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Bolton, Holbrooke '62 face off over U.N. at Janus Forum

Former U.N. ambassadors John Bolton and Professor-at-Large Richard Holbrooke '62 outlined contrasting visions of the United Nations and its role in U.S. foreign policy to a crowded Salomon 101 Thursday afternoon. Bolton criticized the U.N.'s ineffectiveness, while Holbrooke highlighted its importance as a forum to advance U.S. interests.

The U.N. is flawed and often corrupt, Bolton said. The only solution to render it more effective and accountable is to allow member states to contribute funds voluntarily and for specific purposes they approve. Too often, the U.N. also seeks to exert influence on issues that should be left to the domestic political process, said Bolton, who was appointed to his post by President Bush in 2005.

Holbrooke, a Clinton appointee, said the U.N. is "a flawed but vitally important institution" whose effectiveness and influence is only as great as that of its component nations. The U.N. remains a useful forum for the United States to promote its security and other interests, he said, and should be strengthened, not undermined.

Bolton and Holbrooke, who holds a position at the Watson Institute for International Studies, also staked out different positions on dealing with hostile nations such as Iran and North Korea and the precise role of a U.N. ambassador in representing U.S. interests.

Bolton served as ambassador to the United Nations in 2005 and 2006 following a recess appointment by Bush. He was not confirmed to that position by the U.S. Senate because concerns about his brusque style and his past criticism of the U.N. led some Senate Democrats to threaten to filibuster his appointment rather than allow it to come to an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor. Bolton had previously served as undersecretary of state for arms control in the Bush administration.

Holbrooke, also a former Herald editor-in-chief, served as U.N. ambassador from 1999 to 2001, after previously serving as U.S. Ambassador to Germany and brokering the Dayton Accords in 1995, which put an end to the violence among warring factions in Bosnia. He was appointed to his current post at Watson in February 2007.

The event was sponsored by the Janus Forum, a student arm of the Political Theory Project, which seeks to advance diverse viewpoints on campus.

Both ambassadors spoke for just over 20 minutes, then took questions from the audience. Bolton proceeded quickly and forcefully through his prepared remarks, while Holbrooke, who spoke second, struck a more solemn, methodical tone.

Bolton began by describing the U.N. as a "vast and sprawling enterprise," one which too often oversteps its bounds by participating in "norming" - attempting to override domestic political processes "within constitutional democracies like ours" on issues such as gun control and the death penalty.

Bolton also criticized the U.N. Security Council, which he said "has done next to nothing" to combat terrorism since the Sept. 11 attacks and will likely be too "gridlocked" to deal effectively with the major issues of the 21st century.

Because the Security Council isn't an impartial "guardian" of the international system, Bolton said, the United States should not consider Security Council approval a necessary condition for its foreign policies.

Bolton called the U.N.'s problems "endemic." The bribery and corruption that characterized the U.N.'s Oil-for-Food program to help feed a population under heavy economic sanctions in pre-war Iraq is far from uncommon, he said.

Bolton also criticized the U.N.'s Commission on Human Rights, which he sought to reform during his term as ambassador, for being corrupt and ineffectual and for including human rights violators among its membership.

To achieve meaningful change at the U.N., Bolton said, the organization's funding structure must be completely overhauled.

Under the current system, countries must contribute a fixed amount to the U.N.'s annual budget, he said, about 22 percent of which falls to the United States. Meanwhile, about two-thirds of the countries in the U.N.'s General Assembly - a passing majority - collectively bear only about 5 percent of the cost.

Instead, Bolton proposed, contributions to the U.N.'s budget should be voluntary and targeted for specific programs or uses. "Let each member contribute as much as it wants to programs it considers effective," he said. "We will insist on a principle that I don't consider revolutionary, which is that we will pay for what we want and get what we pay for."

Such a change would represent "a good, market-based test" that would make U.N. programs "more effective, more transparent and more responsible," Bolton said. If countries can choose the programs they'd like to fund, then only efficient programs will receive funding, he said.

"Even the U.N.'s strongest advocates know it is a deeply flawed institution," said Holbrooke, stepping to the podium next. But he said he agreed with "a very small amount" of Bolton's statements.

Bolton's proposal to make U.N. funding voluntary amounts to a "poison pill," Holbrooke said. "If you support that, you are supporting the death of the U.N."

The U.N. is too often criticized for inaction or ineffectiveness, when it is really a handful of influential nations who have failed to take the steps necessary to solve international problems, Holbrooke said. For example, the Security Council has unanimously passed a resolution calling for action to put a stop to the crisis in Darfur, he said, but influential countries like the U.S. have failed to follow through by committing resources.

"The U.N. can only do, tin cup in hand, what its member states want it to do," Holbrooke said. "If you're upset about Darfur, don't blame the U.N. Blame the United States."

Holbrooke said he agreed with Bolton that there are many instances of corruption in the current U.N., and that the Commission on Human Rights is among them.

But, he said, "if we weaken the U.N. and at the same time turn to it for help," as in the case of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, "we only weaken ourselves."

Holbrooke also said he agreed with Bolton that the U.S. should not consider U.N. approval a prerequisite for action, citing the 1999 NATO bombing in Serbia to protect ethnic Albanians in Kosovo as an example of military action not authorized by the U.N. that was nonetheless necessary and effective.

But, he added, the Clinton administration worked through the U.N. as much as possible and it ultimately played a crucial role in administering Kosovo in the years since the violence there ended. That situation illustrated both the limitations and the usefulness of the U.N. for advancing U.S. interests, Holbrooke said.

The U.N. is important to the U.S., Holbrooke said, in part because U.S. investment in U.N. peacekeeping operations, for example, "gets highly leveraged returns." It is expensive for the U.S., which funds 27 percent of all U.N. peacekeeping, to support an international force, but not nearly as expensive as carrying out such operations on its own, he said.

After the prepared remarks, in response to questioning on diplomatic engagement with Iran and North Korea, Bolton and Holbrooke advocated different approaches. Holbrooke stressed the importance of diplomacy, saying he believed that "you can and should talk to your adversaries" and that the current Bush administration diverged from historical precedent in not doing so.

He also said that it was a shift toward more direct negotiations with North Korea on the part of the Bush administration that eventually yielded progress in getting that country to abandon its efforts to obtain nuclear weapons.

Bolton suggested that his differences with the Bush administration on that policy shift played a role in his decision to step down from his post at the U.N. rather than seek reappointment. Negotiations, especially with countries seeking nuclear weapons, he said, only buy time for weapons development to progress.

The two also articulated different conceptions o
f whom they were serving during their terms as ambassador in response to a question. Holbrooke said that he thought of himself as serving the interests not just of the president who appointed him but also the Congress that confirmed him - a Republican one, he noted.

Bolton disagreed, saying that he considered himself directly accountable to the secretary of state and president who appointed him. He would like to have the support of the Congress, he added, but didn't consider it necessary.


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