One of the most memorable remarks made by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was when she told an interviewer in 1987 that "there is no such thing as society". Thatcher's comment was intended to underline her belief that social progress came primarily through the actions of individuals rather than governments. Our first duty, she said, was "to look after ourselves", and only then, to look after our neighbour.
There is an uncanny echo between Thatcher's comments and the remark made five years later by a senior official in the US State Department that "there is no United Nations". That official was John Bolton, at the time — the last year of the Republican administration of George Bush Senior — assistant secretary of state for international organisations. In explanation of his remarks, Bolton, who is now the nominee of the current Bush administration to the United Nations itself, said that it was misleading to consider the UN to be "a disembodied entity out there that can function on its own".
There is an important element of truth in the comments of both Thatcher and Bolton. Each provided a timely reminder of the inefficiencies to which large, impersonal organisations can fall victim, whether governments or international bodies. They also highlighted the limitations to the power of such organisations to achieve deep social change. Thatcher was keen to throw cold water on the concept of the omnipotence of the state; Bolton was making the argument that there are clear limits to what the UN can achieve, and that excessive belief in its powers carries severe dangers of its own.
But there are also warnings in Thatcher's legacy for those in the US Congress (and Republican party) who are currently debating whether to endorse Bolton's appointment. Both appear to legitimate the rights of the strong to trample over the weak. In Thatcher's case, it led to a "me first" social mentality that has come to characterise the worst aspects of what remains known as 'Thatcherism'. In Bolton's case, the same threat lurks in his comments that "There is an international community that occasionally can be led by the only real power left in the world — and that's the United States — when it suits our interest, and when we can get others to go along".
A problem of style as much as content
It is tempting to take the analogy even further. Thatcher's failure as a politician – for which she was eventually rejected by her own Conservative party – was not the result of her philosophy. Rather it resulted from the style with which she sought to impose her philosophy, and the policies based on it, on others.
Her rejection of traditional values — whether 'conservative' or 'progressive' — may have done much to mould Britain into a strong, modern state. But her apparent contemptuousness of those holding such values, and the arrogance with which she expressed her own views, ultimately became an electoral liability, and the root of her downfall.
So it may prove with John Bolton. If his fitness for the UN post was being judged on his beliefs alone, then there is little doubt that his nomination by the Bush administration would have been approved by the member of the Senate Foreign Affairs committee several weeks ago. After all, the majority on the committee is made up of members of the Republican party who, like the Bush administration, have no great love of the United Nations.
To its credit, however, the committee concluded that evidence produced in its hearings of Bolton's past behaviour cast significant doubt on his suitability for the post. In particular, he was accused by former colleagues — 57 of whom expressed their concerns in an open letter to the Senate committee — not only of ignoring advice that he disagreed with, but of aggressively rubbishing the authors of such views, and in some cases even seeking their removal from their posts.
The issues at stake were not trivial. They involved one of the most complex and contentious areas currently facing the international community, namely the nature of the security risks posed by states that challenged US foreign policy.
Intelligence officials, for example, say that Bolton not only ignored the judgement of top biological weapons experts that Cuba was not developing such a weapons system — remember the 'evidence' used to justify the invasion of Iraq — but subsequently tried to get the experts assigned to other tasks. The move was only blocked by the intervention of Secretary of State Colin Powell; the officials testified that Bolton's handling of the issue had "sent a chill" through the intelligence community at the State Department.
It was incidents like these that persuaded Republican Senator George Voinovich last week to ignore his party allegiance and decline to add his vote to those of the committee prepared to back Bolton's nomination. As a result, the nomination has now passed to the whole Senate, where its fate hangs in the balance.
It would be wrong to dismiss the dispute between Bolton and his critics as a purely US affair. For his nomination to the United Nations comes at a particularly sensitive time for the organisation. On the one hand, it is about to embark on a wide-ranging set of internal reforms. Announced by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in March, these are designed to streamline the functioning of the organisation and bring it more into line with the realities of a post-Cold War, post-9/11 political environment.
Included within these changes are moves that have been regularly mentioned on this website. For example, they include the proposed appointment of a chief scientific adviser to the director-general, as well as the setting up of a top-level committee to provide advice on important science- and technology-related issues (see UN to set up science advisory mechanism).
At the same time, Annan himself is facing a personal crisis of confidence over his leadership. Allegations continue to swirl around concerning his involvement in the Iraq "food for oil" affair. In particular, an official inquiry into the role of Annan's son in allocating commercial contracts under this programme — an inquiry which Annan, perhaps unwisely, claimed as exonerating him from any wrongdoing — has failed to quell suspicion of his involvement in the affair.
Other issues continue to circulate within the UN system. While many UN organisations work in a highly effective way, too many agencies remain bound in unnecessary bureaucracy, and too many programmes are influenced by the self-interest of those responsible for them (and of those running its member states), rather than by either the effectiveness of their outcomes, or a genuine commitment to international action.
No-one denies that the system requires a significant overhaul. Nor that the United States, its most powerful member, is well placed to oversee the process and ensure its effectiveness. This is the case that supporters of Bolton make when endorsing his nomination, namely that — at least in principle — he could be to the whole UN system what Margaret Thatcher was to Britain in the 1980s.
A question of vision and trust
But the analogy should not be taken too far. The United Nations, despite what right-wing ideologues in the United States like to believe, is not a government. It is a collection of states of differing political complexion, seeking to hammer out a consensus that promotes peace, stability and economic development across the world, and to do so in a way that is simultaneously effective and politically viable.
Achieving this goal, as everyone involved in international politics is well aware, is a complex task. Frequently it goes wrong. And getting it to go right will certainly require some tough decisions (for example, on which new countries to admit to the Security Council, or how to amend its procedures to avoid diplomatic disasters such as the US-led invasion of Iraq). In such situations, strong-minded leaders of US delegations, such as Daniel Moynihan and Jeane Kirkpatrick, have frequently played a critical role.
But at the centre of any reform must be a shared vision and mutual trust between its members. Given the political realities with which the UN has to work, a shared vision will not be achieved by what has been called 'megaphone diplomacy', of the type that John Bolton seems to favour. Nor will trust be built by cursorily rejecting evidence presented by those whose opinions differ. Indeed it will be almost impossible to achieve by someone who has already expressed widely his lack of belief in the value of much of what the UN does.
The US Senate will shortly decide whether to confirm Bolton in his new position (unless, of course, the White House decides to limit the damage by withdrawing his nomination). If it declines to do so, it will not only have improved the prospects for an orderly reform of the UN system, but also increased its own credibility.
If it does appoint Bolton, then we may be due for a turbulent period within the UN which, however effective in securing change in the short term, could — like Thatcher's conservative government — leave a simmering political resentment for many years to come. It could also lead to some politically dangerous confrontations, for example over the nuclear weapons policies of Iran or North Korea. The fall-out from these, if not sensitively handled, could prove even more damaging.