Politics & Policy

A Nobel for Good Intentions

The OPCW did little to merit the Peace Prize.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is an inconspicuous little body established to help verify implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Although not part of the United Nations, it functions much as U.N. specialized agencies do, right down to its system of assessed contributions, under which the United States annually pays the largest budget share. The OPCW has 190 members now that Syria has graced it with its presence, almost the same as the U.N. itself.

Being nearly identical to U.N. agencies lies right at the heart of why the OPCW appealed to the Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize Committee. Over the years, the Peace Prize has gone to the International Atomic Energy Agency and its director general (2005), the United Nations and its secretary general (2001), U.N. peacekeeping forces (1988), the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (1981), and the International Labor Organization (1969), among others. Some of these awards were well deserved, some were intended as slaps at the United States, and some were merely fatuous. Jay Nordlinger’s lucid study, Peace, They Say, definitively examines Peace Prize foibles, including the quirky tilt toward international bodies.

The Norwegian politicians composing the Peace Prize committee are fascinated by international organizations, believing in a stolid, burgherish way that having more global bureaucracies enhances the prospects for peace. This depressing and completely erroneous vision does not comprehend the defects of multilateral organizations, or why those defects are inherent in their creation and structure. When they go awry, their actions do not constitute a “problem” to be solved, or a temporary aberration, or a bad day at the office, but merely the natural outcome.

Their principal dysfunction resides in the very DNA of the OPCW and U.N. bodies, which see member states as fungible, one being pretty much like another. Article 2 of the U.N. Charter embodies this notion: “The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members.” And while, abstractly, “sovereign equality” may sound unexceptional, it amounts in practice to moral equivalency for rogue states and substantial voting majorities against most American positions. Fixing the problem would require very different kinds of organization — non-bureaucratic, non-parliamentary, and much less structured.

This alternative paradigm exists in the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), established under George W. Bush to prevent illicit trafficking in weapons of mass destruction, now with over a hundred adherents. The PSI and the OPCW are two entirely different animals, and the PSI is never likely to win a Nobel. (Of course, most PSI-style activities are classified, which, with luck, means they rarely become public.)

Not that media coverage reveals it, but the OPCW actually has a minimal role in implementing the CWC. National governments are responsible for declaring the extent of their chemical-weapons programs and then destroying them consistently with the CWC. The OPCW monitors and purportedly verifies this work, but as an observer, not an actor.

Even as an observer, the OPCW has been far from successful. Russia has violated the CWC from the outset: filing an incomplete, inaccurate baseline declaration; developing new generations of chemical weapons; and assisting rogue states such as Syria and Iran in establishing their own programs. Both Moscow and Washington are behind schedule in destroying their chemical-weapons stockpiles, demonstrating both the complexity and the danger of handling these deadly substances and, in Russia’s case, studied obstructionism.

Components of chemical (and biological) weapons have an almost inherently dual-use character, making them easy to camouflage. None of this bodes well for OPCW success in Syria, a Russian (and Iranian) client state. It exemplifies the inherent implausibility of an OPCW Nobel Peace Prize even under the loosest “aspirational” criteria, i.e., those used to justify Barack Obama’s 2009 award. (By contrast, key elements of nuclear-weapons programs have no dual-use applications; if uncovered, they are very difficult to explain, as Iran and North Korea repeatedly demonstrate.)

More broadly, international organizations — both their member states and their bureaucracies — tend to forget their original objectives too soon and too often, losing themselves among political and institutional imperatives only remotely related to those initial purposes. In this sense, not surprisingly, they mirror national governments, whose operations public-choice economists have illuminated, freeing us from the naïve early-20th-century belief that governments serve the public interest better than private entities do.

The same is true in international bodies: Rent-seeking dominates, as governments promote their citizens for particular jobs, seek memberships on desirable governing bodies, and tap into “technical assistance” programs (sometimes candidly referred to as “spigots”). Governments are problematic enough, but organizations composed entirely of governments embody geometric progressions of those problems.

Moreover, the organizations’ secretariats, while often composed of dedicated professionals, too frequently step out from their proper roles as agents of the member governments. National bureaucracies have an analogous tendency to ignore their elected political masters. Rewarding such tendencies with the Nobel Peace Prize is perplexing at best.

The way José Bustani, the OPCW’s first director general, was fired in 2002 demonstrates the bureaucratic problem. An overwhelming majority of the countries for which the CWC really mattered (as opposed to those that simply join virtually every multilateral agreement, pay insignificant financial assessments, and engage assiduously in rent-seeking) saw Bustani as harming the OPCW. A senior Brazilian foreign-service officer, he was a poor manager: unfocused in his priorities, heedless of budget constraints, and enchanted with the perquisites of office and the pursuit of self-serving publicity.

Bustani’s incompetence was compounded for the new Bush administration by his unopposed reelection in May 2000, a year before his initial term actually expired. When I asked State Department careerists, who had informed me of Bustani’s unacceptable managerial performance, why they had allowed an early, uncontested reelection, they said no one had wanted to take the political risk of challenging Bustani and losing. Indeed, some State careerists worried about even expressing displeasure with Bustani’s performance (except by wringing their hands), let alone launching a campaign to remove him from office. Thus the State Department, along with most other important OPCW members (notably excepting Japan and Germany), was willing to fill the role of the Titanic’s band, playing stoically as the OPCW sank beneath the waves.

My view was different. If the organization was worth creating, which the United States had presumably decided by ratifying the CWC, it was worth saving, if necessary by ousting Bustani if he would not leave voluntarily. This he refused to do, and the United States thereupon led the coalition that fired him at a special conference of CWC state parties in April 2002. (For those interested, I describe our campaign in Surrender Is Not an Option.) Bustani was succeeded by an Argentinian, there being no anti–Latin American bias at work despite Bustani’s effort to turn the controversy into a Third World–versus–America fight.)

The real question is why this agony was even necessary. While the OPCW has run quietly since 2002, that tells us nothing about its capabilities under fire, literally, in Syria, and certainly does not justify the Nobel Peace Prize. There is simply no basis for the Norwegian committee’s decision, and why the committee members believe that such inexplicable awards enhance the prestige of either the recipient or the Peace Prize itself is unfathomable. If its institutional experience so far is any indication, the OPCW will be yet another Nobel winner later forgotten by history, which judges much more stringently than the Norwegians who annually decide who wins the prize money.

— John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. He is the author of Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad.

John R. Bolton, who served as national-security adviser to President Trump and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is the author of The Room Where It Happened.


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