Defending Bolton

For the record, let me begin by repeating a few quotes from John Bolton, newly nominated as ambassador to the United Nations, just so that no one can accuse me of naivete. He has said,

“The Secretariat building in New York has 38 stories. If it lost ten stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.” He has said that “wishful thinking about the United Nations . . . ran into a wall of reality in Kosovo.” He has been skeptical of U.N. peacekeeping operations, skeptical of the U.S. obligation to pay its U.N. dues, skeptical of just about everything, really, to do with the United Nations.

All of which makes him an ideal candidate to be America’s U.N. ambassador. Bolton — whom I’ve met but don’t know well — is blunt, which is an advantage in an institution where words are more often used to disguise meanings than to elucidate. He is unafraid of being disliked, which will be an advantage in a place where everyone will dislike him. In the past he has been unafraid of arguing his points, even in Europe, where they are deeply unpopular. Most of all, though, Bolton, who has been writing about the United Nations for decades, is one of the few people in public life willing to draw the distinction between what the United Nations actually is and what everybody would like it to be.

The United Nations is not a popularly elected world government; it isn’t even a collection of well-meaning people who just want peace. It is a group of different agencies with different agendas, some of which are relatively effective and some of which are ineffective or even dangerous. The United Nations provides the relief workers who are coordinating international aid for tsunami victims, and people delivering aid and democracy assistance in Afghanistan. The U.N. umbrella includes critical agencies such as the World Health Organization, whose work to prevent another flu pandemic could save millions of lives.

Yet the United Nations also contains such institutions as its Commission on Human Rights, recently chaired by Libya, that noted bastion of human rights. No annual meeting of the commission is complete without ritual condemnations of the United States and Israel, and strenuous diplomatic efforts to prevent any condemnations of China or Sudan. Last year’s meeting also featured a brawl, started when a Cuban delegate attacked his American counterpart.

Infamously, the United Nations has lately been implicated in a vast and tangled scandal, the oil-for-food scam. It was not the only culprit — dozens of governments, including ours, knew of, or even cooperated with, smuggling in Iraq — but unfortunately this corruption is part of a larger pattern. Financial scandals plagued U.N. operations in Cambodia. Trafficking scandals plagued U.N. operations in Kosovo. What the world body spends on pointless conferences and unnecessary publications would feed many, many children in Africa.

But if the United Nations isn’t good in and of itself, neither is it evil. It is only as good or bad as its employees, all political appointees whose activities are, by ordinary government or business standards, subjected to shockingly little oversight. Unlike, say, the U.S. civil service, or the Japanese bureaucracy, the U.N. bureaucracy is not beholden to a democratic government or even a sovereign government. There is no electorate that can toss the Libyans out of the human rights commissioner’s chair, no judicial system that can try corrupt officials. As I understand Bolton’s critique of the United Nations and other international institutions (when he isn’t being Rumsfeldesque in his turn of phrase) it is precisely this that concerns him: Indeed, he has spoken and written for many years on the threats to America’s sovereignty — and everyone else’s sovereignty — from international institutions that owe nobody any allegiance, are subject to no independent review and have no democratic legitimacy of their own.

The trouble with many U.N. defenders is that they refuse to see this fundamental problem, and demand a constantly expanding role for the United Nations without explaining how its lack of democratic accountability is to be addressed. The trouble with many U.N. detractors, in Congress and elsewhere, is that they see the corruption and nothing else. But there is a role for U.N. institutions — in Afghanistan, or in international health — as long as that role is limited in time and cost. And there is a desperate need for U.N. reform. In defense of John Bolton: He may, if he can get confirmed, be one of the few U.N. ambassadors who has thought a good deal about how to set such limits and make such reforms. And if he isn’t invited to a few cocktail parties along the way, at least he won’t mind.

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