Bolton’s undiplomatic unilateralism

As a diplomatic rule of thumb, I tend to think it’s a good idea for presidents to appoint ambassadors who don’t despise the foreign country to which they are sent. It would be a generally lousy idea, for instance, to send a raging anti-Semite to our embassy in Israel, a zealous China-phobe to Beijing or a lover of freedom fries to France.

Anyone who attended this week’s Yale Political Union meeting can affirm, however, that President Bush appears to disagree. For the man who addressed a packed crowd of Yalies on Monday night, Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, was overtly, blatantly and shamelessly scornful of the organization to which he purports to be the United States’ diplomat.

To be clear: there was much to appreciate about Bolton’s visit to campus. Many high-level Republican officials tend to be suspicious of large Ivy League gatherings — fearing pointed questions and protests from some (relatively) sharp liberals, they prefer quiet master’s teas and seminars to packed public addresses, if they dare to visit at all. Not Bolton. To his credit, the ambassador not only addressed some 500 students, but spoke on a controversial topic, and answered many feisty questions from the audience directly and forthrightly.

Maybe a bit too directly, in fact. For although we all admired Bolton’s candor and his willingness to engage mere non-ambassadors in debate, the throngs of us on the left side of the room were a bit appalled (and those on the right side of the room were disturbingly enthused) by what he had to say.

The ambassador’s central contention, which he matter-of-factly presented as though it were a routine proposal, was that U.N. member states should no longer be required to pay their annual dues — instead, the United Nations should solicit voluntary contributions for specified projects. After all, he went on, why should the United States continue to pay 22 percent of the U.N.’s budget when it only gets one vote in a General Assembly of 191 countries that is frequently reckless, irresponsible and even corrupt? “Why shouldn’t we pay for what we want, instead of being billed for what we get?” Bolton asked rhetorically at two separate points.

The ambassador’s speech was so smoothly delivered that I wonder how many of the students in attendance fully grasped the implications of his argument, one of the most unabashedly unilateralist I have ever heard. For the same reason that governments cannot be funded by voluntary tax payments, or Yale supported by voluntary tuition fees, a stable world governing body like the United Nations cannot possibly be sustained by, as one of Bolton’s student questioners wryly put it, a “please donate” box sitting outside U.N. headquarters. Charity organizations are all very well, but the United Nations, as an institution of global diplomacy and government that has been the leading forum for peace talks and peace treaties since 1945, aspires to be a little more than a glorified Salvation Army. It doesn’t take a genius to see that if Bolton had his way, governments would cut back dramatically on their funding levels and the United Nations would be gutted.

The attitude that we should simply “pay for what we want” and to hell with what anyone else needs is literally, it seems, now the U.S. government’s official position. Perhaps I should not be so surprised — after all, during the ambassador’s confirmation hearings Democrats tried repeatedly to warn us that the Bolton nomination was made in the same “nanny-nanny boo-boo” spirit, to borrow a phrase from Molly Ivins, that inspired the president to appoint a former timber lobbyist to head the Forestry Service. It is, to say the least, a bit bizarre to hear Bush’s U.N. envoy explaining why the entire premise on which the United Nations is based is flawed and thus why its funding should be cut.

Hearing Bolton speak was, I hope, a thoroughly healthy experience for all the liberal and moderate Yalies who were in attendance. Primarily, this is because it served as a necessarily rude reminder that, outside of the Yale bubble, unapologetically unilateralist neoconservatives are not an endangered species — indeed, they seem to hold the commanding heights of the existing Washington foreign policy apparatus.

It was also healthy because it provided us with an opportunity to reflect upon why John Bolton, and the president who nominated him, are so wrong. Does the United Nations have serious problems as an institution? Yes. Is it in desperate need of reform? Of course. But dispatching a rabidly anti-U.N. ideologue to represent us in its halls will not solve any of those problems. What it will most assuredly do is infuriate Bolton’s colleagues and dampen our chances of getting anything done in the United Nations at all.

Bolton’s supreme confidence notwithstanding, we cannot tackle the world’s problems on our own, and every now and then another country might even have a better idea than we do. Having an organization like the United Nations, however dysfunctional, to coordinate efforts and build global consensus on a wide range of issues is not a luxury but a vital American necessity. If that means we, as the wealthiest state on earth by a long shot, have to pay for 22 percent of its budget without always being able to tell it exactly what to do, then so be it. We can afford the money far more easily than we can afford to become an international pariah.



Roger Low is a junior in Branford College and director of campus relations for the Yale Political Union. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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