There was a strange irony in watching the U.S. ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, successfully negotiate the October 14 resolution sanctioning North Korea for its nuclear weapons test. This is a man who abhors global governance, and rightly earned the reputation as the UN basher-in-chief with comments like: “if the U.N. Secretariat building in New York lost ten stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.” Bolton represents an administration that came to office bent on browbeating the UN into irrelevance, and yet there he was, seeking out that very institution to contain one of the members of the “axis of evil.” The moment, although overshadowed by the crisis in Iraq, was revolutionary; it marked an end to the dangerous myth of President George W. Bush’s first term: that the United States could go it alone.
Bush and his ideological advisers, especially Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, came to office in 2001 determined to put “realism” back into U.S. foreign policy. As Condoleezza Rice put it during the campaign, a Bush foreign policy would proceed “from the firm ground of the national interest, not from the interests of an illusory international community.” During his campaign debate with Al Gore, Bush declared, “I don’t think it was a mission worthwhile. It was a nation-building mission.” The new team agreed with Henry Kissinger that the United States had no national interest in bringing about a multi-ethnic state in Bosnia and pledged to bring the troops home. They would, instead, focus on the big “strategic” problems of Russia and China. Terrorism didn’t rate a mention.
Particular venom also was reserved for international treaties and conventions. Early on, Bush reversed President Bill Clinton’s executive order revoking the UN Mexico City “gag rule” (prohibiting foreign aid to programs that allowed doctors to discuss abortion), objected to a reference in a UN convention to “reproductive health services,” and “unsigned” the International Criminal Court (ICC) treaty. With no consultation with allies, Bush announced that the Kyoto protocol on climate change, one of Europe’s most cherished achievements, was dead. Bush abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, weakened the Biological Weapons Convention, and opposed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. And he tried to fire the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohammed ElBaradei, who later received the Nobel Peace Prize. In the UN Security Council, the Administration insisted on an exemption from the ICC for American soldiers on peacekeeping missions and went so far as to veto the mission in Bosnia in order to force this concession. Indeed, even as the Administration’s pre–September 11 arch-realism gave way to its opposite–a staunchly interventionist idealism–it continued to shun even the possibility of working through the UN. The pushing aside of the UN on the way to war with Baghdad marked the height of hubris, with the arch-neoconservative Richard Perle claiming in 2003 that “Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror is about to end ” in a parting irony he will take the UN down with him.”
Like much of its foreign policy agenda, the glee with which the Bush Administration sought to undermine the “threat” of UN global governance ended with the catastrophe in Iraq. As that country spiraled out of control, it began to dawn on officials that the United States could not succeed in any of its challenges without international–and most often UN–help. The Administration sought UN help not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it also began to work more constructively on peacekeeping efforts in Sudan, Liberia, and the Ivory Coast. It brought to the UN Security Council its Proliferation Security Initiative to stop the transfer of material related to weapons of mass destruction. It dropped its efforts to undermine the IAEA and began to work with it and the Europeans to contain Iran’s nuclear weapons program. The Administration even began to use its political capital to counter efforts on Capitol Hill to withhold UN funding. In 2005, the State Department’s spokesman said, “We are the founder of the UN ” We don’t want to put ourselves in the position where the United States is withholding fifty percent of the American contributions to the UN system.” It is no small irony that the costly ideology of “go it alone” that marked Bush’s first term has made the UN all the more essential in his second.
But recognizing the need for others’ help does not guarantee they will follow, even if it means working with the United States within the UN. The world has to trust the United States and believe it is working in concert with its own interests. But the hubris, unilateralism, and mistakes in Iraq and the war on terrorism, particularly the use of torture and secret detention centers, have driven the world away from the United States at precisely the time it needs them the most.
For Bush’s successor, regaining the world’s confidence is a pressing demand and a tall order. One possible path to doing so had been put forward by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the very man the Administration has spent years attacking. Last March, he proposed a vision that shows in clear detail not only how the UN will remain relevant in the twenty-first century, but also how the United States can take part in it. Annan’s In Larger Freedom report–meant to be his lasting legacy when he steps down at the end of this year–proposes that the developed and developing world each recognize the other’s threats and act on them. For the developing world, that means meaningful steps to stem nonproliferation and terrorism; for the developed world, it means a significant increase in aid and investment to combat disease, debt, and poverty.
Sadly, the United States and much of the developing world rejected a plan to implement the report during last September’s 2005 UN World Summit. If over the next few years the United States fails to convince itself and the rest of the world to reengage with Annan’s ideas, that failure will go down in history as a colossal mistake. But for those interested in a different fate–in repairing the breach between the United States and the world–they would do themselves a great service by turning to The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American World Power, an impressive new book by James Traub.
In these days of UN-bashing, writing a book about the UN that actually looks at the facts, rather than simply assuming away the UN’s venality, is a considerable act of courage. But not only does Traub, a respected journalist at the New York Times, take on the task with aplomb, he also does so in a way that renders this enormous, pasty-faced bureaucracy in a vibrant, well-paced narrative. Focused on the last decade or so of the UN’s existence, Traub provides particularly valuable insight into the personalities, the key countries’ own politics, and the dynamics of the Bush Administration’s policies as it slowly and tardily recognized the UN’s value. The book will no doubt go down as the best account of Annan’s tenure during the tumultuous period of the Bush Administration. And while Traub at times mistakes Annan’s regal reserve for coldness and lack of intellectual curiosity, he provides an insightful portrait of a secretary-general who, while only human, is also ahead of his time in proposing a new path forward between the developed and developing worlds.
Traub is very open about his admiration of the UN–he “just likes” it, he says. But that doesn’t stop him from providing an objective rendering of the UN and Annan’s shortcomings, especially the frustrating role of many developing countries–Iran, Algeria, Cuba–and Annan’s leadership failures in addressing the various scandals that plagued the body during the 2000s. Having fallen from his saintly pinnacle as the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Annan struggled through the Oil for Food scandal, the corruption of his son, and the Wall Street Journal’s campaign to force him to resign. Such treatment is important back- story to Traub’s goal in the second half of his book, which is to explain why, despite all their failures, the UN and Annan continued to play a vital role in world affairs.
But the UN is also not a panacea. For now, we must accept that the UN cannot “deliver us from evil,” in the words of the author of the last great book on the UN, William Shawcross. As Traub shows, however, the UN’s limits derive not from design flaws but rather from the structure of the world order today: “One superpower towers above the rest; a myriad of non-state actors and global forces undermine a state-based system fashioned in the seventeenth century; [and] the West and the global South make demands of each other that neither is willing or fully able to satisfy.” In other words, the UN will always be limited, because even in a world in which the United States is fully engaged, it is not the lone power; disagreements will arise. But that does not mean the UN is useless or a threat to U.S. sovereignty. Rather, it means the lone superpower must engage the UN and lead it to a more active role in fighting the threats faced, most of all, by the United States–those of terrorism and proliferation. As Traub points out, other presidents “understood that they could get something quite precious from the UN for a very modest price.”
While serving as an ambassador to the UN when Richard Holbrooke arrived as the permanent representative in 1999, I saw firsthand what the United States can achieve if it puts its full weight behind its agenda. Things have a way of never changing at the UN because inertia often prevails. But what conservatives take as an immutable obstacle, Holbrooke took simply as a challenge. And admittedly, at first, I tended to side with the former. When Holbrooke asked me if he could get a deal on UN dues, make his presidency of the UN Security Council an “Africa” month, or bring the issue of HIV/AIDS into the Security Council, I cautioned against the efforts, believing the other ambassadors would never be able to think out of their narrow “sovereignty over all else” mentalities. Yet Holbrooke pushed, cajoled, and charmed his way to success on every one of these issues.
What Holbrooke understood is that when the superpower talks, and acts, at the UN in the right way–engaging in tough diplomacy; listening to others and at times taking their concerns on board–others will follow. There is no reason this can’t happen again and many reasons why it should. In today’s dangerous world, the United States must again become the world’s great persuader, not just enforcer. The good news is that if it does so, it can quickly regain the political support it has lost around the world and at the UN, but only if it uses the full range of all of its considerable powers–diplomatic, political, economic and military.
What would this entail? Despite Bolton’s success on the North Korean sanctions, the United States cannot go to the UN only when it needs it; it must also be part of the UN when other countries need it. If we want the UN to be a solution to our problems, we have to be part of the solution for others’ problems, too. The United States must demonstrate to the world’s people that we understand and will help them address their challenges. The villager struggling to put food on the table for his family in the midst of the chaos in the Congo–where an estimated 30,000 men, women, and children are dying every month–couldn’t care less about Osama bin Laden or weapons of mass destruction. But if he and his government understand that the United States is working to address the things he does care about–war, poverty, access to clean water, and infectious diseases, –he and his government will be more receptive to American demands to ensure the Congo does not become a safe haven for the next bin Laden. At the opposite end, if the developing world once again trusts the United States, it is far more likely to join the fight to deny terrorists the tools of their trade and help keep weapons of mass destruction out of terrorists’ hands.
This visionary global bargain is, in effect, what Annan put forward at the 2005 World Summit. Sadly, as Traub documents, the United States and much of the developing world could not agree on his proposal for each side to recognize the other’s vulnerability and pledge their assistance. (Traub’s recounting of the world’s scramble to reach agreement on the eve of the September 2005 World Summit is the stuff of suspense novels, at least for us UN nerds.) Yet the longer the United States ignores those who do not yet share our views, the longer it will take to persuade them to join in the battle against terrorism and proliferation. And the longer we refuse to recognize this “mutual interdependence,” as the report terms it, the longer we will remain the primary target of the forces of hatred which oppose the very freedoms which make this country great.
One can hope that Bush finally will abandon the ideologues in his Administration and take up the challenge in his remaining two years. And there are signs that his Administration is moving in that direction: Rumsfeld was finally given the boot, and the Administration has given in on referring the crisis in Darfur to the dreaded ICC and eventually gave up on its insistence that every peacekeeping resolution individually exempt U.S. forces from that court. Since Traub finished his book in the spring of 2006, the Bush Administration turned to the UN not only to address North Korea, but also regarding Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Sudan. It has joined the Europeans in seeking a negotiated settlement to Iran’s nuclear program. And, in September, all 192 UN members even adopted, with U.S. support, the Global Counter-Terrorism strategy (although still without agreeing on a definition of terrorism).
While important steps, the longer-term task of rebuilding America’s role in the UN will certainly fall to the next U.S. president. The U.S.-UN relationship is a difficult marriage, but both have to engage each other to succeed. The United States needs the UN to remain secure, and the UN needs the United States to survive. If the United States takes up in earnest Annan’s vision and fully supports the UN, it will once again become the great persuader and it will regain its role as a true global leader.