Charles Brown: How the Bolton Debate May Spark a New Internationalism


One of the things that surprises me the most about the Bolton battle is that it has reignited a long-dormant debate over America’s role in the world. Skepticism over Bolton’s candidacy has led a number of Senators – including several leading Republicans – to reemphasize the need for the United States to engage more constructively with our friends. Even some of Mr. Bolton’s staunchest defenders have argued that the U.S. must do a better job of working with its allies.
As a result, for perhaps the first time in a generation, Americans are expressing their deep-seated belief that the United States should back a stronger, more effective UN. This should not be regarded as some sort of revelation: in poll after poll, more than 60 percent of Americans say they favor greater U.S. cooperation with the UN. But in recent years, such support has tended to be passive, and thus not part of the debate in Washington.
The Bolton nomination helped change that dynamic. In fact, the public backlash against Bolton has prompted many Senators to urge President Bush to honor his second-term promise “to work as far as possible within the framework of international organizations.” Particularly interesting is the fact that this has not been a partisan debate, but rather one between those (in both parties) who value U.S. engagement and international institutions and those (predominantly in the right wing of the Republican Party) who prefer unilateralism and disengagement. (I’ll be posting more on how this has played out in the Senate later today.)
Sadly, however, neither the Bush Administration nor a majority of members of the House of Representatives have followed the Senate’s lead. They continue to think that average Americans are either uninterested in, or unaware of, the rest of the world. They seem to believe that their constituents don’t care about international issues or are opposed to policies that promote U.S. engagement or a more effective UN.
As a result, they continue to adopt positions on global issues that are contrary to the opinions of a majority of Americans. The President’s dogged loyalty to Mr. Bolton is only one example. Another is the House’s recent passage of the Hyde Act, which would cut U.S. dues payments to the UN in half if the world body does not undertake a series of specific reforms by October 2007 – a ridiculously short (and impossible to meet) timeframe. (For the record, the Administration has stated its opposition to the Hyde bill, but it has not threatened to veto it.)
For some, such shortsightedness is a matter of principle. For many, however, it is in the mistaken impression that they are reflecting the views of their constituents. And for a cynical few, it is because they think the American people don’t care.
Further compounding matters is the reality that the very Americans who care about UN reform and other international issues also think that their leaders share their views. For example, a poll taken after the Presidential debates, during which George Bush repeatedly stated his opposition to the International Criminal Court, revealed that over half of those supporting the President’s reelection believed that he shared their support for the ICC.
We need to convince those Americans who believe in global engagement and UN reform that their leaders are not making the right choices. And we need to demonstrate to those in office that ignoring their constituents’ views on global issues comes at a cost.
The debate over Bolton has been a good start. But it’s only a beginning. If we persist, John Bolton’s most surprising legacy might be that his contentious nomination has laid the groundwork for the emergence of a new American internationalism – a movement that will once again see the United States promoting and strengthening effective international institutions capable of responding to a range of threats and challenges.
At Citizens for Global Solutions, we continue to work around the clock to oppose the Bolton nomination – and the possibility of a recess appointment. But if the President does decide to go around the Senate, it’s important to remember that Mr. Bolton’s time at the UN will be relatively brief and closely watched.
In contrast, the impassioned, bipartisan opposition that his candidacy generated could have an enduring impact on American foreign policy, one that will last far beyond Bolton’s tenure at the UN. For that to happen, the battle over Bolton must be the beginning, not the end of the struggle.