Another Pose Of Rectitude

George Orwell's axiom about intellectuals--that some ideas are so silly that only intellectuals will embrace them--needs a corollary that covers U.S. senators: No international agreement is so grandiose in its ambitions and so unclear about the obligations it imposes that it cannot receive the support of many U.S. senators. Consider the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has again, as in 1994, endorsed CEDAW, which the United Nations adopted in 1979. By now 170 countries have accepted its provisions, such as the obligation to "take all appropriate measures to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women."

Such unlikely exponents of advanced feminism as Iraq, Saudi Arabia and North Korea have ratified CEDAW. Evidently provisions like the one just cited are, to say no more, construed rather differently from place to place, and are enforced nowhere.

With what "appropriate" measures would one tidy up all those "patterns," both social and cultural? Well, CEDAW's apparatus includes a committee composed of 23 "experts of high moral standing and competence" who assess signatories' progress in implementing CEDAW's provisions. Nineteen of the 23 countries from which the "experts" come have been censured by the U.S. government for abuse of women's rights.

The committee has announced itself "concerned" about "the continuing prevalence of... such [stereotypical] symbols as Mothers' Day and a Mothers' Award" in Belarus. The ideology that infuses CEDAW is that motherhood is a backward social convention, not a biological fact. Hence the committee also has "strongly" urged Armenia "to combat the traditional stereotype of women in 'the noble role of mother'." Regarding Slovenia, the committee is "concerned" that more than 70 percent of children under 3 are cared for by family members and other individuals and therefore might "miss out on educational and social opportunities offered in formal day care." The committee urges China to legalize prostitution. And so on.

CEDAW is mostly an exhortation to be nice, with niceness understood largely as equality before the law, and the law delivering the panoply of benefits that Europeans call social democracy, including a sacramental regard for abortion rights. Which means that this, like many other pieces of international parchment, pertains only to people living in places, such as Saudi Arabia, where it is impotent.

CEDAW is a gesture, and not a harmless one, because it encourages the bad habit of moral preening, whereby elites give themselves the pleasure of striking poses of rectitude, and confuse their pleasure with national virtue. In 1994 the Foreign Relations Committee minority opposed to CEDAW wrote: "CEDAW exemplifies a disturbing trend among executive branch officials and non-governmental organizations to focus resources and political will on the U.S. ratification of treaties rather than on promoting the norms represented by those treaties in the countries where they are under attack."

Perhaps the most important emancipator of Japanese women was Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who made women's suffrage occupation policy. The liberators of Afghan women wore U.S. battle dress.

The Bush administration, kicking this can down the road, says it wants to study CEDAW. It should study this:

Recent floods had not yet crested in Dresden, Prague and elsewhere when some Europeans were blaming this misfortune on U.S. "unilateralism." They meant that there would not have been such floods were it not for the U.S. judgment that the Kyoto accords on global warming, as written, are decidedly not in the U.S. interest. When Congress passed and President Bush signed the new law concerning corporate governance and accounting, there were European murmurings about U.S. "unilateralism." The purport of the murmurs was that because Europeans invest and otherwise do business in America, it is improper for American law pertaining to business to be shaped without formal consultation with foreigners.

It is understandable that Europeans, painfully aware of the uses to which many of their nations put sovereignty in the 20th century, are retreating from sovereignty in the 21st. They are "pooling" their sovereignties in the European Union and other multinational institutions, and shedding it by promiscuously embracing supervision, of sorts, under instruments like CEDAW.

CEDAW's advocates are dismayed that America is the only developed democratic nation that has not ratified it. But that actually testifies to how uniquely well developed America's democratic political culture is.

In 2000, 35 senators, 32 Democrats, supported CEDAW, but ratification, which has been pending on the Foreign Relations Committee calendar for 22 years, would require 67 votes, so it will still be pending in 2024. As will complaints about U.S. "unilateralism," meaning self-government.