Tuesday, March 08, 2005

John Bolton's nomination as UN ambassador

I applaud the Bush administration's decision to do the hard thing and put forward John Bolton as US ambassador to the United Nations. It would have been only too easy for the administration to choose some worthy, sound and ultimately irrelevant person for the post. Whereas the UN is in need of deep review and reform, ultimately downsizing its aspirations in the search for missions that it can carry out efficiently and well, within the limits of its legitimacy. Bolton, it seems to me, is exactly the person for the task of carrying this message to a UN bureaucracy that it both deeply anti-American while being deeply reactionary - reactionary, paradoxically, in its attachment to a vision of the UN that is inconsistent with its moral and political reality.

What is that vision? It is the vision of a sapling growing ultimately to be a towering tree of global governance; for the sake of the tree to come, we have to forgive any difficulties with the sapling. But this vision is morally dead, for a simple reason. The moral limits of the UN are the moral limits of an institution that deliberately withholds moral judgment on its members - the good are treated equally with the wicked, the democracies with the dictatorships, it's all the same thing. There are reasons why the world needs a forum that adopts this moral equivalence - but those reasons are entirely matters of prudence and pragmatism, a talking shop for the sake of a certain level of world order. But that means that the UN can never rise above a certain moral status - and, as expected, it has not. Much better if the US pushes a vision of the UN as institutionally good and efficient at certain narrowly defined tasks, and a place to discuss issues between sovereigns, but nothing more expansive than that. And within the UN and its sovereign members, a willingness always to be clear about who is democratic and who is not, who is a dictatorship and who is not, and the willingness to be frank about that as a condition of speaking with bad guys. If Bolton is able to push a vision of the UN as a limited institution - not a sapling growing into a big, overarching global governance tree, but instead as a set of low shrubs and hedgerows, for certain narrow tasks, then we will all be better off.

It is easy to imagine Bolton - a man who seems to be the anti-diplomat, a man unable, when he speaks, to do other than speak his mind, directly and without obfuscation - placed by the administration as UN ambassador in order simply to obstruct and block - threats to US sovereignty, the International Criminal Court, the Security Council and the use of force, and so on. I myself believe that the administration and Bolton have a much more ambitious agenda, one that is fundamentally about reform of a corrupt and misconceived institution - I believe Bolton has a firm positive agenda, one that starts with rescuing the UN by, in the first place, being willing to curtail its grandiose visions of everything. In that respect, the senior functionaries of the General Secretariat ought to be flattered that the administration would appoint someone who takes them seriously enough to tell them to rethink themselves, rather than a sort of Clinton-style "share your pain" type who says soothing things while the administration acts differently. The Bush administration had enough respect for the UN to say, we're taking you seriously - but that means reform and that means downsizing your sense of yourselves.

2 comments:

Anthony said...

I fundamentally disagree with your key point (I think John Bolton is a startlingly bad choice). Great stuff on the nature of the UN though.

J. said...

So after we deliver a shrubbery to the man who says "Nie," what happens when he asks for another shrubbery?

Bolton doesn't want to reform the UN, he's there to bash it and enjoy the misery he can cause. Bad form. And to listen to Condi say what a swell guy he is just makes me want to puke.