John Bolton speaking
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John Bolton at WWS: U.N. flawed, needs reform

Oct 14, 2008

By Alex Gennis '09

The United Nations is flawed and is in need of serious reform, John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said in a public talk on the afternoon of Monday, Oct. 13, held at a capacity Dodds Auditorium in the Woodrow Wilson School.

Issues such as the death penalty, abortion and gun control should be debated within the domestic political system and the U.N. should not be used as an instrument to impose values on member states, Bolton said. He noted that some dissatisfied domestic interest groups have used the U.N. to circumvent the domestic political process in the U.S. and to use the organization to advance their own agendas on these issues.

“What you discuss in international bodies seems to me to be something that you should not be able to use as an end run around domestic political processes, especially in democratic countries,” he said. Bolton warned that such “norming” is illegitimate and is likely to continue in the near future.

“As we face the prospect of an Obama presidency, we will see an increase in efforts to use the U.N. system for ‘norming,’ as we did in the Clinton administration,” he explained.

The inability of the U.N. to fix its structural problems, exemplified by the U.N. Oil-for-Food scandal and the lack of progress with reforming the Human Rights Council, is the second problem with the U.N. Bolton identified.

Despite the findings of “enormous fraud and mismanagement” in the Oil-for-Food program, the vast majority of U.N. nember states voted against the introduction of independent auditors, he explained.   Attempts to meaningfully reform the U.N. Human Rights Council were also unsuccessful due to opposition by Russia and China, and the lack of determination on the part of European states.

The U.N.’s failure to reform flawed institutions and programs will impede its ability to effectively solve global problems, he asserted.

A switch from a system of mandatory financial contributions to a system of voluntary contributions, where each member Ssate only pays for the programs it wants to support, is necessary to make significant progress in reforming the U.N., Bolton said. He cited UNICEF and the World Food Programme as two examples of voluntarily funded programs that have been highly successful.

“My ‘radical’ reform for the U.N. is that we should pay for what we want and insist that we get for what we pay for,” he said. “There is sound empirical evidence that voluntary contributions lead to more efficient U.N. programs.”

Bolton criticized the failure of the U.N. Security Council to act in Darfur, where large-scale human rights violations and atrocities have taken place, and said that clashes between the national interests of member states have impeded U.N. peacekeeping efforts.

“If the U.N. can’t address something like Darfur, you have to ask yourself, what exactly do you expect out of [the U.N.]?” he asked.

Bolton cited the lack of U.N. progress on North Korea and Iran as examples of the organization’s ineffectiveness in combating the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

“The whole Security Council effort on non-proliferation can be summed up as, ‘something that did not happen,’ ” he noted at the conclusion of his formal remarks. “That, ladies and gentleman, is your U.N. at work.”

During the question-and-answer period, Bolton expressed skepticism about the possibility of reforming the Security Council. Any expansion of the Security Council is a “prescription for gridlock,” he said.

“Having watched for twenty years the inability of Japan to get on the Security Council, my guess is that there will not be reform in the Security Council,” he added.

Bolton defended the foreign policy of the Bush administration and the decision of the U.S. to overthrow Saddam Hussein in Iraq on the basis of international law.  

“The U.S. had more U.N. legitimacy for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein than for the bombing of Serbia,” he asserted, referring to Security Council resolutions demanding Iraq comply with its disarmament obligations.

In response to a question about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Bolton said that the document is another example of “norming” and that it “has become an instrument in the hands of those trying to constrain the United States.”

Bolton concluded that the U.N. is severely troubled and that much of its problems stem from the inability of member states to reconcile their individual national interests. He also said that much of the criticism directed at the U.S. is misguided.

“When people go to the Security Council, they don’t suddenly become platonic guardians; all 192 countries that are members of the U.N. advance their own national interests. And when there is gridlock, that’s in part because that’s what they are doing,” he said. “Actually, there is only country that ever gets criticized for advancing its national interests at the U.N., and that’s the United States.”

The talk was co-sponsored by WWS and the James Madison Program at Princeton.