Reflections on Durban

I’ve not yet fully digested my thoughts on the Obama Administration’s evident decision not to attend April’s upcoming Durban Review Conference, but overall, this rather unsurprising news — announced last Friday by the State Department — has struck me as less upsetting than my previously articulated support for participation might indicate. For one thing, the announcement makes fools out of those hysterically claiming that even mere participation in preparatory meetings for the conference would doom the United States to inevitable participation. As I stressed so often, participating, sending a delegation, talking in these preparations at no point obligated the United States to attend the conference itself. It was left free to decide whether it would be in its interests to do so, and, at this point, it seems to have decided that it would not be.

At the same time, this is an unfortunate decision, one most probably mandated by domestic political concerns. I do not believe that the team that Obama Administration sent was surprised by, or unprepared for, the decision to withdraw. Nor do I think the decision stemmed from prior naivete, or even inexperience. Part of this judgment is just the sheer weight of practicality. The conference is three months into Obama’s tenure; he is facing, simultaneously, his administration’s interest in international cooperation, and the thrust of a long-standing, vociferous campaign from Durban opponents to boycott the conference. I don’t like to afford the more rabid of these opponents more influence than they deserve, but it’s undeniable that their vehemence had a magnet effect on many moderates who, instead of seeing the Durban Review Conference as an opportunity, accepted the aggressively promulgated view that it would inevitably be merely a carbon copy of its predecessor.

The echoes of anti-Semitism and Israel bashing from the original Durban conference were loud enough even to drown out calls for restrained engagement by prominent Jewish organizations. And the seriousness of the problem that the conference was addressed to tackle — anti-racism and xenophobia, and all manners of discrimination — was also largely drowned out by legitimate, if outsized, concerns of even greater hostility toward Israel this time around.

With such an all-encompassing agenda, it was indeed all but inevitable that some countries would seek to include unacceptable provisions, such as those censuring Israel or attacking Zionism, into the program. But the United States, and every other country with an interest in fighting “the good fight” against racism, belongs at the table despite, or perhaps precisely because of, this hateful rhetoric. Sitting the conference out will not stymie offensive outbursts from certain participants, just as sitting at the table where they were being uttered would in no way taint the United States’ values.

While the U.S. decision not to participate at the Durban Review Conference may not be as dire as many liberal internationalists may fear, it is surely unfortunate that the United States was not confident enough in its own stance, and in the value of participation, to make its views heard at the conference itself. Without continual efforts to prove the contrary, I fear that the ignorant canard, repeated today in a Wall Street Journal editorial, that “many countries hate us merely for who we are and what we stand for,” will simply grow stronger. If we don’t speak up for what we do stand for, then hatred will simply bounce around an echo chamber, and we will grow no closer to either quelling this hatred or achieving our goals.