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Bolton and the Liberal Internationalists

By Gregory Scoblete - June 14, 2005 12:00 AM

Whether John Bolton is successfully nominated to the ambassadorship of the United Nations or whether he flounders on the shoals of Democratic opposition, the nomination process has helpfully illuminated some of the difficulties in framing a post-Cold War approach to international institutions. On the one hand we have John Bolton and other staunch nationalists who view the U.N. and other international institutions as either feckless talk shops or dangerous encroachments on American sovereignty. On the other we have his critics who run the gamut from timid realists unwilling to buck the status quo to doe-eyed world government advocates who can't surrender U.S. sovereignty fast enough.

Falling between the status quo realists and the world government types is a more serious breed of Bolton critic: liberal internationalists. Their concerns about Bolton and the trajectory of U.S. foreign policy in relation to the U.N. and other international institutions deserve a fairer hearing then they've presently been given.

Freedom of Action

Bolton believes American interests are best defended when American power is afforded the greatest freedom of action (i.e. when it is not encumbered in multilateral treaties or deal-making). Flexible "coalitions of the willing" such as the one that swiftly toppled the Taliban are far preferable to the entrenched "coalitions of the unwieldy" that defined, for instance, the first Gulf War and prolonged Saddam Hussein's malignant tyranny.

TechCentralStation's own Carroll Andrew Morse observed:

        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
".

This may accurately represent a certain cross section of Bolton's critics, but it's clearly not the belief of serious liberal internationalists. They do not believe America's overwhelming power is the problem, but they do believe how America currently wields that power is. In their view, the U.S. (personified by Bolton) has not only made its power too obtrusive by recklessly and arrogantly spurning established multilateral bodies that could have been co-opted to advance American ends, it has also endangered its position of pre-eminence by sowing the seeds of an international revolt against American world leadership.

Power in Practice

Liberal internationalists are not interested in divesting America of its hard won preeminence; indeed, they believe that maintaining unipolarity is an essential element of any foreign policy "grand strategy." Stephen Walt, an international relations professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government outlined what a liberal internationalist grand strategy would look like in a recent issue of the Boston Review:

        Trying to increase the American lead might not be worth the effort (if 
        only because the United States is already far ahead), but allowing other 
        states to catch up would mean relinquishing the advantages that primacy 
        now provides. For this reason alone, the central aim of American grand 
        strategy in foreign policy should be to preserve its current position for 
        as long as possible.

Princeton professor Robert Wright advanced a similar argument recently in Slate. Liberal internationalists are not interested in minimizing U.S. power; the real debate between Bolton's supporters and detractors is over the role that multilateral institutions play in either amplifying or diminishing that power and whether U.S. power divorced from any institutionalized (i.e. predictable) set of rules serves America's long-term global interests.

Clearly, Bolton and his supporters believe that the trade-off between unfettered freedom of action and submission to external authorities is not only not worth the cost, but a dangerous abrogation of American sovereignty. Bolton's criticism of the U.N. stems not from an a priori aversion to partnerships and alliances -- as Wright would have it -- but from a resistance to formalized decision making that shifts the locus of rule-making to an unelected, and unaccountable, global bureaucracy. The steady accumulation of far-reaching, sovereignty-encroaching rules and institutions, such as International Criminal Court or Kyoto may not alarm some liberal internationalists (indeed, Wright has championed the process as a means to advance liberal ends) but it finds few backers in the U.S.[1]

Likewise in a unipolar world where the U.S. retains many of its Cold War collective security responsibilities it is unrealistic to suggest that the U.S. abide by the same rules as, say, North Korea. Banning nuclear weapons or biological arms sounds great in theory, but in practice would mean that regimes willing to break the rules -- like Iran and North Korea -- would have them and democratic countries wouldn't. At the end of the day -- as in Iraq -- many of the champions of liberal internationalism are willing to forgive disobedience to forestall war. It's an understandable impulse, but it does little to solidify the credibility of international law.

Liberal internationalists counter that abandoning the decades-long security architecture provided by the U.N. will harm America more in the long term than any short term trade-offs that result from the U.N. process. The loss of sovereignty entailed in submitting to international treaties is worth it, they argue, because the legitimacy it confers makes accomplishing U.S. goals easier, just as it's easier to swim with the tide, than against it.

It is also important, they argue, for the U.S. to be seen exercising its power according to a clear, established set of guidelines and on behalf of a system of laws that other nations must also abide. How else can the U.S. condemn the actions of a North Korea or Iran without reference to an agreed-upon, objective standard of international behavior? The question before the U.S., in this argument, is simple: either the U.S. supports a world run ostensibly according to formalized and predictable rules, or it creates a global "free fire zone" where any reference to external norms is moot. To the liberal internationalist, the argument that the U.N. is a deeply flawed vehicle no more discredits the idea of institutionalized global relations than the fact that egregious legislation (or legislators) discredits the U.S. Constitution.

There is also a more pragmatic argument: corrupt or not, most countries have accepted the role of the U.N. The more the U.S. is seen as spurning its framework, the more the world will view the U.S. as an unrestrained and hypocritical hegemon. In this view, the dominoes fall in Yoda-like succession: this perception will lead to more generalized anti-Americanism, which will lead to more countries distancing themselves from or even rejecting American leadership, which will lead to global alliances formed to off-set American unipolarity, which will lead to America losing its unipolarity prematurely and painfully.

New Rules for the New World Order

What the current impasse between Bolton and his critics demonstrates is that neither side has sufficiently grasped the challenges of the post Cold War world. Liberal internationalists insist on pounding a round peg (the U.N.) into a square hole (reality) while Bolton and his champions insist on the a-historical proposition that there "is no such thing as international law." As Philip Bobbitt notes in Shield of Achilles, from Westphalia to the Peace of Paris, every world power has sought to institutionalize its relationships with external powers, and codify a world order that appears to be in each powers' interests. These institutions change as the power dynamics and alliances shift, but new eras did not mean the abandonment of rule-making, it simply meant new rules.

Sadly, Bolton may be only half the nominee we need for our new era. He will usefully beat back the effort to encroach on American sovereignty represented by the ICC and Kyoto, but will he forge the new institutions needed to reassure the world that American hegemony is directed toward a beneficent world order? If the Democrats get their way, we may never find out.



[1] The U.S. Senate's resounding rejection of Kyoto and President Clinton's refusal to send the Rome Treaty to establish the International Criminal Court to Congress for ratification are a testament to a bi-partisan reluctance to surrender sovereignty to international entities.

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