Let me know if you’ve seen this playing out in the geopolitical arena before:
- A proposal is made to a large governing body that is in the interests of humanity
- A state power objects because the proposal is not in the particular interests of corporate sponsors of that state power
- A battle ensues, where the virtually self-evident truths of what is of interest to humanity are countered by arguments of cunning deceptive pretense
- Whoever is most powerful wins the battle regardless of the cogency or sincerity of their respective arguments
Familiar? Sure it is. It plays out weekly in the headlines, across a swath of issues of human concern: our health, safety, freedom, and prosperity. Let’s take a look at the latest example concerning a breastfeeding resolution made recently to the World Health Organization.
1. The Proposal
According to this New York Times article, a resolution to encourage breast-feeding was expected to be approved quickly and easily by the hundreds of government delegates who gathered this spring in Geneva for the United Nations-affiliated World Health Assembly. Based on decades of research, the resolution says that mother’s milk is healthiest for children and countries should strive to limit the inaccurate or misleading marketing of breast milk substitutes.
Elisabeth Sterken, director of the Infant Feeding Action Coalition in Canada, said four decades of research have established the importance of breast milk, which provides essential nutrients as well as hormones and antibodies that protect newborns against infectious disease.
A 2016 study in The Lancet found that universal breast-feeding would prevent 800,000 child deaths a year across the globe and yield $300 billion in savings from reduced health care costs and improved economic outcomes for those reared on breast milk.
It is a matter of debate whether the World Health Organization is fundamentally working on behalf of humanity, but in the case of this resolution, it appears that its passing would clearly have both health and economic benefits for the people of the planet.
2. The Objection
Before the resolution was brought to the floor the United States delegation, embracing the interests of infant formula manufacturers, upended the deliberations. American officials sought to water down the resolution by removing language that called on governments to “protect, promote and support breast-feeding” and another passage that called on policymakers to restrict the promotion of food products that many experts say can have deleterious effects on young children.
The State Department declined to respond to questions, saying it could not discuss private diplomatic conversations. However the Department of Health and Human Services, the lead agency in the effort to modify the resolution, explained in an email that,
“The resolution as originally drafted placed unnecessary hurdles for mothers seeking to provide nutrition to their children. We recognize not all women are able to breast-feed for a variety of reasons. These women should have the choice and access to alternatives for the health of their babies, and not be stigmatized for the ways in which they are able to do so.”
Ah, the care and concern over human welfare by the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services is heart-warming, especially as an organization so fastidiously sucking the golden teet of large corporations.
3. The Battle
Ecuador, which had planned to introduce the measure, was first confronted by the American delegation. If Ecuador refused to drop the resolution, Washington would unleash punishing trade measures and withdraw crucial military aid. In addition to the trade threats, Todd C. Chapman, the United States ambassador to Ecuador, suggested in meetings with officials in Quito, the Ecuadorean capital, that the Trump administration might also retaliate by withdrawing the military assistance it has been providing in northern Ecuador, a region wracked by violence spilling across the border from Colombia, according to an Ecuadorean government official who took part in the meeting.
The Ecuadorean government quickly acquiesced. The showdown over the issue was recounted by more than a dozen participants from several countries, many of whom requested anonymity because they feared retaliation from the United States. Health advocates scrambled to find another sponsor for the resolution, but at least a dozen countries, most of them poor nations in Africa and Latin America, backed off, citing fears of retaliation, according to officials from Uruguay, Mexico, and the United States.
During the deliberations, some American delegates even suggested the United States might cut its contribution to the W.H.O., several negotiators said. Washington is the single largest contributor to the health organization, providing $845 million, or roughly 15 percent of its budget, last year.
“We were astonished, appalled and also saddened,” said Patti Rundall, the policy director of the British advocacy group Baby Milk Action, who has attended meetings of the assembly, the decision-making body of the World Health Organization, since the late 1980s. “What happened was tantamount to blackmail, with the U.S. holding the world hostage and trying to overturn nearly 40 years of consensus on the best way to protect infant and young child health,” she said.
4. The Outcome
In the end, the Americans’ efforts were mostly unsuccessful. It was the Russians who ultimately stepped in to introduce the measure — and the Americans did not threaten them. A Russian delegate said the decision to introduce the breast-feeding resolution was a matter of principle.
“We’re not trying to be a hero here, but we feel that it is wrong when a big country tries to push around some very small countries, especially on an issue that is really important for the rest of the world,” said the delegate, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
He said the United States did not directly pressure Moscow to back away from the measure. Nevertheless, the American delegation sought to wear down the other participants through procedural maneuvers in a series of meetings that stretched on for two days, an unexpectedly long period.
The final resolution preserved most of the original wording, though American negotiators did get language removed that called on the W.H.O. to provide technical support to member states seeking to halt “inappropriate promotion of foods for infants and young children.” The United States also insisted that the words “evidence-based” accompany references to long-established initiatives that promote breast-feeding, which critics described as a ploy that could be used to undermine programs that provide parents with feeding advice and support.
Theatre Of The Absurd
It is worth reading the New York Times article itself to see that, while it does clearly lay out the egregious abuse of power that corporations can bring to the political area, the main purpose of the article was to blame Donald Trump for the entire arsenal of strong-arm tactics, even framing the corporations fundamentally as bystanders.
If you are able to disentangle the anti-Trump rhetoric, what you will find underneath is a kind of ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ playing out in front of our eyes, again and again, where there is a clash between good (in the interests of humanity) and evil (in the interests of the few). I can’t help but think that at some transcendent level, this drama continues to play over and over again in the media to somehow wake us up to this reality we have been condoning; that we as a collective have been willing to give our power over to corporations to act against the best interests of humanity simply for their own profit.
If so, it’s time for us, as individuals and as a collective, to take our power back and create a world where large corporate entities are dissolved or stripped of the power to continue to negatively impact the health and well-being of humanity.