April 29, 2005

John Bolton, Anti-Bully

Suzanne Nossel has some great posts on UN reform and John Bolton. I think it's time to lay out the hard-headed Republican case against Bolton, or better yet, what we can call the "Norm Coleman" case, even though Norm Coleman doesn't think this way. But he should.

The other day Dan Bartlett told reporters, "A vote for John Bolton will be a vote for change at the United Nations." That's plainly ludicrous; just ask, what sort of change? John Bolton has absolutely no ideas at this score, and neither do his backers. For all the screaming and table-pounding over the very serious flaws and abuses at the UN—from its ass-backwards Commission on Human Rights to raping children in the Congo—not one prominent conservative has put forward any actual ideas for shaking up the UN. Instead they send Bolton. Dumb, dumb, dumb. Look, folks, I hate baseball—hate it, think it's a stupid sport with faux athletes who go on the IR for minor scratches, and it has silly rules. I had to pretend to like it for two years while dating my last girlfriend; basically, it pisses me off. Nevertheless, no sensible person would appoint me MLB Commissioner to enact "reform." I may know what I loathe about the game, but I wouldn't have the first goddamn clue about how to make it better. So it goes with Bolton and UN.

Now when Republicans like Norm Coleman talk about "reforming" the UN, I suspect that what they really want is to reduce the UN into nothing more than an instrument for legitimizing U.S. policy. (All this talk about Oil-for-Food is, I think, a red herring.) In other words, giving American unilateralism the blessed shroud of international approval. Fair enough; that's certainly not what I think the UN is merely for, but if you truly believe American hard power is the primary force for good in the world, and one of our main weaknesses is obstructionism by a slew of other ragtag countries around the globe, then this is a reasonable (if wrong-headed) view. In that case, however, I think Suzanne showed, in her essay "Retail Diplomacy," that the U.S. really can coerce other countries into following its unilateral lead, but it takes just a little patience, effort, and ego-stroking. The whole essay is marvelous, but take a look at this section on how we could be using a bit of bilateral strong-arming to further our multilateral goals:
In A Dangerous Place, an account of his experience as U.S. Ambassador to the UN in the mid-1970s, Daniel Patrick Moynihan suggested that the United States use its bilateral ties to advance multilateral priorities. Absent other compelling bilateral goals, Moynihan argued, the U.S. Ambassador to Togo, for example, should make it his or her number one objective to secure that country's backing on key matters in the UN and other forums. By mobilizing support in this way, he suggested, the United States might have headed off the “Zionism Is Racism” resolution that sent U.S.-UN relations into a decades-long downward spiral.

Unfortunately, Moynihan's proposal went nowhere. Multilateral issues remain a sidebar at best to bilateral relationships. Ambassadors have no incentive to push remote and contentious multilateral issues that have little direct bearing on their day-to-day jobs. …Though the United States has unparalleled capacity to wage effective campaigns on the global stage via its network of diplomats, this machinery rarely kicks into gear….

During the UN dues negotiations, the U.S. delegation repeatedly learned after the fact of loans, debt forgiveness and other concessions made to countries that actively opposed the reform process. At the end of a long and contentious meeting with the Singaporean delegation, one of their diplomats pulled from his briefcase a press report announcing a U.S.-Singapore free trade agreement. “This is what matters”, he said, dismissing the importance of the dues issue while stead-fastly maintaining his country's refusal to pay more. Without a ledger, Singapore's recalcitrance at the UN had no impact on their favorable treatment at the hands of the U.S. Trade Representative. Had the matters simply been raised together, the free trade cooperation would have provided leverage on the dues issue even without an explicit quid pro quo. Allies and enemies alike know that the United States does not keep track of its bilateral relationships in this way, however, and thus rest assured that opposing the United States in multilateral forums will rarely trigger repercussions in the bilateral relationship.
Notice that what Moynihan's proposing is basically an advanced form of bullying. But it's bullying all the same. The United States doesn't give up anything, nor is it fundamentally constrained by, for instance, having our Singapore ambassador say to his counterpart, "Nice free trade deal you want there. Be a real shame if anything happened to it. Oh hey, by the way, let's talk about UN dues." This is the Norm Coleman dream, is it not?

But it's clear that John Bolton has neither the patience nor the temperament nor the people skills to conduct this sort of smooth diplomatic arm-cranking. It's not just because he's opposed to multilateralism and diplomacy; it's more because he's ill-mannered and lazy. Indeed, the White House has always been appallingly lazy on this front. The hawk party likes to bitch about how Turkey's opposition to the war in Iraq may have cost us the peace, since we never had Marine divisions sweep in through the north and pacify the Sunni cities in al-Anbar. Fine, but note that we "lost" Turkey mainly through sheer laziness and ineptitude. As Glenn Kessler and Mike Allen have reported, during the run-up to the first Gulf War Sec. State James Baker made five personal visits to Turkey, and George H.W. Bush called Turkey's leader 55 to 60 times. By contrast, in 2003 Colin Powell didn't visit Ankara once, and Bush the younger made all of three calls to Erdogan. Not surprisingly, we lost Turkey.

So yes, the bottom line: John Bolton will hurt America's ability to be a global bully. In other words, he likely won't even be good at the one thing he's supposed to be good at.
-- Brad Plumer 3:44 AM || ||