When you’re in a hole, you don’t need a spade

by Stephen Tall on June 16, 2006

My favourite commentator (probably), the Financial Times’s Philip Stephens, published a fascinating article last Thursday, The UN serves US interests, noting the pained emasculation of the USA’s ambassador to the UN – the neo-con’s neocon – John Bolton:

The ambassador, I have heard a US official observe, is one of those people who calls a spade a spade. The downside, this official lamented, was that to Mr Bolton’s eye almost everything looks like a spade.

The cataclysmic failure of US and British foreign policy in Iraq has, of necessity, altered views in the Bush administration. Slowly, the President and his top advisors are beginning to work out the realpolitik of why America should seek engagement with the UN:

As an official in the state department, [Mr Bolton] epitomised the assertive nationalism that drove US foreign policy during Mr Bush’s first term. Scornful of international institutions and law, he openly celebrated America’s muscular unilateralism.

The administration has travelled halfway back from this position. It has accepted, albeit grudgingly, the value of legitimacy in the exercise of power. It still instinctively favours coalitions of the willing over rules-based multilateralism but has at least begun to make the effort. …

If the wilder ambitions of Mr Bolton have been decisively checked by Iraq, America remains the indispensable power. How it exercises that power determines the shape and stability of the global system. We can probably expect no more of this administration than its reluctant conversion to pragmatism. But one of these days an American president needs to explain that Roosevelt and Truman were not altruists. They built the UN because, for all its inevitable flaws, it serves American interests.