Thursday, August 25, 2005

Bolton and UN Reform

The current negotiations over UN reform are intended to lead to a proposal outlining reform of the organization that world leaders are supposed to adopt at a UN summit in three weeks. The principal issues on the table are:

--creation of a UN Peacebuilding Commission to assist post-conflict countries in building lasting stability;

--completion of a comprehensive anti-terrorism convention [including settling on an internationally accepted definition of "terrorism"] and a fissile-material cut-off treaty to limit the spread of nuclear materials;

--establishment of a small, standing Human Rights Council to replace the Commission on Human Rights;

--expansion of the Security Council;

--institutional changes within the Secretariat to make its operations more flexible, efficient and accountable;

Everyone seems to think UN reform is a good idea—the US, other member-countries, even the UN Secretariat. However, UN reform means different things to different people.

The Bush administration's top priority is administrative reform, which is badly needed but low on the list of objectives for many countries. For developing countries, following up with meaningful implementation of the Millennium Development Goals is a priority. The Bush administration would rather have the flexibility to pursue development goals on its own.

Brazil, Japan, India, and Germany are clamoring for seats on an expanded Security Council; other countries have their own ideas for Security Council expansion. This aspect of reform is one the permanent five members of the Council, especially the US, least want to address, but is probably the most important item on the agenda. International decisionmaking by the current permanent Security Council is deeply undemocratic and arbitrary, and represents no principle or rational balance of power, but rather the stale status quo of 60 years ago. The war on terror will ultimately go nowhere unless more of the world's people are represented in international security decisions.

The US has not been happy with the direction the negotiations were taking:

[E]arlier this month, U.S. deputy Ambassador Anne Patterson complained that the 15-page development section was too long, that the document focused too much on disarmament and not enough on nonproliferation, and that it included language on the International Criminal Court which the United States opposes.

She also reiterated that the United States wants action on overall reform before the most contentious issue in the document -- Security Council expansion -- is tackled.

Then last week the U.S. tried to scrap the plan that had been drafted. It wasn't clear from statements made by those involved whether this was simply a negotiating tactic or an attempt to torpedo the negotiations. One thing seems clear: few countries are happy with the current draft.

Then in yesterday's news:

U.N. General Assembly President Jean Ping said on Tuesday he wanted to try a new negotiating tactic to complete work on a comprehensive U.N. reform plan after the United States raised extensive objections to the most recent draft.

A core group of 20 to 30 nations, including the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, would be named to resolve remaining differences in the reform plan in time for a U.N. world summit opening in three weeks in New York, Ping told reporters.

That would ensure Washington a seat at the table to make its case, along with other permanent council members Russia, China, France and Britain. Until now, the drafting has been conducted informally, in hopes of keeping the focus on the whole package and off the details.

I don't know whether negotiations such as these are normally conducted informally, but "keeping the focus on the whole package and off the details" to me sounds like those in charge are hoping to salvage any proposal they can, but don't expect what emerges to contain much of substance.

Internationally, the US has a lot staked on successful UN reform after its failure to utilize the UN to bring other countries on board for the Iraq war, especially now that things are going badly there. Domestically, Bush appointed Ambassador Bolton with the stated objective of reforming the UN. However, Bush's conservative base wants the most inefficient, marginalized UN it can get, and would be happy if no accord were reached, especially if the blame could be pinned on the intransigence of other nations or the UN itself. Hence, the US negotiating team must walk a fine line, producing some sort of accord to placate Democrats baying for Bolton's blood and convince moderate Republicans they weren't hoodwinked into supporting the nomination, but ensuring little meaningful change aside from administrative reform.

Since Bolton is supposed to be a tough negotiator who will "get things done" with UN reform, he is under considerable pressure to reach an agreement. This will weaken his bargaining position to some degree, but I wouldn't bet on any major capitulations from this administration. In short, meaningful reform is unlikely to emerge in September. The issues most important to the US are least important to most other countries. Furthermore, the US does not want comprehensive reform, and the US team, with Bolton at the head, is particularly ill-equipped to achieve it.

Update: Steve Clemons, guest blogging last week at TalkingPointsMemo
has a series of posts on how Bolton may be undermining Secretary Rice's efforts at UN reform. Scroll down to read them all.

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