Times are tough at the United Nations’ headquarters on the East River.
The Oil-for-Food scandal becomes more appalling with each new revelation of self-dealing, malfeasance, and moral turpitude. Blue-helmeted peacekeepers are found to have engaged in rape and other criminal activity in the course of their humanitarian missions. Corruption appears to be pervasive. Proliferators of weapons of mass destruction are enabled and excused. And, the mob rule that performs much of the organization’s decision-making continues to legitimate and otherwise protect despicable tyrants.
The United Nations’ apologists tend to respond to this litany of complaints by arguing that there is nothing wrong with the institution and its current leadership that a little “reform” won’t fix. They seem to think that an investigation here, a resignation there will suffice–if only the United States redoubles its commitment to the organization, pays its disproportionate share of membership dues and other costs (e.g., those of peacekeeping operations), and plays ball with the U.N.’s lowest-common denominator agenda: Maintaining the status quo, even where it is at odds with the United Nations’ own charter guaranteeing freedom as a basic human right.
President Bush, however, recognizes that–if the U.N. is to survive and be useful–it is going to have to engage in not just cosmetic reform, but in a significant course correction. In order for the institution to deserve, let alone enjoy, the generous support of the American people, it must live up to its founding principles.
It was, in no small measure, toward this end that President Bush insisted on action by the United Nations in the face of Saddam Hussein’s serial defiance of its Security Council resolutions. Subsequently, he has repeatedly challenged the organization to confront the dangers posed by regimes willing to engage in genocide and pursuing the destructive means to affect it.
Regrettably, the institution has, to date, largely responded with smug contempt and defiance. President Bush has been treated as though he were the problem, with his willingness to work with “coalitions of the willing” outside of the U.N. to address security challenges of the day, rather than allow them to metastasize under the protection of veto-wielding members of the Security Council. U.N. bureaucrats have made no secret of their view that such American conduct is illegal, even as they excuse the institutional paralysis that made such action necessary.
President Bush is responding to these tough times at the U.N. with a bit of tough love. His selection of Undersecretary of State John Bolton to be the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations signals a call for systemic change, not merely superficial behavior modification.
After all, Bolton has been one of this country’s most thoughtful critics of past U.N. misconduct. During his stint during the Bush-41 administration as assistant secretary of State for international organizations–the bureau in Foggy Bottom responsible for relations with the United Nations–Bolton became intimately familiar with the institution and its shortcomings.
When, in the Clinton years, Bolton was a top figure at the American Enterprise Institute, he was undiplomatic when it came to the U.N., but never inaccurate. Such quotes have been much circulated in the past and will doubtless be given considerable play in the course of his confirmation hearings. If so, they should be recognized as in the best tradition of American representatives to the U.N., such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Charles Lichtenstein.
It has been in his current capacity, however, that John Bolton’s appreciation of both the promise and the limitations of the current United Nations has been most closely honed. His arms-control portfolio has put him on the frontlines of Bush-43 efforts to prevent the further proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to nations like Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. He has tirelessly sought creative solutions to some of today’s most vexing problems–ranging from shaming the International Atomic Energy Agency into doing its job, to seeking Security Council action where possible, to the negotiation of the intrepid Proliferation Security Initiative (bilateral agreements forged with dozens of countries to stop suspect ships on the high seas).
It is noteworthy that, while John Kerry has denounced the Bolton appointment, some other Democratic senators like Minority Leader Harry Reid and Joseph Biden have so far been more measured. Even more interesting, however, has been the reaction of some of the U.N.’s most prominent champions. A spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Annan is quoted as saying that Annan had “nothing against people who hold us accountable,” and that the latter was “looking forward to working with Mr. Bolton.”
Former Democratic senator and United Nations official Tim Wirth, currently the president of the UN Foundation, a Ted Turner-supported advocacy group, issued a release yesterday saying: “In the past, Mr. Bolton has been tough on the UN; we hope that if he is confirmed by the Senate, he will be an advocate for improving the vital U.S.-UN relationship, and for helping the UN to achieve its many complex missions, ranging from global health to advancing democracy, strengthening human rights and forging stronger global environmental standards, caring for refugees and feeding millions of disaster-stricken people. The UN needs the support of the U.S. both to sustain its mission, and to reform itself for the demands of the 21st century.”
In short, it would appear that the U.N.’s admirers recognize not only that George W. Bush is determined to shake things up on the East River, but that such a shakeup is in order. The savvier of them may also appreciate that John Bolton is uniquely capable of persuading the Republican majority in Congress that such an effort is worth making–and that it has a reasonable chance of rebuilding the United Nations into an institution worthy of further, generous American support and involvement. The price may be a sustained dose of tough love, but it is one that must be paid.