Bolton's Broken World

ROSA BROOKS
Rosa Brooks, an associate professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, will be writing a regular column for The Times.

New York Times

June 13, 2005

Despite his well-earned reputation as a bully and a blowhard, John Bolton, the guy who says "it is a big mistake for us to grant any validity to international law," seems poised to become the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Anyone who doesn't see why Bolton's attitude is disastrously mistaken should picture his first days as ambassador in a world where no one grants any validity to international law.

First, Ambassador Bolton is surely going to want whip all those foreign diplomats into shape. Particularly the French, with their foie gras and snooty "Je-told-you-so" attitude about Iraq. So maybe he will start by sending a letter summoning the French ambassador back to New York from the Riviera. But, oops! Bolton would have a hard time sending his letter, because in a world where no one grants the validity of international law, why would the French abide by the Constitution of the Universal Postal Union and related protocols? That's the treaty that pledges nations to deliver mail with foreign stamps. Without it, foreign postal officials would toss U.S. letters into the trash.

So, no letter to the French ambassador. Fine! Bolton can focus instead on the Germans, who are also a real pain in the butt, what with their insistence on taking the human rights high road to make up for their Nazi past. Bolton could pay a visit to Germany, spreading the good news about U.S. dominance — I mean, uh, leadership — and reminding the Germans about the Marshall Plan.

Except that it would be hard for him to get anywhere if no one respected the Convention on International Civil Aviation of 1944. That's the treaty that permits overflights of sovereign airspace. Without it, sovereign states would be free to shoot down any foreign planes appearing overhead. So maybe Bolton's plane would be forced down over, say, Croatia. Now, it's fair to say the Croatians probably wouldn't be amused at a violation of their airspace, especially given that little misunderstanding they had with the U.S. a few years ago. Bolton might not recall it — after all, there were so many little misunderstandings, with so many little countries. But the Croatians still remember how, under Bolton's leadership, the U.S. suspended foreign aid to Croatia (and other allies) just because Croatia wouldn't promise not to turn U.S. war crimes suspects over to the International Criminal Court. So perhaps the Croatians would arrest Bolton.

Of course, as an ambassador, Bolton could try to claim diplomatic immunity. But in a world where no one accepts the validity of international law, Croatia would feel free to ignore the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Naturally, Bolton would demand that the U.S. consul be informed of his arrest, but because the Croatians would be using their copy of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations as toilet paper, he'd be out of luck there too.

Bolton would just have to wait for the Marines to rescue him. They could — after all, isn't the U.S. still the preeminent global military power? And even with all our recruiting woes (oops, that Iraq problem again) we ought to have a few guys left who could be spared for such a mission. Still, these things take time, so Bolton would have to cool his heels for a while. Maybe his jailers would let him watch CNN. But, uh-oh, no satellite communications without the U.N. Principles Governing the Use by States of Artificial Earth Satellites for International Direct Television Broadcasting!

OK. OK. You get the idea. Although many Americans associate "international law" with controversial issues such as disarmament treaties or the International Criminal Court, the overwhelming bulk of international law has to do with the mundane but essential ways in which nations cooperate to make life possible in our interconnected world. And if Bolton really believes that international law is a dangerous evil, he has no business serving as ambassador to the U.N. He should head back to law school for a little refresher course instead.

To be fair, Bolton is also famous for remarking that "there is no such thing as the United Nations." So maybe he's only interested in the ambassadorship because he sees it as the next best thing to retirement.

Of course, if what Bolton really wants is early retirement, the Senate could just give it to him.