Why John Bolton doesn't understand self-interest.

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
June 7 2005 6:52 PM

The Bolton Videos

See John make new enemies for America.

(Continued from Page 1)

As Bush's undersecretary for arms control for the nearly four years since 9/11, Bolton has had an epic chance to show that he gets the picture. Policing weapons of mass destruction is an increasingly important non-zero-sum game, something that many nations have a stake in and that can succeed only with the cooperation of many nations. Thus, Bolton could have championed international agreements that make weapons facilities abroad, as well as potentially nefarious "dual-use" industrial facilities abroad, more transparent. Instead, he has opposed such initiatives because, under them, American facilities would undergo the same monitoring as foreign facilities. (I cited specific examples in an op-ed last month.)

At the root of this stance is Bolton's conception of national sovereignty—his belief that America can best control its destiny by eschewing constraints on its behavior. What he seems not to grasp is that non-zero-sum dynamics typically make controlling your own destiny impossible in the absence of cooperation with others; and cooperation with others typically means agreeing to do certain things in exchange for their agreement to do certain things.

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I'm not just talking about "agreeing to do things" in a legalistic way. There is also the informal logrolling among nations that is a prerequisite for making the U.N. a vehicle for American interests. On that first video, Bolton says the United States should only "make" the U.N. work "when it wants it to work." But since 14 other nations have a Security Council vote, and four of them have a veto, we can never make it work without someone else's support. And sometimes making it work in ways that are important to us but less important to others will mean agreeing to help, say, Britain or China make it work sometime down the road in ways that are important to them and not obnoxious to us. If you take another look at that Bolton video, you'll get the distinct impression that this sort of dynamic is alien to him. The U.N., he seems to believe, should be briefly animated on those occasions when it directly serves vital American interests and should spend all other moments as a corpse. ("There is no United Nations," as the nominee for U.N. ambassador puts it.)

Or, if you don't want to look at the video, look at Bolton's life. His defenders dismiss as irrelevant the parade of former colleagues who have testified that he is an abrasive, abusive, bullying creep. But what does it mean when most people who have worked with a person dislike him? It probably means he has a highly zero-sum view of the social landscape and thus misses the opportunity to profitably play non-zero-sum games (i.e., make and keep friends). And it means he misses the same point that Bolton misses in the context of the U.N.: It's not enough to seek allies when suddenly some multilateral project is really important to you; you have to have built alliances by helping allies on projects that are important to them. Building international support, like building social support, is a long-term project, best left in the hands of people who understand this.

Now Bolton, in having to scramble desperately to secure confirmation, is paying for all the enemies he's made in Washington. To some extent America is in the same position. Under President Bush it has made more enemies than it had to, because his foreign policy has been counterproductively unilateralist and gratuitously antagonistic. But there is hope that Bush has turned over a new leaf. He vowed to nurture alliances in his second term, and his inaugural address tied America's welfare to the welfare of people abroad.

Sen. John Kyl, R-Ariz., says the "character assassination" of Bolton is intended to provide a "smokescreen" for the real aim of Bolton opponents—opposition to Bush's foreign policy. But if Bush is telling the truth about his hopes for multilateral cooperation, Bolton won't serve Bush's foreign policy; he'll just make us more enemies. And all that "character assassination"—evidence that Bolton doesn't know how to pursue self-interest at the individual, much less national, level—explains why.

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