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Richard V. Reeves Headshot

American UNophobia Dims the World's Lights

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Conservatives make a fetish of sovereignty. Any move construed as an attack on the rights of nations to manage their own affairs is sacrificed at the tribal altar of patriotism.

In the UK, this sovereignty fetish plays out in the form of opposition to the European Union. Aided by a jingoistic press, Europhobes win public arguments by attacking "faceless bureaucrats from Brussels." Fictional threats are generated to the "British pint" or the "British banger." Bad weather between France and the UK once generated the newspaper headline: "Fog in Channel. Europe Cut Off." That was eighty years ago. But it still perfectly encapsulates the Europhobia of too many British politicians.

In the U.S., the worship of sovereignty plays out on two levels. First, the right of states to determine their own laws versus the federal government. This leads to bizarre anomalies on trivial issues -- such as where and when you can buy a bottle of wine -- and more serious ones, including the absence of national educational standards.

The second element of American version of the sovereignty fetish is a loathing of international institutions, especially the United Nations. The depths of UNophobia were demonstrated yesterday when the Senate refused to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities. This was despite the fact that the Treaty was modeled on the U.S.' own Americans with Disabilities Act, signed into law by George H. W. Bush. Explaining his opposition, Sen. Jim Inhofe said: "I do not support the cumbersome regulations and potentially overzealous international organizations with anti-American biases that infringe upon American society."

This is bonkers. The allegedly anti-American zealots at the UN were taking a shining U.S. success story and trying to spread it around the world. But like most phobias, UNophobia defies reason. Small wonder that on a wide range of issues where sovereign nations can only succeed in concert -- climate change being the most obvious -- the US acts as a roadblock to reform.

American UNophobes often appear hostile to the founding values of the USA. The international institutions so loathed by the American right are, by and large, zealous about promoting the laws, norms and attitudes that gave birth to the U.S. in the first place: human rights, democracy, freedom of expression, and equality.

The U.S. is the crowning height of the liberal enlightenment. The historian Henry Commager once wrote that while Europe imagined the Enlightenment, America realized it. Now, in the 21st century, America has the opportunity to globalize the Enlightenment. But only if it can defeat the sovereignty fetishists at home.