Can John Bolton Save the United Nations?

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 most extreme ideological impulses, the organization is anything but “the last great hope of mankind.” If anyone can push it toward real reform, it is John Bolton. Bolton, nominated by President George W. Bush to be America’s ambassador to the world body, is perfectly qualified for the job. He served as Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations in the first Bush administration and as Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security since 2001. He has written knowingly (and scathingly) about its failings. Further, Bolton is more concerned about protecting American security and prosperity than undertaking abstract global crusades. Finally, Bolton is famously blunt-spoken. A decade ago he declared: “If the UN secretary building in New York lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a difference.” He was right. It wouldn’t. Denying the obvious can’t hide the organization’s failings. After all, it was Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali who, when asked how many people worked at the United Nations, quipped: “about half of them.” The challenge for the UN’s supporters is to change the organization so that someone would notice if it lost 10 stories. John Bolton can help. 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. Bolton acknowledged, “The United Nations was an admirable concept when conceived” and “is worth keeping alive for future service.” But, he added, “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.” We must start by recognizing what the United Nations has become. “During the 1960s and 1970s anti-Western and anti-American UN General Assembly majorities regularly and enthusiastically trashed our values,” he wrote. Washington eventually responded, rejecting the Law of the Sea Treaty, withdrawing from UNESCO, and cutting UN funding. Fighting back “laid the groundwork for rare opportunities to use the Security Council constructively.” Examples included modest peacekeeping missions and the UN’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 United Nations could serve a useful role as an instrument of U.S. policy. When the United States led, the United Nations 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. Moreover, noted Bolton, the Clinton administration was “unsuccessful in restraining waste, fraud and abuse throughout the UN system.” The organization was unwilling to act so long as the wealthy industrialized nations continued footing the bill. What to do? First, the United Nations 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 UN ‘peace enforcement,’ ‘nation building’, and ‘enlargement’,” he argued. Second, the UN Security Council should not be “reformed,” as Secretary General Kofi Annan recently proposed. Bolton opined: such efforts “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 UN’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.” Then governments could hold the United Nations accountable for any misbehavior. What sensible America could disagree with these proposals? Some idealists long have believed the United Nations to be the remedy for original sin. Create a strong world government and humanity’s ills will disappear. Bolton, too, is an idealist, but one with common sense. “Above all, let us be realistic about the United Nations,” he wrote. “The United Nations 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 United Nations 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 United Nations.