Whatever you call the polar opposite of preaching to the choir, there are few with as much experience as hedge fund executive Steven Shapiro, OC ’83. When a speaker at Oberlin is confronted with sign-waving demonstrators outside and audience disruption inside, the event was more likely than not an installment of the Ronald Reagan Political Lectureship Series, of which Shapiro is the primary benefactor. Having previously hosted a number of controversial figures including Weekly Standard editor William Kristol and Republican arch-strategist Karl Rove, the speaker series continues this Wednesday at 7 p.m., with an appearance in West Lecture Hall by divisive former Permanent Representative to the United Nations John Bolton.
Many people were puzzled when President Bush appointed Bolton U.N. ambassador in 2005, since his outspoken view on international institutions in general and the U.N. in particular is essentially that they shouldn’t exist. “There is no such thing as the United Nations,” Bolton said in 1994. “There is only the international community, which can only be led by the only remaining superpower, which is the United States.” He has characterized the International Criminal Court as “one of the world’s most illegitimate multilateral institutions” and the 2002 U.S. withdrawal from the ICC as the “happiest moment” of his political career. On a long list of deeply problematic Bush appointees, making Bolton our U.N. ambassador seems as counterintuitive as handing chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Jane Fonda.
It’s obvious why Bolton and his neoconservative bosses might fear the prospect, however remote, of powerful and impartial international legal authority. An ICC with the teeth to go after anybody less universally condemned than Muammar Qaddafi could upend the global chessboard on which the U.S. and other superpowers play at neocolonialism, prosecuting many of the most effective chess pieces. Even when we end up disavowing less-than-reputable proxies like Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, we prefer to do it on our own timetable, thank you very much, without any pesky officials from the Hague piping up ahead of schedule to remind us this “freedom fighter” is actually a terrorist or that “statesman” a mass murderer.
Since effective international government would be a hindrance to the U.S. foreign policy agenda, Republicans like Bolton have reacted the way modern-day Republicans react to any mildly inconvenient mandate from a central governing authority: Declare the whole authority illegitimate and work toward its overall destruction, with little thought of consequences. A key component of this strategy in recent years has been elevating public servants who are either incompetent and inexperienced (FEMA Director Michael “Heckuva Job, Brownie” Brown is a prominent example) or else, like Bolton, actively opposed to the jobs they’re supposed to be doing, making government less effective and a political platform based on the alleged ineffectiveness of government that much more viable. Humorist PJ O’Rourke famously mocked this strategy with the claim that “Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work, and then they get elected and prove it.”
One can easily see this dynamic at work in international relations, and a relatively mild diplomatic sociopath like Bolton doesn’t even scratch the surface. Hardline saber-rattlers of all stripes and nationalities benefit from fostering a climate of international hostility and non-cooperation, making their arguments about the need for pre-emptive aggression seem more plausible; even avowed enemies like Hamas and Yisrael Beiteinu both draw their appeal from the same dysfunctional attempts at diplomacy, and in this sense their relationship is more akin to symbiosis than rivalry. The result is a worldwide tragedy of the commons, with unilateralism benefiting individual nations and parties while the overall environment of unilateralism works to the detriment of all.
Ironically, the best example of the benefits of institutionalized cooperation and collective political action is precisely the one neocons like Bolton admire so much: the United States of America. However tempting it may be to believe that our economic dominance following World War II has stemmed from some miraculous exceptional quality of individual Americans, the truth is that it’s fairly easy to emerge as the preeminent global superpower after every other major power spends half a century bombing each other’s industrial bases to oblivion, a fate the North American continent managed to avoid. If Clausewitz is right that war is politics by other means and Foucault that politics is war by other means, our relative success in the 20th century has demonstrated that a commitment to politics even at its most flawed and dysfunctional (a good description of the current political situation in Washington, D.C.) still beats the inevitable alternative.
Despite all their many obvious shortcomings, the U.N. and the system of international law that has sprung up around it still represent our planet’s best hope of replicating the relative peace and prosperity we enjoy in the United States. If people like John Bolton seek to fire on the metaphorical Fort Sumter, dissolving the U.N. and seceding from the overall order of global institutions, those of us who hope for a better and more united world have a responsibility to keep them as far from positions of power as humanly possible.