Monday, June 27, 2005

The John Bolton Question

David Bosco, the Senior Editor of Foreign Policy Magazine and an international lawyer, has a thoughtful piece on John Bolton in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. I think it is worth reading by Bolton apologists and critics alike because it gets away from the heated rhetoric from both sides and uses the Bolton nomination to ask some tough questions about what we as American citizens want our foreign policy to look like.

Bosco argues that while Bolton may have a distasteful personality, he brings up many arguments that resonate with many Americans, such as a concern that international law is idealistic and does not address the realities of power and that various international institutions are undemocratic and threaten U.S. civil liberties. In part, Bosco tries to rescue Bolton’s argument from Bolton’s personality.

However, Bosco does overreach at times, such as his echoing concerns over whether the US would be bound by a hypothetical customary international rule banning the death penalty. This argument is a chimera often brought up by conservatives critical of international law’s effect on domestic civil and political rights. Inasmuch as the US has consistently objected to such a rule, it would not be bound. Conservatives, however, have been relatively mute in opposing (or have actually been enthusiastic in supporting) the enforceability of customary rules that protect property rights, such as norms against expropriation.

Bosco also considers the hyperbole and the streak of “nationalist paranoia” entwined in Bolton’s views on the ICC and the weird mix of cold nationalism and hot moralism that you can get from Bolton on a variety of issues.

But, while Bosco turns the Bolton nomination into a prism that splits the spectrum of American foreign policy thinking, this does not mean, in my opinion, that Bolton would be a good representative for the US at the UN. Bosco gets around this by asking too easy a question: how many Americans can remember their recent UN representatives? Well, we can also ask how many American can name all nine Justices of the Supreme Court; the fact that polls show most Americans cannot does not mean that each Justice isn’t very important. The Secretary of State is not the day-to-day dealmaker at the UN, the US Ambassador is.

The real question is what does the Administration want to get done through the UN and what kind of diplomat can achieve those goals? The US needs to rally the allies to help in our efforts in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in the War on Terror. We need someone who could muster support for possible future UN resolutions concerning North Korea or Iran or Syria or some other yet-to-be-determined hotspot. And we need someone who can manage a large staff and focus their strengths on issues such as Security Council reform. Can John Bolton do this? Does he even believe working through the UN is a worthy exercise? Are we nominating him to make the UN effective or because we don’t like the UN?

I appreciate Bolton as a prism. I am very concerned about Bolton as a diplomat.