On Tuesday the Century Foundation and the Center for American Progress jointly hosted a conference on "Power and SuperPower." Its centerpiece was United Nations Deputy Secretary General Mark Malloch Brown's measured and merited admonition  of the Bush Administration's simultaneous use and abuse of the organization.
Many other American speakers at the conference were far more scathing, listing example after example of Washington's refusal to accept international law and conventions. It was a Thoughtcrime Fest that almost had me wondering why Homeland Security wasn't rappelling through the ceiling and kicking in the doors to arrest all, or at least most, of the participants.
If US Ambassador John Bolton had his way, they probably would have.
What made the event newsworthy was Malloch Brown's speech. It is one thing for rebel Republicans and Democrats to criticize American policy, but for a UN official to stand up and talk back inverts the laws of nature, which have hitherto decreed that the UN has only one position toward the United States--prone.
Bolton has made a career of abusing the organization and all who work for it, but his reaction to Malloch Brown was that of a bully suddenly confronted by someone who is not scared of him. The truth may not hurt--but it certainly stings.
Malloch Brown warned of "the serious consequences of a decades-long tendency by US Administrations of both parties to engage only fitfully with the UN," a point that was missed by some of the Clintonistas in the audience, who tend to overlook that administration's less than stellar multilateral record beneath the rhetoric at which its President was so adept.
Far from being anti-American, the speech was a call for American leadership in the organization. But Malloch Brown was being old-fashioned, envisioning the type of leadership that listens and pulls a team together, rather than the current Administration's version of team play: beating up the other players and running off with the ball whenever the rules do not suit.
He suggested that one of the major problems with agreeing to United Nations reforms was that "very unfortunately, there is currently a perception among many otherwise quite moderate countries that anything the US supports must have a secret agenda aimed at either subordinating multilateral processes to Washington's ends or weakening the institutions, and therefore, put crudely, should be opposed without any real discussion of whether they make sense or not."
Malloch Brown left unsaid, but clearly implied, that the core of the problem was that the US Ambassador is a blowhard whose every far-from-secret word tends to substantiate the worst fears of these member states.
Malloch Brown also reminded the audience that the United States and the UN have been "constructively engaged on Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and many other areas." This may have been a euphemism for "the UN doing what the US wanted," but in any case American demands on such questions tend to run into epistemological problems.
For example, Bolton currently has to persuade the other members of the Security Council (whose votes he has dismissed as irrelevant) to make the UN (which he thinks the United States should quit) enforce international law (in which he does not believe) against Iran for nonexistent breaches of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty  (which he had been trying to sabotage in his previous position as head of disarmament affairs at the State Department).
Of course, Malloch Brown was not so crass as to name Bolton. The clever thing to do would have been to ignore the speech, but since Bolton has all the diplomatic skills of a bull elephant in heat, he rose to the bait and angrily denounced  the Deputy Secretary General, thus reinforcing the latter's credibility with the nonaligned delegations. Bolton demanded a retraction from Kofi Annan. The Secretary General happily backed his deputy. I could almost imagine him saying, "I wish I had said that." We hope he will.
Knowing just how astute Malloch Brown is, one almost suspected him of planning exactly that reaction. "Objectively" it made him and Bolton part of a good cop/bad cop routine. However, even if Malloch Brown had planned it that way--and he denies it--no one would ever suspect Bolton of being part of such a sophisticated plot. As Malloch Brown stated, US policy is "stealth" diplomacy; the UN's role, so assiduously worked for by Washington, is "in effect a secret in Middle America." And indeed, it is. Bolton's echo chamber in the Murdoch media, or "Fox and Rush Limbaugh," as he put, have continually attacked the organization--not for its behavior but for its existence.
The only thing wrong with Malloch Brown's speech is that it should have been made long, long ago. Six months ago he told me he would be out of the office on December 31. He has certainly settled the question now, since his head will be the price for American support for any Secretary General candidate. We must hope that he will be equally forthright in the six months he has left.