'Social summit' starts the discussion


Washington -- WITH MORE than 120 world leaders and more than 13,000 delegates in attendance, the U.N. summit in Copenhagen this week is the largest such meeting in history. It is widely called the "social summit," although some are calling it the "stealth summit," since it has seemed to be such a well-kept secret.

The intentions of the summit, if benign, are unquestionably grandiose: Set dates for each country to totally "eradicate poverty!" Do away with unemployment! Make the developed countries devote 20 percent of their foreign aid to social development programs!

It is easy to think of such an extravaganza of the international social conscience as yet another mammoth U.N. throwaway, without the precision that characterized the population conference in Cairo last fall. Indeed, even before it started Monday, the conference was being reviled by those many skeptics. The parallel conference of non-governmental organizations meeting in the city's naval base condemned the $60 million spectacle as a "waste of time" and "a lot of mainly empty rhetoric."

And yet . . . At a meeting here before the summit, the Chilean U.N. ambassador and godfather of the summit, Juan Somavia, described his baby as primarily an effort at "norm-setting or standard-setting." And that is very important for the world, he said, because, "Societies must have structures of values or you don't know where you're going.

"What we are trying to say is that, after the Cold War, these standards are even more important for society. This is what the United Nations does best: It starts the discussion. Take human rights -- it took us 30 years to make it a major issue in the world. The effects of this summit . . . will be measured only in the next century."

This seems to me indeed what the United Nations should be doing. It clearly cannot wage the non-wars it has been in Bosnia and Somalia (it is giving pacifism and neutralism a bad name). It clearly cannot structure the world in any manner that involves the use of force or the regulation of conflict (its efforts in these areas are as effective as war-by-committee).

But it can -- through even the tumultuous and imprecise conversations at these huge summits -- set the stage through a restating of the standards and values of the civilized world.

When I started covering the developing world a quarter century ago, we didn't know what worked. The Cold War divided not only the two great powers and ideologies for man's development, but also the Third World -- between pseudo-Marxist solutions supported by the Soviet Union and pseudo-democratic and mixed-economy solutions supported by the United States.

Now that period is over. The world is at a major turning point. Today, we know what works: some combination of "representative government" (a better phrase than "democracy," I believe) and some form of free enterprise (probably overseen by a state that has change built into it). We see the stunning examples of success: Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Oman, Costa Rica.

The problems come in virtually every Third World "basket case" with corrupt, greedy leadership, with ambition gone berserk. Even the ethnic wars that the United Nations cites at the summit are really not ethnic wars at all. They are wars started deliberately by insatiably ambitious leaders, employing old hatreds to gain total political power.

The problems also come, and often with those same leaders, from those who employ race, class and ethnicity (if there were any real Marxists around, they would consider them the new class wars) as "reasons" for underdevelopment and/or misery. The reasons for poverty are rather to be found in "culture." Some cultures, for instance, Russia with its radical egalitarianism and innate collectivism, cannot progress in this new world except through some modifying of their values.

And so the worry about summits such as Copenhagen's is that mostly well-intentioned people will again try to redistribute the wealth of the rich nations, while not telling the poor ones: "You can be the kind of people who progress -- or you will continue to be left behind. It is your choice."

But then, I suppose it is too much to ask a summit meeting of 13,000 people to try to change human nature.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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