John Bolton: the struggle to be outraged
In advance of this week’s big U.N. doings, former U.S. ambassador John Bolton is out with a survey of the Obama administration’s record at the world organization. After cataloguing what he deems to be the wreckage that Obama has already left in his wake, Bolton concludes thusly: Perhaps the most surprising conclusion about Obama’s U.N. ...
In advance of this week's big U.N. doings, former U.S. ambassador John Bolton is out with a survey of the Obama administration's record at the world organization. After cataloguing what he deems to be the wreckage that Obama has already left in his wake, Bolton concludes thusly:
In advance of this week’s big U.N. doings, former U.S. ambassador John Bolton is out with a survey of the Obama administration’s record at the world organization. After cataloguing what he deems to be the wreckage that Obama has already left in his wake, Bolton concludes thusly:
Perhaps the most surprising conclusion about Obama’s U.N. record is how anemic it is. On the other hand, this is consistent with his minimal overall involvement in foreign and national-security policy, except when circumstances such as Iraq and Afghanistan present him with no seemly alternative other than to engage. Whether this pattern of near disdain for foreign affairs continues could largely depend on the outcome of November’s elections. If Republicans prosper, Obama’s domestic agenda will suffer considerably, at least where new legislation is required. As with many earlier presidents, gridlock at home may motivate him to concentrate on international matters, where he is far less constrained by opposition in Congress. Then, perhaps, we may well see the full-throated U.N. support so many of Obama’s top aides advocate, and that our first post-American president still longs for.
One can almost detect in Bolton a hint of disappointment that Obama has not turned out to be the starry-eyed multilateralist that conservatives warned he would be. As Bolton himself points out, on Iran and North Korea, the Obama administration’s use of the U.N. has been quite consistent with that of the Bush administration. "In the crunch cases," he writes, "the Security Council gets no more love from him than it did from Bush’s unilateralist cowboys."
Unable to demonstrate convincingly that Obama has given Moscow and Beijing control over U.S. national security, Bolton turns to the murky world of U.N. human rights monitoring and treaty processes for evidence that the Obama team is ready to sacrifice the national interest on the altar of multilateralism. The evidence here is fairly thin. Bolton demonstrates that having a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council has not allowed the United States to tame that body’s obsessive focus on Israel or its tendency to downplay the sins of its own members and their friends. He slaps the Obama team on the wrist for even being willing to consider such monstrosities as the UN Convention on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. He complains that the U.S. has moved incrementally closer to the International Criminal Court (although he acknowledges that there’s no prospect of the U.S. actually joining the court).
He chides Obama for paying American U.N. arrears without getting anything in return. "All of that leverage is now gone," Bolton complains. But he seems not to recognize that this leverage is infinitely renewable, so long as the U.N. sticks to an annual dues system.
In all, it’s very hard to show that the Obama administration has in any way compromised U.S. interests through this activity. And Bolton doesn’t even consider an alternative interpretation: that the Obama team is perfectly willing to reap the benefits of a less prickly approach at the U.N. but also fully capable of drawing lines; that the Obama team knows certain treaty processes won’t go anywhere but doesn’t mind getting credit for sitting at the table to discuss them; that the administration, in short, might be a bit calculating and even cynical in its approach to the world body.
None of this fits with the narrative. And so Bolton is left to imagine, quite fantastically, that once Obama’s domestic agenda is constrained by a more conservative Congress, he will turn his starry eyes to the U.N. and unleash the full horror of unchecked multilateralism.
David Bosco is a professor at Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies. He is the author of The Poseidon Project: The Struggle to Govern the World’s Oceans. Twitter: @multilateralist
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