Blocking Reform at the U.N.


New York Times

December 2, 2005

Muscular diplomacy is one thing. But John Bolton has been all muscle and no diplomacy as the United States ambassador to the United Nations. Now he's threatening to hold up its entire two-year operating budget unless his demands for major reforms are met almost immediately.

As it happens, the American reform agenda contains many good elements. No one can seriously argue that the U.N. is a rationally structured, efficiently managed body. And letting countries like Cuba, Libya and Sudan sit on a human rights commission that judges the records of other countries diminishes the U.N.'s most important authority, its moral authority. But just as the Senate feared when it declined to confirm Mr. Bolton in the job, his blustering unilateral style is turning him into one of the biggest obstacles to achieving changes that had been within reach before he appeared on the scene.

Two basic changes are needed to repair the U.N.'s tarnished reputation. First, significant authority over appointments and management needs to be shifted from the General Assembly, which has 191 members, to the secretary general's office. Just as important, the secretary general (a new one will be chosen next year) must exercise this new authority wisely, boldly and effectively.

The most important specific reforms include establishing a permanent human rights council made up of countries that respect human rights, creating a commission to oversee the reconstruction of societies devastated by armed conflict, and giving the secretary general the authority to recommend ending missions that have outlived their usefulness and to make senior appointments based on merit, not regional quotas.

Doing these things will require a close alliance between reformers and the secretary general's office and the ability to convince General Assembly members that a more credible and effective U.N. is in their interests. Those are exactly the areas where Mr. Bolton has done the most damage. His demands and his threats to bypass the U.N. if it doesn't bow to them have fed the impression that the whole reform agenda is a power grab by Washington. Hard as it is for Americans to believe, much of the world now suspects Secretary General Kofi Annan of being Washington's lackey.

Mr. Annan made a promising start earlier this year at building a consensus for reform, only to have it derailed by Mr. Bolton. Soon after taking over the American mission this summer, he issued a long list of last-minute demands. As a result, a special international summit meeting that had been organized to adopt real reforms ended up endorsing a document that was mostly fudge and mush.

Mr. Bolton's latest threat, to block the next U.N. budget, is likely to be equally counterproductive. America's most successful U.N. ambassadors, whether they served Republican or Democratic presidents, have known how to harness American power to patient, skillful diplomacy. Regrettably, Mr. Bolton has failed to profit from their example.