Is “Multilateralism” the Next “Liberalism”?

The Financial Times captures a very interesting political approach to John Bolton’s UN nomination. Apparently, Republicans want to highlight Democratic willingness to “sign over security to the international community”:

Bush Camp Sees UN Move as Blow to Democrats

A senior administration official acknowledged this week that Mr Bolton’s nomination had a subtle but beneficial unintended consequence. The coming debate could paint the Democratic party as multilateralist — a word that may describe an admirable ideology, much like liberalism, but which carries negative connotations in US politics.

When asked whether the argument over Mr Bolton threatens to make the Democrats appear aligned with the French and Germans, the official responded: “Worse. They look like Canadians.â€

I’d tread carefully if I were the administration. For one thing, while the public may currently have many questions about the UN, especially as the Oil-for-Food scandal continues to be investigated, such sentiments don’t necessarily translate to the kind of broad UN skepticism that Bolton represents. For another, multilateralism is a bit more complicated than liberalism is. With the latter, you can conjure up a variety of blue-state cultural stereotypes then fairly easily hammer a politician like John Kerry. The former, by contrast, is comparatively harder to relate to.

In general, the UN ambassadorship is just a pretty arcane position. To pull off their strategy, the administration will have to invest time and resources into the issue, and these investments could carry significant political risks. So Republicans should think hard about whether they might be overstepping.

FILED UNDER: United Nations, , , ,
Robert Garcia Tagorda
About Robert Garcia Tagorda
Robert blogged prolifically at OTB from November 2004 to August 2005, when career demands took him in a different direction. He graduated summa cum laude from Claremont McKenna College with a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics and earned his Master in Public Policy from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.


  1. bindare says:

    I think the Bolton appointment is a great move and will hardly be seen by the non-partisan majority in this country as overstepping. All Mr. Bolton has to do is refrain from attacking the institution of the UN directly and instead attack the hypocritical practices of the UN as they occur. For example, Americans who are not already infected with anti-semitism would agree with Bolton if he were to strongly chastise the UN for singling out Isreal for censure while giving every sleazy dictator a wink and a nod for their atrocities. When blue helmits who are sent to help and protect people instead rape and sodomize their children, they need to be censured by the USA and Mr. Bolton will do it quite loudly and I believe the majority of Americans will applaud him for it.

  2. RD says:

    Here’s why I’m okay with Bolton [warning – I agree w/my colleague above but take 5x as long to say it]:

    In spite of the U.N.’s rank hypocrisy, corruption, grand larceny, fraudulent intent, flagrant human rights abuse and reckless undermining of world security, the Democrats are kissing up to the organization because the popular wisdom — reinforced and trumpeted by the world press — claims the U.N. is a force for good in the world. (I agree that it ought to be, but at the moment it isn’t.)

    The Democrats are virtual slaves to this “wisdom”, though there are plenty who know better, because they would be dead if seen on the “wrong” side of the multilateralist debate. The world press at large has ignored or hidden the U.N.’s “rough edges” in order to make the facts fit the story so to speak. Democrats haven’t been able to speak out about it lest they be [unfairly] judged. The media continue to give the U.N. a pass on the lies and contradictions at its core, and we are all endangered because of it. Unfortunately basic common sense has been lost in the process.

    On the other hand, Republicans — personified by Bolton (whose “popular wisdom” obviously does not revolve around the BBC or CNN International) — have no such restrictions. They are freed from the burden to parrot the “U.N. is inherently good” message. As much as it allows them to exaggerate from time to time, it also allows them to tell the truth about the U.N. (And right now, that truth is unpleasant to say the least.)

    The hope is that Bolton will make such an issue of the problems that the media will have no choice but to confront their own handling of the U.N. “beat”. If and when the news media decide to report on the U.N. accurately and fairly, the popular wisdom of what is “good” or “right” will change overnight. The Democrats, as is their perpetual habit, will follow right behind (in a rush to be on the “right” side of the moral argument once more). The Republicans, having agitated for change to begin with, will hardly be in a position to criticize meaningful reform (even if that reform preserves some U.N. prerogatives they may not agree with in principle). The way it looks to me, far from separating red and blue, it would unite us on solid, common ground.

    The more esoteric uni- vs. multilateral debates some of us claim to want can wait. To some degree it’s beside the point. If we begin to address the U.N. honestly, and cause that organization to become what it should be, one day multilateralists might be able to count on an institution worthy of those ideals, instead of a cesspool of intrigue controlled by thugs and their pinstriped lackeys.

    I am not saying there aren’t good people working for the U.N. (I’ve met a couple and have even heard of several others.) The problem is that they are routinely chewed up and spit out. They are simply no match for the evildoers pulling the strings at the organization’s various bureaucracies.

    As to Bolton: I’m as optimistic about him as Moynihan was [proven] correct. The investment, the effort, and the overstepping, are worth it IMO.

  3. RD says:

    Am convinced of the following, rightly or wrongly:

    * The U.N. is guilty as charged. Not just on individual issues, but in a systemic, fundamental way.
    * The U.N. is not likely to reform itself and will need a consensus from outside to demand reform.
    * The press and entertainment media have shaped public opinion on the U.N. for better or worse through their overly reverent and uncritical tone.
    * There is more than enough explosive information to sink the U.N.; the press is aware of it but has chosen not to present that information to the public.
    * Presented carefully, that information could spare the U.N. and help drive a consensus for meaningful reform.
    * Mr. Bolton’s appointment is not due to petty partisanship; “this time” the mission is serious and bipartisan.
    * Bolton’s appointment may be controversial, but tagging it as a petty political maneuver is arrogant. It’s a willful misperception meant to infer casus belli for a vicious “counterattack” by the Democrats in Congress (really an attack disguised as a counterattack). This is “overstepping” and we ought to be wary of it.
    * Bush’s move is a “blow” to Democrats only if they choose to make it so.
    * Bush’s move is a “blow” to the U.N. only if they fail to address their own failings responsibly.

    The indictment of the U.N. is justified on its merits, and no one – Democrat or Republican – ought to give aid and comfort to the status quo. The Dems could attack Bolton while coming out just as strongly against the U.N., but this tactic – though shrewd politically – is not the moral position to take. They have had opportunities to stand with the Bush administration on this issue but did not take them. Doing so now while attacking Bolton in the guise of “principle” is neither necessary nor credible politically (though the press will no doubt give them the benefit of every doubt if they wish to try).