Where’s the Old Bolton When We Need Him?


John Bolton, President Bush’s nominee to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, once said that if the top 10 floors of the U.N. headquarters disappeared, “it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.” But in hearings last week, Bolton pledged to “forge a stronger relationship between the United States and the United Nations” and to take “important steps to restore confidence” in the international body.

This kinder, gentler Bolton is exactly what the U.N. does not need. If the U.N. is going to stop being a major impediment to multilateral cooperation and international law, it needs the radical skepticism of the old Bolton, the kind of skepticism that will remake it from the top down.

By design, the U.N. inhibits multilateral action. The five permanent members of the Security Council -- Britain, France, Russia, China and the U.S. -- all have an absolute veto over authorizing military action, applying sanctions and sending peacekeepers. Because these states rarely can reach a consensus, the Security Council rarely acts.


In the past, the U.S. accomplished its foreign policy goals by working around the U.N., not through it. Washington’s successful anti-Soviet containment policy, implemented with allies as diverse as France, Germany, Turkey and Japan, proceeded independently of the U.N. U.S.-led efforts to stop British and French seizure of the Suez Canal and to end the Israeli-Arab wars occurred with little help from the U.N. NATO’s intervention during the wars in the former Yugoslavia was, in large part, a violation of the U.N. Charter.

More recently, efforts to contain North Korea, to limit conflict between India and Pakistan, to keep the peace between Taiwan and China and to remove Saddam Hussein have owed little or nothing to the U.N.

Historically, then, the U.N. has been mostly irrelevant, but with the end of the Cold War, it acquired new prestige, based mainly on the hope that the relaxation of superpower tensions would finally allow it to act. The foreign veto-holders on the Security Council have an interest in maintaining the U.N.’s new popularity because it gives them a kind of equality with the U.S. that they lack in reality.

Exploiting these rules, a single opponent can prevent action that a group may prefer. Russia vetoed U.N. action in Kosovo. During the recent Iraq conflict, the delay caused by seeking U.N. approval interfered with the timetable for the invasion, and the lack of approval gave some nations a free ride -- they had an excuse for not joining the effort, a forum for objecting to it, and yet they could still benefit from it. If the U.N. continues its rise as a political forum for opposition to U.S. military force, American diplomats should be marginalizing it, not strengthening it.

The U.N. also undermines the advance of international law. Its charter outlaws war except in self-defense or with the authorization of the Security Council -- a quixotic, unenforceable rule. There have been dozens of wars since 1945 and the U.N’s birth. Pretending that nations will not engage in war, and that the U.N. can be the world’s policeman, guaranteeing the safety of all, only breeds cynicism. It works against using international law realistically to prevent humanitarian disasters, eliminate threats to regional peace, and stop state supporters of terrorism.

Not every U.N.-sponsored treaty has been a failure, but it is notable that the world’s most successful treaties -- GATT and the WTO, the European Union, arms control agreements and NATO -- have had little to do with the U.N. These treaties were negotiated by states for well-defined purposes, and they have generated clear gains even if they also involve trade-offs reflecting balance of power realities. By contrast, the U.N. is less effective because it is committed to an unattainable ideal of equality among states, when it is not immobilized by the vetoes held by five of them.


The U.N.’s structure reflects post-World War II hopes that have not materialized. As long as ordinary people continue to put faith in it, and governments play politics through it, the U.N. can only hinder international cooperation and the advance of international law.

The U.S. and its envoy must understand that demolition is the order of the day -- and sometimes demolition is best accomplished from within.