Foreign Policy Schizophrenia

by Chris Borgen

Peggy’s post and Julian’s comment to her post set out some good arguments as to why John Bolton is or is not the right person to send to the UN. (Democracy Arsenal, by the way, has the top ten reasons why John Bolton should not be confirmed. Also note this post.) Regardless, I think there is little doubt that Bolton will be easily confirmed. That being said, I do wonder whether his confirmation, particularly in light of the rest of the second term foreign policy team, will continue the foreign policy schizophrenia that has dogged the Bush Presidency.

I know, many people would say that the Bush foreign policy has been quite coherent: pursuit of terrorists, pursuit of rogue states, skepticism (or outright hostility) towards international organizations and multilateralism, etc. But I think this misses some of the most important divergences within the Bush team as well as policy flips in recent years. The contentious issues have not always been what goals to pursue, but how to pursue them. (Though defining foreign pilicy goals has been contentious as well.)

At times there seems to be a real tug-of-war between moderate views (treat with comity ICJ judgments on the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations; let’s get the Law of the Sea Treaty ratified) and knee-jerk anti-internationalism (get out of the Consular Relations Optional Protocol! Beware the Law of the Sea Treaty!). This is also borne out in the mix of senior advisors (most obviously the clashes between Powell and Rumsfeld in the last term but now in the mix of foreign policy moderates on one hand, and folks like John Bolton and Douglas Feith, on the other).

Much has been made of President Bush liking to have a wide variety of views among his advisors and then choosing what he thinks is best; I’m all for such a leadership technique. The problem is that recent foreign policy hasn’t had this type of feel: rather its more like a lot of bureaucratic in-fighting with one faction winning out one day, another the next. The result is policy schizophrenia: write a presidential memo supporting the application of ICJ opinions one week, take away its jurisdiction on consular relations issues the next. Say the Law of the Sea Treaty is important, then sit and let it languish. Say the Geneva Conventions don’t apply in the War on Terror, then say we’ll apply most of them anyway, then repudiate your counsel’s legal memo on the issue.

In such an environment, who you have as your public face is very important because, quite frankly, allies need to be reassured that we aren’t about to do some crazy about face. I doubt John Bolton is that guy. I did not find the National Review Online piece that Julian linked to reassuring in the least; it made Bolton sound like someone who would support the UN only as long as the UN did exactly what the U.S. told it to do. That’s not going to win friends and influence allies and it’s not going to lead to productive UN reform. Sure, some have said it took Nixon to go to China and so it will take John Bolton to go to the UN. The difference, though, is that Nixon actually gave a damn about relations with China.

3 Responses

  1. Yeah, Nixon cared so much about China that he decided to withdraw support from Tibet as part of the price for better relations. Im not sure that betraying former dependant allies fighting oppression is such a great foreign policy move, but then, why should a small thing like basic human rights stand in the way of commerce?

    One thing that does not make sense to me is why some internationalists think that they United States should support the U.N. or the ICJ if these organizations are not cooperating with the United States. That just does not make sense. The U.N. has shown how dysfunctional it is in countless situations and it has no democratic legitimacy or accountability. Surely, the only reasonable reason to support this horribly inefficient mechanism which diverts funds better spent on, say, the Peace Corps or USAID, is that it is somehow helpful in advancing U.S. goals, humanitarian or otherwise.

    Of course, the U.N. and other countries that would like to check the United States through the U.N. (or other international institutions) would prefer to exercise greater control over United States policy through the U.N. My question is simple. Why should we let them? If we support the U.N. at all, shouldn’t that support be limited to instances when it advances United States policy? Why should the United States subsidize the undermining of its own foreign policy? All for an organization that has difficulty calling genocide in Darfur what it is? All for an organization which is in reality a source of privilege for many of it’s employees, who wastefully consume scarce resources on five star hotels rather than putting those resources efficiently to use where most needed?

    Sometimes I wonder if internationalists are more interested in advancing their own unrealistic idealism rather than actually improving the conditions of the world. Just as every problem cannot be solved with a hammer, not every problem can be solved either through the U.N. or other forms of international cooperation.

    It is interesting to me that Chris seems to oppose Mr. Bolton’s very nuanced point of view with respect to the role of the United Nations. Certainly, those who want to control United States policy through the U.N. will oppose such a nuanced strategy. So what. Generally, you would expect such nations to support anything which increases their own power compared to the United States. It seems irrational for the the United States to cooperate with them in limiting its own power. International organizations and international law may have a limited role to play, but they are not the end all that their idealistic supporters imagine. Except for the limited circumstances when our interests are aligned, the United States should not cooperate with such organizations. While the principle of reciprocity is important, it should be limited to concrete instances, not vague hopes that current sacrifice will be remembered in the future. I think this is especially critical, in light of the capacity for good in the world for which the United States is capable.

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