It has taken me a while to digest the fact that President Bush really did use a recess appointment to put John Bolton in the position of US ambassador to the United Nations.
I don’t know Mr. Bolton. I do know that the internal politics of the State Department are nasty and the fact that there are lots of people who don’t like him there or in Washington more generally is nothing like a disqualification for the job.
I get the sense (who couldn’t?) that he is an outspoken, opinionated, occasionally un-diplomatic guy who speaks his mind plainly when many people in DC will hem and haw, qualify and load everything they say with contingencies and deniability. I actually like his comment that, roughly, you could lop a few stories off the top of the UN building and no one would know the difference. I think he’s right about that. Although he’d be just as right if he were to say it about most very large organizations, including every government and university I’m familiar with.
The issue is NOT about reforming the UN. Everybody, including the UN secretariat, agrees that it is an inefficient, sometimes corrupt, often ineffectual, and expensive mess. Sure, let’s lop off those floors. The issue is what do you do after you are done with that. What do you replace it with? What positive agenda do you put in place? No reformist CEO taking over the reigns of a badly managed corporation will survive for long with only a cost-cutting agenda. Organizational hygiene is all for the good, but it’s the beginning not the end of the story.
And what does John Bolton signify about that stage of reform, which is the important one? I could use more colorful language, but I think the appointment signifies that the US couldn’t possibly care less. And this is a strange time to send that signal. The Bush administration is saying, on the one hand, that it wants to repair its relationships with traditional allies. Remember Secretary Rice’s recent trip to Europe? And then, we do this to the UN. In your face, so to speak.
The message is clear, I think. Yes, the US wants to fix its relationships with the rest of the world, but it wants to do that on a bilateral basis without any intermediation from international organizations.
I am not a fan of international organizations for the sake of vague promises like ‘global governance’ or stuff like that. In fact, I wrote a piece in ETHICS AND INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS a couple of years ago arguing that the current generation of international organizations is obsolete. Global systems (economic and political) do not, on the face of them, require global governance as a matter of logic. We know some things about distributed governance mechanisms in other parts of life. So the point is not to save the UN for the sake of the UN.
The point is that weaker countries gain benefits from these organizations, benefits that they cannot gain when they are forced into a bilateral bargaining relationship with the US. And the ability to offer those benefits is a very useful thing for US foreign policy makers to have.
In other words, international organizations, and particularly the contingent promise of membership in a club that brings significant benefits to its members, are important assets that the US can use to influence the behavior of other states. But we’ve let those assets deteriorate, sometimes through benign neglect and at other times through conscious, even aggressive choice.
There is a broader issue of foreign policy strategy at stake. While the United States has dramatically enhanced its deployment of ‘sticks’ in the post-9/11 world, it has been less imaginative and successful in its use of ‘carrots’. Even an extraordinarily powerful country needs both as tools of foreign policy if it is going to get what it wants. It is certain that enhancing the capability and credibility of military force is important to US influence abroad. It is just as certain that America’s ability to offer to other states things that they say they want and need can be influential as well
It is important to be clear that carrots are not some fuzzy manifestation of ‘soft power’. They are not designed to make people feel good about the United States or want for some vague reasons to do what we wish. Carrots are concrete, material incentives that offer the promise of benefits to states that change their behavior in directions we desire. To promise an upside benefit to an adversary may require different diplomatic moves than to threaten a downside risk, but the diplomacy is just as real and can in many instances be just as effective. Surely the combination of carrots and sticks is a more potent source of influence than either alone. But we’ve let our stock of carrots deteriorate while we’ve been overly focused on sharpening our sticks.
And with the appointment of John Bolton, we might as well just go ahead and drink the carrot juice, because we just ground up another carrot that would have been more valuable to have, in order to give to someone who really wanted it.