THE international conferences held this month in Beijing, in addition to concentrating world attention on women's issues, highlighted the growing clash between multilateral interests and the internal politics of nations.
As have other nations in the developing world, the Chinese pressed their invitation to host a major UN conference for prestige purposes. They obviously did not bargain on direct assaults on their policies relating to Tibet, human rights, and family planning.
But conflicts between a UN conference agenda and domestic interests are not confined to China. Under an accelerated program of global UN conferences, including those on environment, population, human rights, and social development, issues once considered primarily sensitive and internal have become subjects of world debate. Even the United States is affected.
When the UN headquarters were established in New York 50 years ago, Americans did not anticipate the degree to which activities of the international organization would create domestic controversies. Criticism of UN policies has grown; official contributions have been cut. If the UN headquarters did not already exist on American soil, it is questionable whether the US would accept such a presence today.
The controversies over US participation in the Beijing conferences on women further illustrate this conflict. The debate over Hillary Rodham Clinton's attendance revolved largely around US foreign policy toward China. Beyond that, opposition to any participation centered on whether the UN conference agenda was in tune with US attitudes toward family, abortion, and women's rights.
Complaints of official Chinese harassment of the conference delegates are well-founded. But suppose the conference had been held in the New York area. Would such a gathering have been free of harassment? US authorities would have made every effort to provide adequate security for the delegates, but they would have been contending with protesters from all sides of the US political spectrum. In addition, members of Congress would have objected to permitting official delegations from such countries as Iran, Iraq, Libya, and - above all - Cuba.
United Nations conferences in the latter decades of the 20th century have focused attention on conditions silently tolerated for centuries. The coalescence of nongovernmental organizations from around the world, under UN coordination, has provided a nonofficial avenue of protest and an often-discomforting monitor of official gatherings.
The conferences, whatever their formal agenda, have had a common thread: how to improve the lot of the majority of the world's population. At the Conference on Environment and Development in Rio De Janeiro in 1992, governments from the developed world sought to separate environmental and development issues, including development aid. Their efforts were unsuccessful, and every conference since has raised the question of global responsibility for the sharing of resources.
Governments on both sides of the divide between the developed and the developing nations have been discomfited by these conferences. Even democratic governments can be embarrassed by attention to the paucity of their foreign aid or their own internal social contradictions.
The activism of these conference issues do not end with the final formal session. Attendees go on to form networks internationally and within individual countries. They pressure governments through public education and legislative action. As much as politicians everywhere would like to maintain control of issues that affect people's lives, they now face a fact that will not disappear: The politics of some very fundamental environmental and social issues have become global.