HUMAN rights activists are outraged because President-elect Clinton is said to be considering neoconservatives for senior foreign policy posts in his administration.
Supporters of the United Nations should be almost as worried. Neoconservatives have spent much of the last decade dividing the world into friends and foes of the US and imposing this ideology on the UN. Reviving this approach is not the way for Mr. Clinton to strengthen the world body and international law.
The opening shots were fired 12 years ago, at the 1981 Session of the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva, where President Reagan's neoconservative team tried to dismember a special UN working group on disappearances. The UN group was viewed as hostile to US interests because it was probing the murderous Argentinian junta. Argentina's perceived value as a US ally against communism counted for more than the torture and death of thousands of innocent Argentinians.
This was standard procedure. The UN was tolerated when it could be exploited as a tool of US strategic interests. But whenever UN bodies took an independent stand and tried to enforce universally accepted standards of behavior on brutal regimes like Argentina and El Salvador, they were subjected to withering abuse and dismissed as "politicized" and "selective."
No corner was spared. In February 1982, the Reagan administration joined forces with the Argentinian generals and insisted on the dismissal of the widely respected Dutch head of the UN human rights secretariat, Theo Van Boven, who had spoken out against government violence in Latin America.
Mr. Reagan's neoconservative team also provided the rationale for slashing US contributions to the UN budget on the grounds that the UN secretariat was bloated and inefficient and Americans were underrepresented. Both charges were exaggerated, but US withholding pushed the UN to the brink of bankruptcy in 1987.
With the UN humbled, it was easy for the Reagan administration to exploit a long-standing distrust of international human rights law and refuse to ratify treaties that the US had helped to draft. The treaties were denounced as "mischievous," and likely to be exploited against Americans. This gave the disastrous impression that the US was prepared to use international law to criticize the Soviet bloc, while disdaining to submit to the same standards.
The UN has still not recovered. Cowed by Mr. Van Boven's dismissal, the human rights secretariat abandoned any pretense at activism in the 1980s. Unpaid US dues continue to complicate efforts to normalize the relationship between the US and UN.
In a wider context, the neoconservative charge turned into a self-fulfilling prophesy: The UN came to be viewed as a necessary evil - like "death and taxes." As a result, international law is still widely seen as something to be distrusted rather than promoted. When the US finally ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights last year, it entered a slew of reservations.
This is the legacy of the neoconservatives - the assumption that universal standards, and law, should be subordinated to short-term US interests. There is nothing to suggest a change of heart.
Why does it matter? Because the UN is finally recovering self-esteem. AIDS, global warming, Iraq, Bosnia, and now Somalia have probably convinced many Americans that the UN does indeed matter. They should support the drive by Western governments to give the UN more teeth and make it more interventionist.
UT this will also backfire, like US policy in the 1980s, if the West is seen as imposing its will on less-secure governments under the guise of humanitarianism and protecting human rights.
This charge has already been raised by governments like India, Indonesia, and China, which have much to fear from an active UN human rights machinery. It is likely to prove seductive at the Human Rights Commission, where nonaligned governments enjoy an influence denied them in the Western-dominated Security Council.
There is a response at hand, but it will take pluck and imagination by Clinton and his allies. Instead of decrying UN "interference," Western governments should invite a frank and open discussion of their own problems by the commission next month. The US should seek UN advice on racism and native Americans. Britain could open the jails in Northern Ireland to UN investigators. Germany should justify its expulsion of gypsies and explain neo-Nazi attacks on foreigners.
Embarrassing though it might be, the commission might actually bring a fresh perspective to these intractable problems. Such a gesture would certainly show more commitment to the UN than a hundred campaign speeches about a new world order.
Mr. Clinton has a historic opportunity. The end of the cold war may have unleashed tensions, but it has also freed human rights from ideology. If he is to capitalize on this, Clinton will need at his side, not skeptics, but visionaries and risk-takers who believe in multilateralism.