TCS Daily

Too Controversial Because He Is Too Conventional

By Carroll Andrew - May 5, 2005 12:00 AM

Democrats, bureaucrats, retired diplomats, and a host of activists object to the nomination of Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton to the post of America's Ambassador to the United Nations. Superficially, the objections are based on claims that Bolton's temperament and professional demeanor are unsuitable for an ambassador. Bolton supporters claim the objections are not about personal matters, but about the policies that Bolton represents.

John Bolton has expressed definite views on the relationship most fundamental to foreign policy -- the relationship between power and security -- at a time when America's foreign policy elites share little consensus on this matter. The heart of Bolton's confirmation troubles lies in what, at one time, would have been considered his very conventional views. Bolton believes that the job of an American diplomat is to help America acquire and defend the elements of power that make it more secure, and that power is "grounded in a concrete agenda of protecting particular peoples and territories, defending open trade and commercial relations around the world, and advancing a commonality of interests with our allies".

Bolton's nomination comes at a time when growing numbers of foreign policy thinkers are rejecting the old-school premise that increased power implies increased security for America. They believe that the central problem of contemporary international relations is that American "hyperpower" frightens the rest of the world, pressing other nations to align against the US, rather than risk being dominated by the US. Bolton is aware of the importance of this dynamic. He has approvingly quoted conservative icon Edmund Burke on the subject; "I dread our own power and our own ambition. I dread our being too much dreaded....Sooner or later, this state of things must produce a combination against us which may end in our ruin".

What separates Bolton from his detractors is that Bolton sees resistance to America's dominant position as one obstacle to be overcome as America defends its security interests. Bolton's detractors believe that American dominance is the major problem of the international system and that American power has crossed a threshold where its further accumulation no longer enhances national security. They believe that a world more hospitable to the United States can only be created if the US finds a way to become less powerful, creating a situation where other countries are less driven to align against "the bully on the block".

Strategies for doing this fall into two general categories. There are classical realists, who believe that the United States should simply let other nations catch up, while charging its diplomats with carrying out a strategy of realpolitik to ensure that no single nation, or alliance of nations, becomes able to overwhelm the US. And there are institutional realpolitikers (they would prefer to be called liberal internationalists, but they actually advocate a deliberalization of world power; we will get to that in a moment) who believe that the United States can diffuse its hyperpower, without allowing any single rival to directly benefit, by allowing supra-national institutions like the United Nations to have a role in managing American power.

In the institutional view of foreign policy, the idea that the primary mission of a diplomat is to advance America's concrete interests -- the view held by Bolton -- is outdated. With the US already so far ahead of other nations by any significant measure of international power, increasing the American power advantage only marginally enhances American security, at best. Instead, a diplomat can be more effective in defending America's long term interests by acting as a conduit through which other nations can have a hand in managing America's power. The theory is that potential rivals are less likely to align themselves against power that they have some control over.

The are many problems with this philosophy. For example, should Americans really trust their security to the assumption that the major source of world instability is their own strength, not that certain other governments may have an inherent desire to dominate others? The most pressing of these problems is the fact that the strategy of allowing the rest of the world to fill the power gap is almost always advocated by those who resist promoting American ideals (except perhaps by example), because they believe that ideals have no place in international relations, or because they are unwilling to confront the tyranny-enabling structures that accidentally evolved out of the post-World War II international system. Much of the world's power outside of North America and Europe is controlled by government structures ranging from mildly illiberal to brutally tyrannical. If you want to close the power gap between America and the rest of the world, but are unwilling to export American ideals, then you inescapably advocate transferring power across "freedom's divide" (the phrase used by John Bolton at his confirmation hearing), away from places where it is controlled by free peoples, into places where it is controlled by dictators, tyrants, and the more-than-occasional megalomaniac.

Some opponents of the Bush administration's foreign policy are too willing to accept a deliberalization of world power if it is accompanied by an increase in a nebulously defined quantity called stability. This is why many bureaucrats are inclined to join the opposition against John Bolton. Bureaucrats prefer to work in the stability-first framework provided by the apologists for realpolitik; it makes their jobs more predictable and therefore easier. Believers in realpolitik welcome the support of the bureaucrats, whom they trust to keep ideals of unpredictable effect out of the practice of foreign policy.

But ideals of some form are going to influence American foreign policy. Bolton's detractors -- particularly those Senators who so much like to remind the public of their constitutional duty to advise the executive branch -- should be clear in explaining the foreign policy principles they believe America should follow. Saying that foreign policy should advance the "national interest" is not enough. Everyone agrees that America should do what is in its national interest. America must decide, in President Bush's words, if "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one", or if America's most vital interest now lies in sharing power with permanent multilateral institutions. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee should be using the opportunity provided by the Bolton nomination to discuss these alternative views of American foreign policy with the American people. Instead, the Senators opposing John Bolton are attempting to impose a foreign policy by obstruction because they are afraid to state their strategic goals, if they have any strategic goals at all.

Carroll Andrew Morse is a TCS contributing writer and a contributor to the weblog Anchor Rising.



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