It is almost a year since the Bush Administration sent John Bolton to the United Nations. In some ways, it is a foreign policy achievement of a high order to appoint someone who has so successfully poked his thumb up the nostrils of almost 190 other countries simultaneously. However, it is a dubious achievement.
As Bolton mouthed indignation at Mark Malloch Brown’s recent, almost grovellingly polite exhortations to Washington to show proper leadership at the UN, he compounded the immense damage he has already done to American diplomacy.
In fact, as Malloch Brown noted, albeit more politely, successive US administrations have long used the United Nations and tossed it aside after achieving their satisfaction. The difference is that Bill Clinton sweet-talked as he did it, while this administration is much more into rough wooing, berating and belittling the organization before and after its perfunctory consummations.
Clinton approved the International Criminal Court in principle, for example, but pandered to the Pentagon by having his emissaries water it down in negotiations, and then did not sign off on it until he was leaving office. It was a classic diplomatic application of Clinton’s “smoking but not inhaling” approach.
Equally typically, Bolton promptly unsigned the attenuated treaty setting up the court. But emblematic of the difficulties that brute prejudice has when it clashes with reality, Bolton is now trying to force Sudan to cooperate with the same ICC in its investigation of what the US claims is genocide.
The genocide issue itself shows a perverse continuity in American foreign policy. The Clinton Administration fought shy of calling mass murders in the Balkans and Rwanda “genocide” because it believed that would entail a responsibility to act–and Clinton was notoriously reluctant to risk American casualties.
In contrast, the Bush Administration calls events in Darfur genocide–because that is what the evangelical Christians call it–but it argues that the Genocide Convention does not actually require signatories to intervene. Indeed, Bolton is on record as saying that he does not regard any international law as binding–at least on the United States. The net effect is the same–victims die while politicians score political points in Washington.
Underlying all this is a strange subcurrent in US politics. While polls show consistently high American public support for international law and bodies like the UN, like most polls in the United States, they should carry a rider: “So, what’re you gonna do about it?” The good guys would mostly answer, “Not a lot,” while the sundry isolationists, xenophobes, unilateralists, survivalists and neocons have shown that the mere existence of the UN renders them speechful with rage.
They send donations, bombard legislators and fill the Internet with their virtual version of reality. Despite the widely different sources for their obsession with the UN, they unite in their hatred and fear of the world body. That makes them somewhat vulnerable to manipulation by the unscrupulous, of whom there are, shall we say, a statistically significant sample in the American political classes. Senator Joseph McCarthy was one of a type, not a stand-alone figure.