"George W. Bush, internationalist." Can it be said without either a wink or a sob? These are wild and wooly times for the global village, and the swan-song for a half-decade of Leaguish incompetence at the United Nations is being sung in four-part harmony by Bolton, Wolfowitz, Rice, and--Kofi Annan. Yes, that's right. Even his tarnished excellency has joined the chorus of reform.
Or is it a dirge? Is the switch from James to Paul at the World Bank a dance not with Wolfs but with the devil? Is Bono being sweet-talked, or only sweetened for the pot? Will Bolton smash all the china in the UN restaurant? And why is Condi Rice plugging Japan for the Security Council?
Yes, that's right. Instead of kicking the Security Council while it's down, the Bush administration is gunning for--that is, advocating--its enlargement.
What gives? Why is Paul Wolfowitz talking debt relief with a man who won't take off his sunglasses, and why is Kofi Annan giving in to a new United Nations, due to be hawked in short order by the Secretary General himself?
Welcome to the world of post-Saddam international relations. In a dazzling act of irony, George W. Bush has revitalized a dying and meaningless ideal by declaring it important enough to invest in. Bush's "political capital," in a consistent two-year flood, has been brought to bear upon the international institutions Bush's critics are so certain he holds in contempt. Perhaps Bush believed Powell's trip to the UN was really unnecessary. Perhaps he groaned inwardly throughout his speech to the General Assembly. It could be that he's putting John Bolton out to pasture, or wants Wolfowitz to shave, sterilize, or destroy the World Bank. And maybe the public suggestion by his Secretary of State that Japan join the Security Council is only a gambit designed to make the North Korean problem a little easier to face.
Can all those possibilities be simultaneous truths? Or has the administration realized that accomplishing America's tasks and goals in the world is impossible without meeting a legitimacy threshold--and that this threshold is itself only legitimate if the United Nations and its sibling organizations learn to put their money with their mouths?
The smart bet is on the latter. A Japanese seat on the Security Council makes sense in the short term as a cold, calculable play for UN power--let's see how long it takes for someone to call this Bush's "court-packing plan"--but nothing lasts forever, even Japanese demilitarization. And the overlap in strategic interests between the US and Japan will only decrease, with or without an ascendant China. Putting Wolfowitz in at the World Bank is a great way to help make international finance an American, Western tool. But it is already--a tool for good. When this author asked James Wolfensohn how the Bank hoped to increase transparency in corrupt regimes when those regimes (and their corruption) were subsidized by great power politics, he conceded that the task was disheartening. Now, however, the leverage against US adversaries lent by transparency, wealth, and democracy has tipped a vital balance. The mission of the Bank--the one it's always had--dovetails neatly with American grand strategy. In fact, the Bank can accomplish all by itself things that the US can't do.
In some quarters, this isn't good enough--or rather, it's too good (for the administration). Theorists like Joseph Nye are right about the value of and the need for soft power--yet it is the idealists, not the realists, who worry at the possibility of Bush using the Bank to apply that power in a way the United States itself is perhaps less equipped to do. It's the very notion that international organizations are to be treated like holy relics that has caused so much sanctimonious hypocrisy in years past--the gall, common to countries with a more delicate sense of shame than Russia or China, of those who blame the United States for violating international law, when it was Iraq that had done so for over a decade and permanent members of the Council who stood foursquare in favor of letting them do so under favorable circumstances. True, the United States government played that game during the Cold War--but it did so as a strategic imperative, not an economic preference. For the villains of the oil-for-food affair, integrity is for suckers and piety is just another word for plausible deniability.
This is an old routine: the same sorts of people who feel forced to prevaricate when it comes to the moral responsibility of the 20th century's leftist revolutionaries don't for a moment buy the wild idea that Wolfowitz--craven architect of a needless, heartless, greedheaded war--wants to use the Bank Presidency to ... better the world around him. Heaven forbid: one might be forced into the uncomfortable calculations of violent change that seem so finally excusable for indigenous or "people's" movements. When Che or Lenin or Ho Chi Minh can't make an omelet without breaking eggs, they're subjected to a disapproval so vague as to actually enhance their mystique. When Bush does it, it's got to be over oil. And spilled blood for oil--as is widely known--is more dire an outcome than the savage disruption of the world energy market by regional tyrannies with no use for international law.
Only when those same regional tyrannies are allied with the United States do they raise the hackles of our foreign policy contrarians. What about Pakistan, they ask? Why isn't freedom on the march there? What about Saudi Arabia? (If more of them had studied history or geography in college, they'd ask after Yemen, Djibouti, and Eritrea, as well.) And just as soon as Saudi Arabia crosses their lips, they forget that there isn't any oil in Pakistan, and America must be colluding with a militarized Islamic regime there for other reasons. But back to our oil-despot allies. The contrarians, when pushed, will finally confess that places like Saudi Arabia might not be allies by choice so much as political/financial necessity. As long ago as the 1940s Britain and America agreed to keep each other's noses out of oil claims in Iran and Arabia respectively. Iran is off the board (for now), but Britian is a third-rate power now anyway. Free market access to oil is a global necessity, regardless of who's profiting off of the trade. But this point is lost too on the contrarians, or lost until finally they collapse back in exhaustion on the laudable but altogether irrelevant observation that the United States stands a lot to gain from researching alternate forms of energy. The sovereign ability to move around our machines is a keystone of national security. But when an oil crisis takes gas to five dollars a gallon, no one will ride to work in their blueprint for a hydrogen car. Among the excuses for a foreign policy the Segway does not belong.
So here we sit. The Buchananite right sees the UN and its siblings as a monument to the fraud of "globaloney;" the antiwar left sees the international community as an ungraded, but still pass-fail, global test. Beyond the neurosis and naivete, we enjoy the benefit of a third option: thriving, honest international organizations are a useful and even sometimes noble way to ritualize the public relations of nations and to bridge diplomacy and action on a foundation of predictable, rational norms. Those norms have changed with the times, but norms they remain. The lesson of Saddam's overthrow is that American power is not constrained when American actions retain a minimum of legitimacy. The ad hoc enforcement of Security Council Resolution 1441 met that minimum. Citizens and governments registered their protests and went about their days. The strange case of Iraq remains an exception to the rule of international law--not, as has been so deeply feared, the new rule itself.
Though the prestige of the US and the UN may have taken damage, it could be that the crumbling of a few walls and facades has opened up the opportunity for a proper renovation of both.
Yes--now that would be right.