The Bolton backfire: Weaken UN, imperil Americans

Why is the Bush administration seemingly hurtling toward confrontation with the rest of the world in the lead-up to the World Summit in New York next week?

Almost the first act taken by Washington's new energetic, sometimes pugnacious, UN envoy John R. Bolton, was the submission of a list of 750 amendments he seeks in the draft of the summit's declaration. That text, which deals with issues as important as nuclear disarmament, human rights, global warming, and counterterrorism, had been painstakingly negotiated by world diplomats over preceding months.

There is still time to reach a friendly accommodation on the contested portions of the text. But many nations - most notably the European states that are the strongest supporters of the present draft - now fear that US intransigence on the proposed revisions may be a serious blow to the heart of the UN.

It's true that the UN also faces a serious issue of mismanagement and corruption in its bureacuracy. That issue must be resolved - whatever it takes. But right now, Washington's deteriorating relationship with the world's other peoples concerns me even more: The compact that underlies the way all nations interact within the UN is truly vital to human survival.

President Bush and his aides surely should work hard to reach agreement with other nations on the issues around the World Summit declaration. It would also be good for Bush and all Americans to reflect on the circumstances of the UN's creation and the many benefits it has brought the US throughout its 60 years.

Back in 1945, Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman made decisions marked by broad strategic restraint and great wisdom. Two of these were particularly crucial: first, not to retreat to the isolationism the US had pursued after World War I; and second, to exercise Washington's continued engagement with the world through a new body, based on principles of national sovereignty, national equality, and human solidarity. That body was the UN.

The past 60 years have been very good indeed to the US. The UN and the compact among nations that underlies it have certainly contributed to those benefits.

During the cold war, the UN helped mediate what would otherwise have been an even more precarious situation of hair-trigger nuclear destruction. After the Soviet empire collapsed, the UN helped ease transitions on several continents - as it did earlier in helping manage instabilities that arose when the West European nations' empires splintered. The UN-related economic bodies - the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and World Trade Organization - have meanwhile buttressed a global market system that has generally been very good to Americans.

So why - at a time when it is increasingly evident that in Iraq, as in the fight against violent extremism elsewhere, the US needs international cooperation more than ever - should the Bush administration and its man in New York be threatening to cause serious disruption to Washington's relations with the world body?

Mr. Bolton - named by Mr. Bush as a "recess appointment" ambassador to the UN last month, bypassing the wait for a Senate confirmation - startled the representatives of most other nations in New York with his list of amendments to the summit declaration.

On one issue he wants amended - the list of "Millennium Development Goals" that the UN adopted back in 2000 - a key Bolton spokesman got downright ornery, accusing UN officials of "manipulating the truth" when they claimed the US had previously endorsed these goals and now seemed to be backtracking from that earlier commitment. (The UN officials look right on that one.)

The tiff over this key issue in international development efforts epitomizes the deeper discord over whether the US really judges that responsibilities within the world system should be reciprocal and based on the principles of human equality and human solidarity - or not. The UN majority today thinks they should be. Bolton and his boss, the president, apparently disagree with that majority.

Yes, it's true that the UN itself is far from perfect. But at the end of the day, the United Nations is just that: a confederation of the world's largely independent nation-states. It has very little independent existence of its own, and can only ever be as strong as the commitment it gets from its members.

Under Bush - especially since he made the near-unilateral decision to initiate a war against Iraq in 2003 - the commitment of the world's most powerful nation to the UN and its principles has eroded drastically.

To reduce American support for the foundations of this vital institution any further would be crazy.

A UN that is any further weakened means the increased insecurity of everyone in the world. And, yes, that includes Americans.

Helena Cobban is writing a book on violence and its legacies.

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