The Population Missile

September 27, 1994|By WALTER TRUETT ANDERSON

Although the connection between the just-ended debate at Cairo and the current issue of Haiti may not be readily apparent, the two are closely related. Both have to do with population politics.

The ''population problem'' comes in two parts. Part One is that there are a lot more people in the world than there used to be. Part Two is that they are moving around more than ever, often in defiance of national borders. The Cairo conference mainly dealt with the population bomb, and most of the delegates and non-government activists came away with some hope that it may eventually be defused. But they really did nothing about what might be called the population missile.

Over recent weeks the White House has been reminded by its old adversary Fidel Castro that human beings make dandy weapons. The U.S. was bombed to the conference table, so to speak, by a ragtag barrage of would-be immigrants who were allowed to set sail in makeshift rafts from the beaches of Cuba.

Although nobody in particular can be accused of aiming the Haitian immigrants at the United States, the Haitian refugee situation is clearly a major factor in the Clinton decision to mount a military intervention. We are not intervening in Haiti because of human-rights violations. We are doing it because establishing some political and economic stability there is the only chance we have of staving off an endless and uncontrollable flow of refugees. Anti-immigrant sentiment is becoming a powerful new emotional fuel in American politics, and it provides the strongest source of support the White House is likely to find for this otherwise unpopular adventure.

American fear of the population missile can be a factor in international affairs in a number of ways: Many observers of China policy, for example, believe that some behind-the-scenes deal-making was involved in the recent negotiations concerning our extension of most-favored-nation trading status to China. The quid pro quo, they say, was that the U.S. agreed to ease up on tariffs -- and on pressure concerning human rights within China -- and China, in return, agreed to get serious about going after the operators who are shipping illegal Chinese immigrants to the U.S.

The China problem is a healthy reminder that the population missile can be aimed from a great distance.

What chance does the U.S. have of developing a really sure defense against the population missile -- against having American anti-immigrant fears manipulated by foreign leaders? The answer is: not much. We can say that said leaders should refrain from cynically using their own people as weapons in international politics, but that is not likely to have any noticeable effect. We can say that Americans should be more hospitable to outsiders, but that would be to naively overlook what is, at the moment, a deep and powerful undercurrent of political emotion. We can spend more money trying to keep illegal immigrants out, but that, too, is of limited effectiveness.

In the long run, all we can do is get serious about narrowing the gap of wealth and opportunity that separates us from so much of the world, and makes movement to these shores seem worth life-and-death risks. Given the realities of global economic development, that's likely to be a very long run indeed.

But it is the only real solution to a problem that is currently riding high on America's worry list. And we could do a lot worse than to make narrowing the gap a high-profile element in our currently fuzzy big picture of what the United States is trying to accomplish in the world.

Walter Truett Anderson, a political scientist specializing in issues of global governance, is author most recently of ''Reality Isn't What It Used To Be.'' He wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

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