TCS Daily

Continents Adrift?

By Nico Wirtz - May 5, 2005 12:00 AM

With the possibility of John Bolton becoming U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, the transatlantic rift that many politicians have been trying to talk away is resurfacing in a more pronounced way than ever before. Long-standing differences regarding mission, purpose and scope of the United Nations between the United States and Europe have started to reappear. In Europe, and particularly in Germany, Bolton's nomination was perceived by many as an outright provocation -- less so because of alleged deficiencies in his style of personnel leadership than due to his reputation as an uncompromising unilateralist.

For Germany's political elite, Bolton's nomination was considered an affront and proof that the United States had not converted to unequivocal multilateralism after the invasion of Iraq -- contrary to the expectations of many who saw their concerns regarding the United States' unilateral approach in Iraq confirmed as violence continued to flare. That said, German hostility towards Bolton is not so much focused on Bolton as a person than on a specific policy he represents: a policy that can be described as selective multilateralism and which must be expected to become the order of the day once he assume office.

Diverging positions vis-à-vis the UN are not new. The transatlantic debate prior to the invasion of Iraq and the current dispute about the appointment of an outspoken UN critic, had been in the making at least since 1990.

George Herbert Walker Bush's proclamation of a New World Order based largely on UN multilateralism following the second Gulf War in 1991, gave wind to Europe's vision of a world order exclusively centered on the United Nations -- a system with the UN as the ultimate arbiter of international concerns at its core. Europe's vision of a grandiose expansion of the UN's area of responsibility since the early 1990s now goes well beyond the issues of war and peace. Germany and Europe now see it in their and the UN's vital interest to broaden the organization's scope. In their view, environmental protection, economic development and international criminal justice -- only to name the most prominent issues -- should now be at core of future responsibilities of the United Nations.

From a European and particularly German perspective, the idealization of the United Nations, its mandate, functions and capabilities is easy to understand. After two devastating wars in Europe, notions of "national sovereignty", "nation-state", "national interest" have a very different meaning than in the political jargon in the United States. In Europe -- while degrees vary -- they have an outright negative connotation. Therefore, it should not be surprising that Europe, as a political entity, perceives multilateralism not as a means to an end, but rather as an end in it itself. In this context, Europe sees itself as having overcome the nation state, and "selfish" national interest. In this respect, Europe differs substantially from the United States. For the United States, multilateralism has always been one foreign policy option among many others, embedded in and framed by specific national self-interests.

At first glance, perceptions on both sides of the Atlantic seem irreconcilable. After all, the philosophical differences regarding the value of national sovereignty are striking, and Europe -- particularly France -- sees the United Nations as natural balancer of global U.S. dominance. Nonetheless, common ground can be found if both sides set aside their differences and cut each other some slack.

Europe needs to realize that the United States will not support the European vision of an ever-wider role for the UN. Any such proposal will be dead on arrival, regardless of who controls the legislative or executive branch.

Europeans also should realize that there is more to meaningful reform of the United Nations then expanding the Security Council -- an issue which seems to have turned into an obsession in Europe, with Germany or the EU vying for a seat in an expanded Council. Other crucial areas of reform must be addressed: The recent scandals involving the Oil for Food program point to the need of addressing corruption inside the UN system which has been facilitated by the rigidity of the structures.

More broadly, both sides of the Atlantic should work jointly on an overall re-assessment of the UN's mission, role and function and address an underlying problem that should by now have become apparent to all players, which is that the UN operates like most national governments: failing in its core functions, yet ever expanding its reach.


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