convention

This Economist article on World Heritage sites in Africa misses a distinction between the US and the European approach to the World Heritage Convention.  When I was on the US delegation to the World Heritage Convention annual committee meeting many years ago, I learned that over the years, the US has favored designating natural sites as additions to the World Heritage List, while the Europeans have favored adding manmade cultural and historical sites to the List. 

This preference for natural sites may date back to the US accession to the World Heritage Convention in 1973, when Richard Nixon was President.  I don’t think of Nixon as an environmental President, but he created the Environmental Protection Agency as well as joining the World Heritage Convention.  His supporters included many rich businessmen, whose environmental interests generally run toward preserving nature as it is.  I think of the Nature Conservancy as the kind of environmental organization rich people would support, as opposed to Greenpeace, for example.  Both of these organizations are genuinely interested in preserving the environment, but they go about it in different ways.  A Congressional Research Service report on the Convention was prepared in 2011, giving a lot of background on the US participation. 

There is an additional reason for the lack of African World Heritage sites described in the Economist article.  The Convention requires that countries where sites are located must take care of them.  Many African countries with wonderful natural sites do not have the resources to preserve them.  We are all familiar with the damage done by elephant poaching over the years, for example, even though elephant habitat is in some of the more advanced African countries.  On the protection issue there is a division between the overseers.  I come down on the side of those who support naming a worthwhile site even if there is some doubt about whether the host country can care for it properly.  Others will only support a new site if they are confident the country can care for it.  I think designating a site at least gives the Convention the ability to pressure and cajole the host country to preserve the site.  Otherwise, development or poaching is almost sure to lead to its destruction. 

Infrastructure

A major problem with the infrastructure bill, aside from its cost, is its lack of focus.  The Democrats have tried to include everything but the kitchen sink. The Republicans have tried to exclude non-traditional items from infrastructure bill, such as childcare. Nevertheless, the bill contains a hodge-podge of projects from roads and bridges to broadband internet connection.  The main goal seems to be pushing a lot of money out the door, rather than funding specific projects.  This will lead to a lot of waste, fraud, and mismanagement.  Since there are no priorities, politicians will fund pet projects and projects pushed by favored constituents, rather than projects that are

Much of Biden’s and the Democrats’ agenda seems to be giving blacks reparations payments without calling them that.  The previous stimulus bills and the proposed infrastructure bill will undertake a massive transfer of assets from white people to black and brown people, both in terms of jobs that will employ mainly black and brown people and in terms of the beneficiaries of the projects, e.g., the main beneficiaries of improved broadband internet will be poorer black and brown people.  Better internet is a priority, but we should recognize that there is a second agenda here.  Similarly, the Democrats will try to get more roads and bridges built in poorer parts of town.  That’s not bad, but it may not be what America needs to best improve its transportation system.  Of course, the non-traditional infrastructure proposals err even more in the direction of wasted money.  There will be some short-term benefit to spending money on warm and fuzzy things like childcare, but it will not provide the same benefit to the nation as repairing roads and bridges. 

I would prefer to see narrowly focused bills, e.g., a bill to replace bridges that have fallen into a certain state of disrepair that makes this dangerous to use.  A bill to repair airports that have become unsafe.  A bill specifically targeting broadband internet.  These bills could provide specific benchmarks to decide whether the programs were succeeding or not.  Otherwise, there will be lots of handwaving and celebrating all the money that got spent without evaluating whether we got our money’s worth. 

Finally, I am not sure that this is the time to do infrastructure for infrastructure’s sake, even if it is well planned.  We have just spent trillions on the previous stimulus bills, and we will continue to spend trillions on the theory that debt and deficits no longer matter.  It’s possible that there has been some change in the world financial situation that makes the national debt meaningless.  But it’s also possible that this is a temporary situation and someday interest rates may go back up and future generations will be faced with insurmountable debt, with will limit their future and leave them cursing this “me” generation that spent all its money on itself.

In the last few days, it looks like China has begun to take a more conservative approach to its financial wellbeing, limiting financial IPOs and huge expansions of businesses.  This may be political, protecting the power of the Chinese central government, but it could also be financially based, to make sure that the economy does not spin out of control.  Meanwhile, the US seems totally unconcerned about the red-hot financial situation as it pumps tons of money out the door and looks the other way as more and more “unicorns” go public, fed by trillions of investors’ dollars.  Maybe there is no tomorrow, but what if it rains tomorrow?  Will China be in better shape to deal with the rain?  I am afraid it might be.  There seems to be a consensus that there are not storm clouds on the horizon, but what if we are not looking closely enough.  Maybe those few clouds are not as harmless as they look.     

Human Rights

After Trump’s presidency there is a lot of talk about whether the United States remains a beacon light for democracy, human rights and the moral standing that Americans rejoiced in for so long.  In fact, the idea of the US being a “city on a hill” is a relatively recent concept.  The US Constitution, which is widely criticized today, was always seen as enlightened, but America’s practices were not frequently highly praised.  What people now look back on as the good old days of democracy were days when segregation still existed, and a much higher percentage of the population lived in what we now call poverty and wealth inequality. 

The State Department did not have a human rights bureau until the Carter administration created one.  I had to write the first draft of the first human rights report on Brazil while I was working on the Brazil desk.  Brazil still had a military government and had many black marks in its human rights record.  I remember trying to make the report as positive as possible for Brazil, but always made more negative by the human rights bureau.  I remember Mark Schneider and Michelle Bova particularly wanted the report to be more critical of Brazil.  I suppose I had a case of “clientitis,” from having served in Brazil before working on the Brazil desk. 

In any case, I don’t think “human rights” were nearly as important an issue earlier as they were in the Carter administration.  There were the Nuremberg war crimes trials, but the Holocaust did not become a widely publicized event on everyone’s lips until years after World War II.  It was a horrible thing, but there was no Holocaust Museum until 1993, 

It is only in the last fifty or so years that the US has begun to proclaim its moral superiority to the world and demand other countries to equal our level of human rights protection.  We should not be surprised if we and the rest of the world begin to look at our standing with a more jaundiced eye.