Thursday, April 14, 2005

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John Bolton is right about the United Nations

John Bolton's confirmation as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations has been in the news as of late (the committee vote for him has been delayed until next week). There's not a lot of love for Bolton among Democrats, Republicans of the Richard Lugar ilk, or, apparently, State Department staffers.

Richard Cohen's column in the Washington Post entitled "Disaster, Not Diplomacy" ably summarizes the conventional take on Bolton. And while I don't want to defend Bolton's record or comportment (see William Kristol for one defense) there is one line of criticism that really bugs the hell out of me. From Cohen's column:

The rap against Bolton's nomination as U.N. ambassador is that he has maximum contempt for that organization. He once went so far as to flatly declare that "there is no United Nations," just an international community that occasionally "can be led by the only real power left in the world -- and that's the United States." (emphasis added)

OK, let's get that quote in context. This is from a Democracy Now! web page, which informs us that the original quote came from a Bolton presentation "more than 10 years ago where he was speaking at an event called the "Global Structures Convocation," held on February 3, 1994 in New York":

The point that I want to leave with you in this very brief presentation is where I started, is that there is no United Nations. There is an international community that occasionally can be led by the only real power left in the world, and that's the United States, when it suits our interest, and when we can get others to go along. And I think it would be a real mistake to count on the United Nations as if it is some disembodied entity out there that can function on its own.

I don't know if Bolton is a serial bully, I don't know if he'd be a great ambassador to the UN, and I share Jonah Goldberg's concern about the moustache, but I will say one thing -- Bolton's assessment of the United Nations was and is 100% correct. He's not saying the organization doesn't exist -- he's saying that thinking of the UN as a single coherent actor is both factually incorrect and counterproductive to U.S. foreign policy. The United Nations acts in a forceful manner if and only if the United States and other great powers agree that such action is necessary. [What about specialized bureaucracies like the UN Development Program or the World Health Organization?--ed. The more "technical" agencies do have more autonomy, but even in these areas the great power delegations wield effective vetoes and can guide UN actions in these issue areas.] It's telling that a few months after Bolton made this statement, the U.N. decided not to get involved in the Rwandan genocide -- primarily because the U.S. government wanted no part of getting involved.

I might add that most international relations scholars would acknowledge this fact to be true for most international governmental organizations (IGOs) in existence. These organizations -- including the UN -- provide useful fora for negotiation, bargaining, diplomatic coordination, and occasionally collective action. At best, IGO secretariats can, once in a blue moon, try to get an issue or policy option onto the global agenda. But to go from that possibility to thinking of them as truly independent actors is to make a very heroic assumption about the functioning of world politics.

[How strong is this consensus among IR scholars?--ed. It's not unanimous, but let's put it this way. Susan Strange's last book, The Retreat of the State (CUP, 1996), was pretty much devoted to showing the myriad ways in which states were losing their control over world politics to multinational corporations, criminal mafias, etc. When she got to IGOs, however, Strange threw up her hands and conceded that for international institutions, states still rule the roost.]

Perhaps Bolton takes more glee in this assessment of the UN than his critics do -- and that's a normative debate that will not go away. But to chide Bolton for the quoted passage above is absurd. He was making an empirical assessment of the United Nations -- and his assessment was correct.

UPDATE: Note to self -- check out David Brooks before posting on a more regular basis.

posted by Dan on 04.14.05 at 11:50 AM


Bolton is exactly what's needed. And let's consider the opposition to Bolton's nomination, who held their silence for deacdes as the UN became naught but a forum for bashing the United States (all the while demanding our money).

Whose side are they on, anwyay?

posted by: Bithead on 04.14.05 at 11:50 AM [permalink]

Let us consider Bolton's detractors for just a moment... these are the same people who held their silence whil the UN bacmae naught but a US bashing society... which demanded our money for the privalidge of their continued bashing.

And the Democrats sat and did nothing.
Now comes someone willing to be critical of that nonsense, and the Democrats are worried.

THe logical question comes up; Whose side are they on, anyway?

posted by: Bithead on 04.14.05 at 11:50 AM [permalink]

I agree with Bolton's assessment of the U.N. pre-Rwanda.

However, the fact of the matter is that President Bush selected an ambassador candidate who is tactless and who has consistently shown a lack of people skills (see the testimonies of his co-workers, one of whom mentions that he has a policy of "kissing up and kicking down"). Tact and skill in dealing with others are the bread and butter of diplomacy, and Bush appointed a candidate with no discernible diplomatic skills.

Along with Bush's appoint of Wolfowitz as head of the World Bank, this is a one-two punch in the face to the international community, at a time when our international political capital is at an all-time low.

What's next, Donald Rumsfeld as the head of UNDPKO?

posted by: Zach Finkelstein on 04.14.05 at 11:50 AM [permalink]

Sorry for the double, Dan... Kill the first if you like.

(mumble.. cache in the proxy... mumble)

posted by: Bithead on 04.14.05 at 11:50 AM [permalink]

David Borowitz has the 'stache thing nailed:

Frightening Facial Hair Called Nominee's Most Potent Weapon

John R. Bolton, President Bush's nominee to be ambassador to the United Nations, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today that if confirmed he would use his terrifying moustache to scare America's foes.

"America needs something scary to frighten our enemies," said Mr. Bolton, pounding the table with his fist. "As God is my witness, I believe that my moustache is that scary thing."

While Mr. Bolton has repeatedly stressed his experience in the field of international politics and policy, today he made it very clear that he considers his unnerving facial hair his most potent weapon.

"I dare anyone to look at my upper lip and not quake with fear," Mr. Bolton said.
* * *

posted by: Rod Hoffman on 04.14.05 at 11:50 AM [permalink]

I think Bolton is just the kind of fellow the United Nations requires. His assessment of the United Nations comes in two parts. This is the way I think the United Nations should be viewed as well.

The UN has two eras. The Cold War UN and the post-Cold War UN. Clearly the interests are different among member nations because the United States can go to the UN more often because it is not facing an eminent Soviet veto. As a result, the United States went to the UN more often in the post-Cold War era.

The Internationalist, President Clinton, viewed the UN as a vital role in American foreign policy. He entrusted it as an independent arbiter a little more than Bolton. But the revolving stories of corruption, sex abuse, and failure to act in places such as Rwanda are prime examples of how the UN still faces Cold War echoes without the presence of the Cold War.

Bolton's approach is forward thinking. Wolfowitz' approach is forward thinking. These people are nominated for the very policies they authored and supported at the end of the Cold War because they were forward thinkers.

I downplay the 1994 speech because it was made to the World Federalist Association. It's an organization that believes, and works towards, a one world government. Bolton's comments were reflective of his complete opposition to a one world government.

posted by: Brennan Stout on 04.14.05 at 11:50 AM [permalink]

If Bolton had wanted to say that the UN is not a coherent actor he could have just said that. What he actually said was more combative and extreme than that.

Besides what exactly makes a "coherent actor"? Is the US Congress a coherent actor? After all it is strongly constrained by the other two branches not to mention public opinion and countless lobbying groups. What about the departments in the executive branch which face similar constraints. What makes the Department of Health and Human Services significnatly more coherent than ,say, the WHO?

posted by: Strategist on 04.14.05 at 11:50 AM [permalink]

well, he goes a bit beyond that into black helicopter territory, though, when he starts objecting in principle to things like the law of the seas treaty.

posted by: praktike on 04.14.05 at 11:50 AM [permalink]

I'd like to hear Daniel's thoughts about Bolton's credentials for the job. What has he ever done, what hint of excellence is there in his record, to earn our respect?

Regardless of what one thinks about the UN, do you think that the position of Ambassador to the UN deserves a nominee who has demonstrated superior skills and leadership characteristics? Is Mr. Bolton such a man?

You are surely correct that many of his critics are misguided in some or much of their criticism. How do you assess his supporters and their motivations for putting him forward?

posted by: pblsh on 04.14.05 at 11:50 AM [permalink]

I don't understand why Rwanda is supposed to confirm Bolton's views. If the genocide happened because the US didn't want to stop it (never forget ambassador David Rawsons active role in downplaying the conflict between Hutus and Tutsis), it's no doubt an argument to limit American global power (i.e. by blasting away that powerful American tool, the UN Security Council), but I thought Bolton wanted to *increase* the US global power?

posted by: Oscar on 04.14.05 at 11:50 AM [permalink]

PS -- the Brooks piece sucked.

posted by: pblsh on 04.14.05 at 11:50 AM [permalink]

Oscar's comment that our failure to intervene in Rwanda is an argument 'to limit American power' is non-sensical. If American power were limited, we simply would not have been able to intervene at all. It is indeed a tragedy that we did nothing to help that situation, especially considering that we could have intervened. However, if we had no power than we could not stop any other tragedies in the world. Perhaps he meant that U.S. power should be shifted to someone who would use it better, but I don't think such a someone exists. The U.N. is not able to take decisive enough action (not a rational actor), and no other countries are willing or able to maintain such power. Even if they were, I don't have more faith in any other countries to do the right thing over the U.S. ...

posted by: Bob on 04.14.05 at 11:50 AM [permalink]

Yeah there are many problems with the Brooks piece. Let me focus on just one: his claim about democratic accountability versus technocratic unaccountably. This sounds plausible but is it true? In theory democratic governments are accountable because they have to face voters every few years. In practice elections are a crude instrument of accountability because they are fought on many issues and voters are often ignorant and/or apathetic about many individual issues. At the same time IGO's *are* accountable: to their member states especially to the few who contribute the bulk of their resources.

As an example take a look at the experiences of the UN and US in Iraq; both oil-for-food and US reconstruction have faced serious allegations of corruption; the difference is that in the case of the UN the allegations are being thoroughly and credibly investigated. Also we should note that oil-for-food ,despite the corruption, achived its main objective of improving the nutrition and health of Iraqi civilians. The US reconstuction effort by contrast has been both corrupt and inefficient and tragically several of the health indicators which had improved under oil-for-food have since deteriorated. So who has been more accountable here?

posted by: Strategist on 04.14.05 at 11:50 AM [permalink]

Dan's right. For things that matter, the UN is little more than a meeting place and a voting rule. Decisions are made by the member states, particularly the P-5. When they can all agree to do something, the UN "works"; when they cannot agree (Iraq) or they agree to do nothing (Rwanda), the UN "fails." Corruption issues aside (and all large organizations can experience corruption, even ones with democratic accountability), most of the failings of the UN can be attributed to lack of agreement or political will among the P-5.

As for the Brook's piece, it is extremely vapid. He speaks of "two visions" for the UN and then spends the entire time telling us why one vision is wrong. So what's the alternative that he and Bolton favor? All he says is that it's is a place for nations to work together to solve problems. Oh, that makes it clear.

He also makes the interesting claim that Americans will never let international organizations trump the Constitution. He should check out what Dick Cheney and co. were saying in Dec. 1990, right before the Gulf War: that UN authorization was all they needed to wage war and that further authorization by Congress was unnecessary. Who needs Article I, Section 8, clase 11 of the U.S. Constitution when you have Chapter VII of the UN Charter? Even when Bush eventually asked for Congressional authorization, he continued to assert that, while it was nice, he did not actually need it.

posted by: KS on 04.14.05 at 11:50 AM [permalink]

I agree with Brooks and Bolton that the UN never does anything important on security issues except when the US is leading it. And even then, it is paralyzed if any of the Security Council permanent members decides to exercise its veto.

The question, then, is what exactly does Bolton -- or actually Bush, who is his boss -- want the UN to do? Does Bush want the UN to get behind his war on terrorism and the Middle East democracy initiative? We know Bolton is going to push UN internal reform, but is there a security policy he is going to try to get the UN to follow? Or will Bush continue to bypass the UN, as he mostly has in the past?

posted by: Les Brunswick on 04.14.05 at 11:50 AM [permalink]

I think the point is that the UN is incapable of being useful until it is fixed. If my car breaks down, do I hire a mechanic or hire an interior decorator to figure out ways it can work as an endtable until it somehow fixes itself?

posted by: Mark Buehner on 04.14.05 at 11:50 AM [permalink]

Let me throw out a thought that may or may not have any merit. It seems to me that in the "multilateralist" and "internationalist" wings of the left we are seeing the echoes of the international solidarity movements of the early 20th century. Before WWI, it was not unusual for leftists to decry nationalism and to proclaim their unity with the working class everywhere. Even after WWI destroyed a lot of the illusions leftists had about the end of nationalism, many continued to promote the international unity of labor under the leadership of the Soviets.

Today's leftists say they want to strengthen the hand of international institutions like the ICC, the UN and so on against the nations that comprise them. Some of them may genuinely believe in the end of nationalism, but I suspect more see that the international institutions have become reliable allies of of the left and so can be used by them to oppose capitalist countries like the US.

Does anyone else see the historical echoes that I do?

posted by: DBL on 04.14.05 at 11:50 AM [permalink]


You're beyond being silly now, you're screwing up. For a foreign relations scholar you know little about foreign relations. Even if what Bolton said was true, it was not diplomatic to say it. Part of the power of organizations such as the UN are precisely because they engender legitimacy and support by making nations feel important and presenting a seemingly inclusive decision making body. While the hard reality may be something different, rubbing it in other peoples' faces goes directly against the grain of what useful purpose the organization serves. If the UN is meant to create world participation and cooperation with certain agendas, then embaressments like Bolton cannot be allowed to ruffle feathers.

I give up on you Dan. I could forgive the blatant errors in reasoning. I could forgive the factual inaccuracies in your cited work. However when you screw up in interpreting the essential mission of the UN and analyzing the impact of this selection on that goal which is supposed to be in your own backyard - well it's time to cash in the chips. You disappoint me Dan.

posted by: oldman on 04.14.05 at 11:50 AM [permalink]

"You're beyond being silly now, you're screwing up. For a foreign relations scholar you know little about foreign relations. Even if what Bolton said was true, it was not diplomatic to say it. Part of the power of organizations such as the UN are precisely because they engender legitimacy and support by making nations feel important and presenting a seemingly inclusive decision making body. While the hard reality may be something different, rubbing it in other peoples' faces goes directly against the grain of what useful purpose the organization serves."

Paraphrased: It may do nothing, but don't say it. Image is better than substance.

Sorry if I'm a bit dense, but I just want to make sure that was intended parody, correct?

posted by: JackC on 04.14.05 at 11:50 AM [permalink]

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