The United Nations is a mess. Often corrupt and venal, always inefficient and wasteful, frequently captured by the worst political interests, and commonly motivated by the worst ideological impulses, the organization is anything but “the last great hope of mankind.” If anyone can push it towards real reform, it is a serious critic, like John Bolton.
Bolton, nominated by President George W. Bush to be the U.S. ambassador to the world body, is perfectly qualified for the job. He knows multilateral diplomacy, having served as assistant secretary of State for international organizations in the first Bush administration and as undersecretary of State for arms control and international security since 2001.
He understands the U.N., having written knowingly (and scathingly) about its failings. Further, Bolton is more concerned about protecting American security and prosperity than undertaking abstract global crusades.
Perhaps most important, Bolton is famously blunt-spoken. A decade ago he declared: “If the UN secretary building in New York lost ten stories, it wouldn’t make a difference.”
He’s right. It wouldn’t.
Those who believe in the U.N. should not attempt to deny the organization’s obvious failings. After all, it was the body’s own secretary general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who, when asked how many people worked at the U.N., quipped: “about half of them.” The challenge for the U.N.’s supporters is to change the organization so that someone would notice if it lost ten stories.
For that they need the help of a John Bolton.
In 1997 he contributed a chapter (along with one by yours truly) to a Cato Institute book on the United Nations, Delusions of Grandeur: The United Nations and Global Intervention. Although a gaggle of retired diplomats have joined together to express their horror at his nomination, Bolton was surprisingly measured in his conclusion. He did not call for closing the U.N. offices, dismantling the building, and deporting the diplomats. Rather, he acknowledged, “The UN was an admirable concept when conceived” and “is worth keeping alive for future service.” But “it is not worth the sacrifice of American troops, American freedom of action, or American national interests. The real question for the future is whether we will know how to keep our priorities straight.”
Which Bolton is determined to help us do.
We must start by recognizing what the U.N. has become. “During the 1960s and 1970s anti-Western and anti-American U.N. General Assembly majorities regularly and enthusiastically trashed our values,” he wrote. Although the Carter administration seemed untroubled by these events, President Ronald Reagan and Reagan-era Congress responded forcefully, rejecting the Law of the Sea Treaty, withdrawing from UNESCO, and cutting U.N. funding.
This willingness to fight back had an effect. Observed Bolton: “President Reagan’s policy laid the groundwork for rare opportunities to use the Security Council constructively.” Examples included modest peacekeeping missions and the U.N.’s imprimatur for American action in Gulf War I.
For Bolton, “the lesson was plain. When there was a vital U.S. interest at stake, the UN could serve a useful role as an instrument of U.S. policy. When the United States led, the UN could work.”
Nevertheless, it wasn’t easy. And it wasn’t sustained after the Clinton administration decided “to engage in international social work and ivory-tower chattering.”
The disastrous effort at nation-building in Somalia was one consequence. Foolishly torpedoing the Vance-Owen peace plan, which would have ended the Yugoslavian civil war much earlier, thereby saving tens of thousands of lives, was another tragic result.
Moreover, noted Bolton, the Clinton administration was “as unsuccessful in restraining waste, fraud, and abuse throughout the U.N. system as it has been in restraining domestic federal spending.” The U.N. was unwilling to act so long as the wealthy industrialized nations continued footing the bill. The scandals continue to this day.
What to do? That the U.N. never seems to improve is obvious from the fact that Bolton’s recommendations remain equally valid today, nearly a decade later.
First, the U.N. should concentrate on humanitarian relief and traditional peacekeeping. “What should be relegated to history’s junk pile at the first opportunity, however, are the chimerical Clinton notions of U.N. ‘peace enforcement,’ ‘nation building’, and ‘enlargement’,” he argued.
Second, the U.N. Security Council should not be “reformed,” as Secretary General Kofi Annan recently proposed. Bolton opined: “The desire to remold the Security Council now to conform to theoretical models of contemporary global politics should not obscure our present ability to make the council function effectively, at least in certain circumstances.”
Finally, he pressed for real “management and financial reform.” That requires changing the U.N.’s finances–but not by giving the international body its own tax source, as proposed by some.
Rather, Bolton suggested, we should “eliminate assessments altogether, moving toward a UN system that is funded entirely by purely voluntary contributions from the member governments.” Then governments could quickly hold the U.N. accountable for any misbehavior.
What sensible America could disagree with these proposals?
Some idealists long have believed the U.N. to be the remedy for original sin. Just create a strong world government and humanity’s ills will disappear.
Bolton, too, is an idealist, but he tempers his beliefs with common sense. “Above all, let us be realistic about the United Nations,” he wrote.
“The UN should be used when and where we choose to use it to advance American national interests, not to validate academic theories and abstract models. But the UN is only a tool, not a theology. It is one of several options we have, and it is certainly not invariably the most important one.”
Americans will be able to sleep more soundly after the Senate confirms John Bolton as their representative to the U.N.