To Strobe Talbott, it’s inevitable. To John Bolton, it’s surrender.
Sunday, January 27, 2008; Page BW04 SURRENDER IS NOT AN OPTION
Defending America at the United Nations And Abroad
By John Bolton
Threshold. 486 pp. $27
THE GREAT EXPERIMENT
The Story of Ancient Empires, Modern States, And the Quest for a Global Nation
By Strobe Talbott
Simon & Schuster. 478 pp. $30
These two works — each part memoir, part treatise on diplomacy — serve as bookends in our current debate about America’s role in the world.
John Bolton, most recently President Bush‘s ambassador to the United Nations, and Strobe Talbott, President Clinton‘s deputy secretary of state and now president of the Brookings Institution, have some things in common. Both attended Yale in the troubled 1960s: Talbott as a classmate of George W. Bush, Bolton two years later. Both are baby boomers who did not serve in the Vietnam War: Talbott went to England as a Rhodes scholar, while Bolton made a “cold calculation that I wasn’t going to waste time on a futile struggle.”
Their differences, however, far outweigh their similarities. Bolton, the son of a Baltimore firefighter, was a scholarship student who seems to have a chip on his shoulder about those he dismisses as the “High Minded.” Talbott has a patrician background and refers to several illustrious relatives in his book, including a distant connection to the Bushes. He also reports that the current president “mentioned a grudge he bore against me as a bookish, hyperearnest undergraduate and a representative of the East Coast liberal foreign policy establishment” that represented “much of what he wanted to get away from.”
After Yale, Talbott became a journalist for Time magazine, and Bolton became a lawyer, a fact he proudly mentions many times. Each writes with the grace of his original profession. Talbott’s political approach is liberal in the old-fashioned sense of the word, and he quotes Edmund Burke that “nothing is so fatal to a nation as an extreme of self-partiality.” Bolton’s political style is aggressive, viewing diplomacy as “advocacy; advocacy for America.” When Colin Powell, his former boss at the State Department, took a more multilateral approach, Bolton reports that he deliberately undermined Powell. “He knew it, and he knew I knew it.”
From start to finish, these books reflect their authors’ very different sensibilities. Bolton opens with his experience as a student campaign volunteer for Goldwater in 1964 and spends most of the book recounting his political battles in great detail. Talbott begins with a wide-ranging and lofty discourse on the concepts of empires, nations and states in world history. Both books conclude with a discussion of global governance, which is where they wholly diverge.
Talbott believes that global governance is coming — that “individual states will increasingly see it in their interest to form an international system that is far more cohesive, far more empowered by its members, and therefore far more effective than the one we have today.” Whether the United Nations will be the centerpiece of this new system is less clear to him. In Talbott’s view, the U.N. has the advantage of universal membership, global scope and a comprehensive agenda that makes it indispensable as a convener of governments and legitimizer of decisions, but also the disadvantage of being spread too thin; the sheer number and diversity of its members is a drag on its effectiveness. “To offset that defect,” Talbott writes, “the U.N. needs to be incorporated into an increasingly variegated network of structures and arrangements — some functional in focus, others geographic; some intergovernmental, others based on systematic collaboration with the private sector, civil society, and NGOs.” In other words, what Talbott envisions is not a scary, all-powerful bureaucracy deploying black helicopters over Kansas but rather a flexible mesh of international agreements and organizations that support each other. Only in this way, he contends, will the world be able to deal with such clear dangers as a new wave in nuclear proliferation and a tipping point in global climate change.
Bolton is skeptical of such visions. He thinks the Eastern Establishment self-identifies with Europe in a way that is “both seductive and debilitating.” In his view, the rapidly integrating countries of Western Europe show a proclivity to avoid confronting and resolving problems, “preferring instead the endless process of diplomatic mastication.” This “decline in European will and capacity,” he says, “is matched by the related phenomenon, beloved by many Europeans, of using multilateral bodies for ‘norming’ both international practice and domestic policy, a development that, over time, most profoundly threatens to diminish American autonomy and self-government, notions that to us spell ‘sovereignty.’ ” In other words, they want to constrain us by questioning the legitimacy of our unilateral policies. To reform the U.N., Bolton adds, contributions should be voluntary, and America should pay only for that with which we agree.
Both books have a point. The world today is a mixture of traditional international laws and agreements based on the sovereignty of individual nations and an emerging set of international humanitarian laws and norms that intrude inside sovereign states. The two are in tension and likely to remain so for decades. In 2005, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution regarding a “responsibility to protect” those endangered within sovereign states — a resolution that Talbott admires and Bolton derides. In practice, it has led to intrusive but inadequate interventions in such places as Darfur and Myanmar. Bolton is correct to warn that diplomacy is not cost-free and that U.N. diplomacy, in particular, is often convoluted and feckless. Talbott is correct to point out that “compromise, or at least the willingness to consider it, is at the heart of diplomacy,” and that the Bush administration’s efforts to act without international constraints rested on hubristic and flawed analyses of American power. We may not need permission from others to act, but we often need their help to succeed.
Talbott provides a far richer, deeper account of the idea of global governance in American foreign policy. He reminds us that as recently as 1949, 64 Democrats, including John Kennedy, and 27 Republicans, including Gerald Ford, sponsored a resolution in favor of world federalism. But Bolton reminds us that many far less ambitious measures would never pass the Senate today. Which book should you read? Both, but if you have to choose, pick the one you are more likely to disagree with, because you will learn more about the range of the current debate. *
Joseph S. Nye Jr., former assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration, is a professor at Harvard and author of the forthcoming “The Powers to Lead.”