Supporters of John Bolton, President Bush's frustrated nominee for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, tell us that this is a dangerous world. They say that the U.N. must be reformed if it is ever to fulfill its original mission of preserving peace and promoting human rights. They insist that the American ambassador must be someone who will advance our national interests.
They're right, of course. It is a dangerous world. The U.N. needs reform. And our diplomacy must be devoted to our national interests. Those are precisely the reasons that Bolton failed to win confirmation in the Senate -- and why the president should withdraw his name rather than send him to the U.N. with a recess appointment.
When conservatives of the Bolton stripe tell us that the world is dangerous, they seem to be talking about military and terrorist threats to our security from the likes of Kim Jong Il and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. (They don't talk so much about Osama bin Laden anymore.) According to their worldview, the proper responses to such threats are to avoid the hindrance of arms treaties, build more nuclear weapons and missile defense systems, and beware of traditional alliances and international laws that might hinder our freedom to act. From that perspective the United Nations is simply more trouble than it is worth.
The preliminary results of this approach, which departs radically from American diplomatic traditions of the past 100 years, are currently on display in Iraq -- and around the world, where many millions of people who once admired the United States now think worse of us than they do of authoritarian China.
Who cares what they think? We should, because the world is a very dangerous place and not all of the dangers can be addressed with American military force. In fact, the use of force is mostly irrelevant to what may well be the greatest perils to our future.
For example, Republican conservatives and liberal Democrats agree that unless we secure the nuclear materials exposed to theft and trafficking in the former Soviet Union, those elements could permit terrorists to build a nuclear weapon. The Marines cannot be sent in to guard those Russian sites, so we must negotiate agreements under international law and provide necessary financing.
That just happens to have been Bolton's most important task for the past several years as undersecretary of state for arms control and disarmament. He bungled the job so badly that his performance drew bitter complaints from Pete Domenici, the conservative New Mexico Republican who is now the Senate's leading expert on this problem. Focusing on legalistic minutiae, Bolton created a bottleneck in negotiations with the Russian government that blocked any progress on nuclear safeguards. Thousands of tons of plutonium remained unguarded for years, until he left the arms control post.
In Bolton's absence, as the Washington Post reported recently, everything has changed for the better. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice let the Russians know that we wanted to conclude a deal to guard the plutonium, and the deal got done. Some observers believe that Rice supported the Bolton nomination to get him out of her building, so that such useful projects could be completed.
Unfortunately, sending him to the U.N. is a poor alternative. Leaving aside the fact that the Senate confirmation process has left him damaged and discredited, the American role at the U.N. is far too important to be consigned to an incompetent ideologue. The dangers we will confront in years to come will require coordinated, multilateral responses that have little to do with armed force.
Within the coming decade and perhaps very soon, we are almost certain to face another deadly pandemic (such as one caused by the avian influenza called H5N1). In the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs, author Laurie Garrett and other distinguished writers examine in detail the likely causes and costs of such a medical catastrophe, which could kill tens of millions and plunge the world into a depression. We don't have the capacity to make enough vaccines to protect even a substantial fraction of our people. We don't have enough antibiotics to treat those who would become ill. We don't have the public health and hospital systems, let alone the logistical, transportation and economic preparations required to cope with such a disaster.
As the world's most powerful nation, we have not led the creation of the international monitoring and medical systems that might protect Americans and all of humankind from the very worst. When the pandemic begins, it will be too late to do what we should be doing now. Our military power won't defend us from viruses and bacteria.
The first step toward a sane foreign policy that safeguards our true national interests is to send an ambassador to the United Nations who can restore the respect and prestige once accorded our nation.
Everyone knows that isn't John Bolton.