Saturday, September 17, 2005

John Bolton on UN reform - WSJ interview

This article from the WSJ, Saturday, September 17, 2005, by Bret Stephens, summarizes a September 6 interview with John Bolton.

Perhaps most interesting with respect to the UN reform final Outcome Document is how Bolton describes how and why he issued the hundreds of supposedly last minute changes. As he says, American diplomats had been feeding these changes into the "facilitator process" only to have them disappear without reaction. The process was fundamentally aimed at facilitating what Annan had in mind in the first place with a veneer of negotiation and discussion. Bolton broke open American disagreement by sending a "Dear Colleague" letter to all the UN ambassadors from all countries, explaining the American positions accompanied by American proposals - in effect he forced through not the American position as such, but instead forced the opaque, backroom process actually to negotiate - which was what senior UN people had been seeking to avoid all along.

For that, Bolton has caught no end of grief from bien pensant opinion, in the US and abroad.


So what does Mr. Bolton intend to do about the bureaucracy? He wants to rationalize the way it works, eliminate duplication, insist on better oversight, apply some American muscle to make that happen: "We can't be shy when we're giving 22% of the base budget of the United Nations from making clear we have strong feelings about this."

His other way of dealing with the bureaucracy is to talk right past it. Prior to his arrival in New York on Aug. 1, the U.S. had been struggling to make its views known on the so-called Outcome Document--a statement of U.N. goals, methods and principles envisioned as a kind of new U.N. charter. The U.N. had arranged an opaque "facilitation" process to get just the document it wanted.

"We had been consistently making very detailed comments to the facilitators," explains Mr. Bolton, waving a marked-up document predating his arrival. "The problem was the facilitators were not taking our changes. So what I did was write a 'Dear Colleague' letter to all 190 missions. I laid out our general principles, took them through the changes we were proposing, and then showed them the kind of line-by-line changes we were going to make."

All in all, Mr. Bolton's changes numbered in the hundreds. "That's what diplomats do," he says. "When you have disagreements you sit down and negotiate. That's not what we were doing in the facilitator process."

This brings Mr. Bolton to his second front in the struggle for U.N. reform. "A lot of what we have in mind when we talk about U.N. reform is not just better management practices; we're also talking about the conduct of member governments. . . . The U.N. is an international organization and its member governments need to hold the Secretariat accountable."

There are two difficulties here, however. First, member governments have shown little or no interest in a well-functioning U.N. bureaucracy--and not a little interest in one that remains dysfunctional and corrupt. Indeed, the main reason the Oil for Food scam grew so vast and lucrative is that countries such as China, France and Russia tacitly conspired with U.N. bureaucrats to turn a blind eye to Saddam Hussein's abuses and avail themselves of his favors.
The second difficulty is ideological. Throughout our interview, Mr. Bolton speaks repeatedly of "old thinking," "age-old controversies" and "decades-old concepts." One such concept is the U.N.'s goal of getting rich countries to spend 0.7% of their GDP on official development assistance. "The levels of ODA assistance don't necessarily tell you anything about the effectiveness of the development policies of the recipient country," he says. "The main thing they need is sound economic policy domestically, not hostile to foreign investment, open to foreign trade and open to international markets."

Mr. Bolton's logic is compelling, especially given how much of past Western largesse to the Third World ended up in numbered Geneva bank accounts. But there's a hiccup: The rest of the world is besotted by 0.7%. The nonaligned movement insists on 0.7% as the price of agreeing to "reform," for reasons that are well-comprehended. The Europeans also like it, in part because some of the smaller countries actually approach the target, in part because it is a handy way of scoring the U.S. (ODA: 0.16%) for its alleged stinginess. Mr. Bolton says it's "fantasy" to think countries are going to agree to what they do not agree with, as the U.S. does not agree with 0.7%. Yet when a fantasy takes place in fantasyland--that is, when the U.N. talks about 0.7%--it acquires a kind of plausibility and even the force of necessity, like a magic broom in a Harry Potter novel.

In other words, it remains to be seen whether it isn't Mr. Bolton who turns out to be the fantasy here, while the U.N. perdures as it has for 60 years and through countless "reform" bids. That's certainly one conclusion to draw from the results of this week's U.N. summit. The Outcome Document to which the administration eventually acquiesced crosses no American red lines: "The main thing about this document is that it's not as bad as it could have been," says a senior administration official. But it's easy to imagine Mr. Bolton gagging over much of it. On management reform, for instance, the document "commends the Secretary General's previous and ongoing efforts to enhance the effective management of the United Nations." Apparently, the Volcker report has already been forgotten.

In our interview, Mr. Bolton insists that the current document is just the beginning: "Reform is not a one-night stand," he says. "Reform is forever." It's a good line, and there can be no doubt that while John Bolton remains U.S. ambassador--he has 17 months to go--he'll continue to roll the reform rock up the U.N. mountain. There's a myth about that. It inspires admiration for the hero. It does not inspire hopefulness about the outcome.

John Bolton is Sisyphus in the Twilight Zone.

(Mr. Stephens is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board.)

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