President Bush discovers the world is flat

Johanna Mendelson Forman
18 September 2005

President George W Bush’s speech on the opening day of the 2005 United Nations World Summit, 14 September 2005, revealed that he had made a startling discovery: the world really is flat.

In a speech focusing on poverty reduction, development, and security, the president devoted almost a third of his text to the link between poverty alleviation, trade, and debt reduction; he even uttered three words that some had previously thought unspeakable in conservative foreign-policy circles: “We are committed to the Millennium Development Goals...”

Johanna Mendelson Forman is director of peace, security and human rights policy at the UN Foundation, and a senior associate of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Among her earlier articles on openDemocracy are:

“Things Kofi Annan can do now” (April 2003)

“From the ashes: a multilateral mission?” (August 2003)

(with D Austin Hare) “A 21st-century mission? The UN High-Level Panel report” (November 2004)

“In Larger Freedom: Kofi Annan’s challenge” (March 2005)

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Bush, moreover, connected the pursuit of these goals to international cooperation. Globalisation, the engine of development and poverty reduction, can be achieved if we work in partnership with others:

“We must tear down the walls that separate the developed and developing worlds. We need to give the citizens of the poorest nations the same ability to access the world economy that wealthy nations have, so they can offer their goods and talents on the world market alongside everyone else.”

The president’s conversion to development as a remedy for global poverty owes more to his recognition of the linkage between failing states and terrorism than to the more progressive elements of his Republican Party roots. Such a connection was clearly made in the United States’s new National Security Strategy promulgated in 2002; it continues to be the guiding force behind the increasing levels of bilateral development assistance in a post-9/11 world. Nonetheless, Bush’s rededication to development at the world summit marked an important rapprochement with an institution where, since the war in Iraq, the US has been at loggerheads with the basic principles of multilateralism in general and the United Nations in particular.

George W Bush’s very presence at the UN had been in doubt in the weeks before the institution’s sixtieth anniversary. During pre-summit discussions, US policy-makers were firm in their rejection of any American requirement to contribute 0.7% of its GDP annually to foreign assistance to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) of reducing global poverty by 2015. The new US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, even suggested that the term “Millennium Development Goals” be excised from the summit’s final document.

The approach backfired: the controversy arising from Bolton’s late intervention had the effect of making the MDGs a household word, and the international and US press had a field day with Bolton’s audacious attempt to insult the developing world by removing such a key term.

A detail helped secure the US’s reversal of its pressure to delete reference to the Millennium Development Goals: it was recalled that President Bush’s support for the US’s own Millennium Challenge Account during the Monterey Conference on Development in March 2002 meant that he had already committed his administration to a “new compact for development defined by greater accountability for rich and poor nations, alike”.

A cynic might argue that the dispute over John Bolton’s attempt to derail negotiations of the summit outcome document made Bush’s appearance at the UN essential. After it, the argument runs, the only way for Bush’s combative “recess appointment” to maintain credibility would be to produce his boss at the UN.

But a more careful analysis demonstrates that the Bush administration – Bolton or no Bolton – does see some benefit in working with others when it comes to fighting terrorism, seeking trade agreements, or preventing the spread of infectious diseases. In this light, it is highly significant that Bush’s speech contained a strong affirmation of the importance of the UN to certain US policy priorities – including the promotion of freedom and democracy, the fight against global terrorism, debt eradication, and reform of the reprobate human rights commission.

George W Bush recalled Franklin D Roosevelt’s 1945 appeal to multilateral problem-solving, saying that “the structure of world peace cannot be the work of one man or one party or one nation. Peace is the responsibility of every nation and every generation.” The conclusion could hardly be more affirmative: “at the start of a new century, the world needs the United Nations to live up to its ideals and fulfill its mission.”

A US learning-curve?

Despite these fresh noises, it is still unclear whether Bush’s visit to the UN will prove a turning-point. John Bolton, after all, did succeed in removing many of the important recommendations for UN reform, overturning months of deliberation among member-states (and reversing earlier work by the United States itself).

Three examples must suffice.

First, the final document makes no mention of controlling nuclear proliferation, a gap that Secretary-General Kofi Annan called “a real disgrace”.

Second, the US failed to get a much-needed commitment from other member-states to reform the arcane bureaucratic morass in the secretariat, which would have enabled it to address some of the oversight needs and personnel reforms required after the oil-for-food scandal that has consumed the UN’s leadership for more than a year.

Third, and ironically, the US gave only lukewarm support to one of the more crucial needs of the UN if it is to be truly representative of the global community in the 21st century: expansion of the Security Council to include existing or emerging economic powerhouses (Japan, India, Brazil, Germany) and to ensure that the European Union, Latin America, and Africa have access to the centre of international legal rulemaking.

It is too early to declare this world summit a failure. Getting principles about a Peacebuilding Commission and a reformed Human Rights Council on the table are achievements in and of themselves; so is the recognition of a “responsibility to protect” to prevent genocide. But what remains to be demonstrated is whether the US has the will to assert leadership in making the UN a more effective tool of international policy; will it support, through resources and diplomacy, the changes needed to match the rhetoric displayed in public statements like the president’s own summit speech?

If the Bush administration is going to answer this question, a primary lesson from Iraq should be at the forefront of its thinking (at a moment when the president’s approval ratings are falling over Iraq as well as hurricane Katrina). This is that trying to assemble a “coalition of the willing” outside the recognised structures of international law may be difficult in future confrontations that are bound to challenge an already overtaxed US foreign and military policy.

openDemocracy writers debate “A democratic United Nations?” :

Dan Plesch, “The United Nations in Bush’s firing-line”

Ian Williams, “It’s the nations, stupid!”

Julie Mertus, “The United Nations reform drive: a response to Ian Williams”

Now more than ever, the US must turn to the UN if it is to fulfill its counter-terrorism agenda by peaceful means. It is not too early to prevent violence and unilateral solutions in relation to deepening tension with Iran or a North Korea where recent diplomatic progress is always vulnerable to sudden refreezing – but doing so will require serious diplomatic skills, not just words.

Whether John Bolton is up to this job is still untested. He may have a hard time getting what the United States really wants in an institution not known for its speed and which works only by consensus. 2006 will determine whether the UN can celebrate its sixty-first birthday, or whether a different set of proposals altogether – replacing it with a “community of democratic states” – will gain traction on the global agenda.

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