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.

Nuts and Bolton
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Nuts and Bolton

Nominating John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations is a little like nominating Jeffrey Dahmer for surgeon general. You might think that Bolton's manifest antipathy toward the U.N. would have been enough to sink his nomination. But Bolton's supporters have turned the issue around. They say that the problem isn't U.N. haters, but swooning U.N. lovers, people who would gladly surrender American sovereignty to creeping global governance—and that Bolton is just the hard-nosed guardian of American interests to confront this peril.

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Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

New York Times columnist David Brooks says Bolton will stand steadfastly against "mushy international organizations" that "liberate the barbaric and handcuff the civilized," against "meetings of unelected elites, of technocrats who make decisions in secret," and against a "global governance" that "inevitably devolves into corruption." This "vaporous global-governance notion is a dangerous illusion," Brooks writes, and Bolton will help puncture it.

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But you don't have to be a global-governance visionary, or even a big U.N. fan, to oppose Bolton's nomination. Common-sense patriotism—the intelligent championing of national interest—will do. Hence the many Republican moderates who are uncomfortable with this nomination. And if there's a sense in which ardent U.N. aficionados are a problem, it's not because they're on the verge of squashing America's sovereignty, but because sometimes, in their enthusiasm, they give rhetorical ammunition to the David Brookses of the world.

Consider this much-viewed anti-Bolton video. To be sure, it is in many ways effective and on balance does Bolton more harm than good. When, early in the video, you see Bolton animatedly envision the partial destruction of U.N. headquarters, you do have to wonder whether that is the best place for him to hang his hat. And about 1:20 into the video, when Bolton gets really worked up, a hint of lunacy does creep into the picture.

Still, at least some of what Bolton says in the video about pursuing America's national interest could strike a liberal or centrist internationalist as technically defensible. And since the unspoken premise of the video is that Bolton's comments are self-evidently wrongheaded, some viewers may conclude that Bolton opponents reject the vigorous pursuit of American interests.

Bolton says in the video that "the United States makes the U.N. work when it wants it to work," and, in deciding when that is, "the only question for the United States is what's in our national interest." By itself, that makes sense. In fact, every nation should try to make the U.N. work when it wants it to work, and the U.S. will succeed more often than most, both because it is so powerful and because it is one of five nations with a permanent seat, and a veto, on the security council. That's what the great Democratic internationalist Franklin Roosevelt had in mind when he set the thing up.

Of course, some of us liberal internationalists might hope that occasionally impulses of pure American humanitarianism would find play at the U.N., but that isn't our big disagreement with Bolton. Our disagreement is over when the national interest is served by using various multilateral institutions, including the United Nations. We say: pretty often. He says: rarely.

As it happens, George W. Bush has embraced the logical foundation of our side of the argument: that in a modern technological environment, relations among nations are quite non-zero-sum. If this doesn't sound like Bush talking, that's because he puts the point in equivalent but less technical terms: America's fortunes are closely linked with the fortunes of peoples around the world. Freedom and order abroad help us, since tyrannies and failed states breed terrorists; health abroad keeps us healthy, since diseases cross oceans overnight; loose nukes in Russia threaten not just Russians, but us; and so on.

The good news is that, because of this non-zero-sumness—because the blowback from problems abroad is shared by other nations—it's in their interest to share the burden of solving them. That's what multilateral institutions, including the U.N., are for. A short TV ad put out by stopbolton.org, the same group that released the aforementioned video, is much more on point here (and its opening imagery rightly suggests that, increasingly, "humanitarian" intervention can serve the national interest).

But the chances of pursuing American interests via multilateral institutions will be dimmed if our man at the U.N. doesn't get the picture. And that's the problem with Bolton—not his apparent animus toward the U.N. per se, but his lifelong failure to perceive, let alone navigate, the non-zero-sum currents of foreign affairs.

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.

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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