Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Devil and Bolton

On Wednesday, the General Assembly rested to allow the Latin America group to decide what to do in the face of the deadlock between Guatemala and Venezuela over the region's temporary Security Council.

A Devil's Bargain


Ian Williams writes that the United States may well have its way and exclude Venezuela from the UN Security Council, in retribution for Hugo Chávez's diabolical roast of George W. Bush. But doesn't the world have larger issues to worry about?

At midday Tuesday, the sixteenth ballot in the proxy sumo wrestling match between Venezuela and Guatemala for the Latin American seat on the UN Security Council made the 2000 Florida recount seem like a consensual vote of acclamation.

Although the seat represents the Latin American and Caribbean region in the UN, and Venezuela had a clear majority there, the whole General Assembly votes for contested seats. It takes a two-thirds majority to win the election; although Guatemala, the United States' favored candidate, was a clear leader in the first four ballots, the repeated attritional voting only shifted a handful of votes to and fro.

But as the delegates got exhausted and frustrated, the swings became wider; at one point Venezuela and Guatemala reached neck and neck at ninety-three votes each. After three inconclusive ballots, Mexico and, mysteriously, Cuba put their respective hats in the ring, each getting one vote. By Tuesday morning the swings had reduced again. The rules allow alternating triplets of ballots in which any country can declare candidacy in an attempt to break the deadlock.

But this is a grudge vote of attrition between the United States and its opponents. The repeated voting has been unmatched since the three-month marathon in 1979 between Cuba and Colombia. But to maintain that took the discipline of the cold war. The whisper has it that the Dominican Republic is waiting to climb over the bodies of the contending parties when the delegates get too tired to carry on. The United States will support that; in fact, it will support almost anyone but Hugo Chavez but will do so discreetly to avoid the reaction that overt Washington sponsorship brings.

The vote, whether delegates like it or not, and many do not, has developed elements of a popularity contest between the United States and Chavez. Many delegates would like to look at larger issues, and certainly among the nonaligned nations are some who may not totally appreciate Chavez but who think that Guatemala suffers from being Washington's standard-bearer.

There is indeed a tradition in the UN for delegates to use the secret ballot to show what they think of overweening American diplomacy--for example, the United States lost a seat on the Human Rights Commission in 2001. Many observers at the UN--including myself, frankly--thought that Venezuela would be a shoo-in for a two-year term on the UN Security Council. But delegates clearly are refusing to have parameters dictated to them.

If, as seems likely when the delegates get tired and a consensus candidate emerges, and Hugo Chavez loses, he will doubtless interpret it as vindication of his denunciations of the United Nations as an American-dominated anachronism. He will miss the point. A body of 192 countries, a majority of whom have have often publicly voted to deny and rebut idiosyncratic American interpretations of international law, chose not to vote for Venezuela in a secret ballot.

That goes beyond Chavez's diabolical roast of George W. Bush during the September 21 general session. Chávez supporters could indeed point to almost equally ludicrous statements from the Bush Administration, but one hopes for higher standards. The first impulse at the UN is to try for consensus, which is difficult enough with John Bolton representing the United States but would not be helped with a perpetual dogfight between him and Chávez.

Additionally, even if Chavez's domestic human rights record is by no means as bad as Washington depicts it, his diplomatic record on human rights at the UN is associated with the world's worst. Venezuela abstained along with Iran and Belarus on the formation of the new Human Rights Council--but then, to put it in perspective, Israel and the United States voted against it!

Ironically similar to the Bush doctrine, recent Venezuelan diplomacy has argued that absolute state sovereignty protects Chavez and any of his friends from international scrutiny but assumes the right to interfere anywhere else. While the US media played up Chavez's buffoonish shtick against Bush, they overlooked his equally intemperate attacks on the "Responsibility to Protect" adopted unanimously at the previous year's UN summit, which under current circumstances is tantamount to providing diplomatic cover for the Sudanese mass murders in Darfur.

Delegates may indeed question the US doctrine of presidential infallibility, particularly in relation to Bush, but watching murderous impunity in Sudan, and seeing a nuclear North Korea rising, will not attract them to Chavez's reflexive opposition to everything Washington stands for.

UN members do not want to expel the United States from the United Nations, nor to mount a crusade (let alone a jihad) against the world's only superpower. They want to engage the United States in a constructive way, even if this often appears as unrequited love. They assume, probably correctly, that comfortably elected South Africa, Italy, Belgium and Indonesia will be more constructive and selective in their opposition.

So while the United States may have its way in excluding Venezuela from the Security Council, it is unlikely to have the entirely pliable Council it would like. Domestically, however, the Administration would certainly declare a Venezuelan defeat to be another notch on John Bolton's belt, and use it to reopen the issue of his confirmation, or to justify an end run around an overly strict interpretation of the law on recess appointments. For most people, the millenarian visions of both Chavez and Bolton would be a distraction from the pressing issues that face the UN and the world.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Ban and the Bomb

Talk to Pyongyang, not at it

By Ian Williams
Asia Times
Knowing North Korea's penchant for symbolism, one cannot help wondering whether the timing of its apparent nuclear test was meant to rain on Ban Ki-moon's party as the United Nations secretary general-designate. As it was, the business of selecting a South Korean as the world's secular pope was rushed through with almost unseemly brusqueness by the UN Security Council so it could discuss Kim Jong-il's diversion.

The General Assembly will probably confirm Ban's appointment, predictably with no dissent, on Friday. It is probably too late now for his Sunshine Policy of engagement with North Korea to be held against him.

But it has been noticed that John Bolton, the US ambassador to the UN, expressed complete and almost proprietary satisfaction with Ban's appointment. It is almost reassuring to note that the US envoy's soulmates in the conservative Heritage Foundation had expressed doubts about Ban's suitability, citing Seoul's reluctance "to confront North Korea on human rights or its belligerence and nuclear ambitions" and alleging that "Ban has said little about UN reform, and there are questions about his commitment to it. The current government in South Korea campaigned in 2004 with strong anti-United States rhetoric." [1]

Even so, the Security Council agreed a unanimous statement condemning North Korea's action, and even more predictably showed signs of deadlock as the various parties put forward their widely differing tactics for resolving the issue.

Last week, Bolton had said the UN was not the "alpha and omega" of such disputes. As one of the cartographers of the "axis of evil" that lumped Iraq, Iran and North Korea together, he should know. It is indeed axiomatic that virtually no one is happy about Pyongyang's test, but it is entirely legal, and one of the reasons for that is the United States' and Bolton's diehard fight against improving the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime.

North Korea finally opted out of the NPT in 2002, which it was perfectly entitled to do, but would not have been if the treaty had been strengthened, as most delegates wanted. Bolton, who does not believe in international treaties that bind the US, or for that matter Israel, frustrated any attempts to strengthen the NPT regime. The administration of US President George W Bush has been trying for years to inch toward renewed nuclear testing, regardless of the NPT agreement to reduce and run down existing nuclear-weapons stocks.

Nonetheless, for once - perhaps it is the stopped-clock syndrome - Bush is entirely correct. Although there are more than a few degrees of hypocrisy involved in existing and new nuclear powers who have never signed the NPT, the entire world community, committed as most nations are to the non-proliferation regime, is upset at Monday's explosion.

And as the International Court ruled over Libyan sanctions, Security Council decisions override any existing international law, so in the unlikely event of a strong resolution emerging, North Korea is in deep trouble.

The comrades in Pyongyang are certainly not the most cosmopolitan types, so one could almost forgive them for misreading signals. Israel has 200-plus nuclear warheads, and gets billions of dollars of free money, with the diplomatic equivalent of a Monopoly game "get out of jail free" card. Pakistan gets lots of support, even as its prime nuclear scientist is proved to have been disseminating bomb kits in the Muslim world. India explodes a bomb, and Washington subsequently rewards it with an offer of civilian nuclear technology. What conclusion is Kim supposed to reach from this?

For once, Bolton's unilateralist supporters who traditionally argue that the UN should not put obstacles in the way of US diplomacy are right, at least in the cases of North Korea and Iran. This is not really the UN's business. Both regimes are trying to get the US to talk to them, and the UN, the six-party talks and similar devices are simply fig leaves to cover up the United States' refusal to engage in diplomacy. It cannot bring itself to say publicly that it has no intention of making war on them.

One could admire the principles, if they were consistently applied. However, welcoming President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan as a visiting anti-terrorist hero, while maintaining relations with Uzbekistan, suggests that there is more than a little wiggle room in the Bush administration's principles.

Former US ambassador to China James Lilly has a constructive suggestion that would appease the arcane sensibilities on both sides. He suggests that Washington should send an envoy to Pyongyang to persuade them to restart the six-party talks.

I can cap it with my own modest proposal. Washington should send Oliver North of Contra-scandal fame to Iran and North Korea, with or without a Bible and key-shaped cake, and talk seriously to them about matters of mutual interest, such as making sure that weapons go to US-licensed freedom fighters. The Israelis can provide airlift and service agreements as they did for Irangate, and that will hush any objectors in the US Congress.

If this seems a little far-fetched, one has to consider the alternatives. Perhaps the only thing worse than an overtly nuclear North Korea is the consequences of letting the Bush administration provoke Pyongyang with a naval blockade or other attacks on sovereignty.

It is in everyone's interest to let the North Korean regime have a soft landing rather than take actions to confirm its paranoia. In any contest between the approach of Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney and the Ban-China approach, the latter wins hands down.

1. Electing the Next United Nations Secretary General Is an Opportunity to Press for UN Reform, Heritage Foundation, July 25.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Will Bolton Still Love Him Tomorrow?

Low-Key Leader for High-Anxiety Times


October 3, 2006
The Nation

Short of major catastrophes, the next UN Secretary General will be South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon. On Monday, at the first UN Security Council straw poll that revealed the vetoes hitherto held up the delegates' sleeves, Ban had fourteen votes to encourage his candidacy, and only one "no opinion."

The Council agreed that the official vote would be taken October 9. A separate vote by the General Assembly--strictly a formality--is expected to follow shortly.

US Ambassador John Bolton was wearing an uncharacteristic smile when he came to the microphone outside the Council chamber to give his spin on the almost certain confirmation of Ban. Some observers saw joy at the election of Bolton's favored candidate, others the smile of an assassin wiping his blade and contemplating his handiwork, scuppering other candidates with a discreet and anonymous veto.

But Bolton's smile may be premature. Short of illegal and/or unprecedented maneuverings by the Bush Administration, Bolton's influence at the UN will soon be over. His temporary "recess appointment" expires at the end of this year, and prospects are dim for a Senate hearing to confirm his appointment.

It may also be premature to regard Ban as a puppet who would dance to strings pulled by Washington. Much was made in the UN about his statement at a recent Asia Society event, that the United States was the "most important member" of the United Nations. But this was surely just a statement of the obvious. The Secretary General's key relationship is with Washington--and under George W. Bush's direction this demands almost as much psychotherapy as it does diplomacy. Kofi Annan has been mutually supportive with Powell and Rice, and while one may argue about how far he should have gone, those relationships have certainly have had some pragmatic benefits for the world.

Washington, as Bolton has said, has long wanted a UN leader who is "more Secretary than General." But the more lucid members of the US establishment know that the UN's power is its prestige--its "unique legitimacy," as Annan puts it--and that cannot happen with a leader who is merely a clerk. If the organization is to have global legitimacy, the Secretary General must have moral authority--and the role has developed over the years to the point where it has become almost a secular papacy.

In the early days of the UN, the Secretary General mediated between power blocs in the absence of any effective opposition to the United States; his job today is clearly to mediate between the United States and the rest of the world. It is a job that Annan, in the absence of visible support from the Bush Administration, has been undertaking quite successfully for his two terms: reminding Washington of basic principles without going out of his way to antagonize incumbent office-holders there.

When asked about the handling of such relationships, Ban has referred to South Korea's exposed geopolitical position between Russia, China, the United States, North Korea and Japan. In fact, South Korea's Social Democratic government has indeed performed a noteworthy tightrope walk: It cannot do without the United States, in case North Korea does go over the top, but it has distanced itself from the wilder talk in Washington about possible solutions while doing the minimum necessary to keep the United States engaged.

South Korea has maintained good relations with China and Russia, while engaging as constructively as possible with its northern neighbor, which now and again hints that it is prepared to nuke its way to unity. And South Koreans are actually grateful to the UN, which delivered for them, albeit with the usual caveats that accompany any extension of the UN franchise to the US military. Ban comes to the job, in fact, with impressive references.

Most of the world's countries do not want a grandstanding, evangelical multilateralist at the UN's helm. They would actually prefer someone who is quiet, laid-back and principled--but not noisily so--because otherwise his position would have no moral authority.

Ban's speeches keep stressing "harmony," and that seems to be just what the world wants in a Secretary General: someone who can turn down the volume and the heat in bellicose situations. His challenge will be to hang on to basic principles in the face of pressure not only from the United States but also from China, which is similarly idiosyncratic in its view of multilateral norms and the UN Charter.

Over the years, devout US Republicans have often been appointed to head UN agencies and within months or years have come out sounding like Swedish Social Democrats. In the case of Ban, one suspects that he will fill the position in a similar way, expanding to fill the role--but he will not have to change his stripes to do so.

In his campaign for the post, Ban has expressed strong and unequivocal support for the International Criminal Court, and for the "Responsibility to Protect," the concept of humanitarian intervention accepted in principle at the 2005 Heads of State Summit. John Bolton has spearheaded the Bush Administration's drive to eviscerate the ICC for the last five years.

Ban has given no indication of abandoning basic international principles, whether to be elected or to keep Washington happy. His quiet approach may well be the last laugh over the stentorian Bolton and the American UN knockers--who may not be in office in five years when his reappointment is due.

Even so, looking at his low-key campaign for the seat, one hopes that Ban's public profile and oratory have hidden depths waiting to be displayed. Even a secular pope has to know how to preach.

Monday, October 02, 2006

UNsuitable Candidates for US

Playing for time at the UN
By Ian Williams

Updated version of Friday's post, looking at the candidates..appeared in Asia Times

NEW YORK - There was a chance - albeit a very remote one bearing in mind the stately progress of United Nations Security Council deliberations - that by Monday evening New York time the council would be able to declare a new secretary general. For the first time, however, the council was to conduct a realistic straw poll, in which the veto-holders would have different-colored ballots.

Even at this late stage, the only assured result is that Kofi Annan's successor will be an Asian - even if there is some
uncertainty about which Asian it is. There is an increasing
likelihood that South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon will be the council's choice, but it is far from certain.

Ban ended up leading the pack, but with fewer votes than he earned in the previous straw vote on September 14. One delegate who once supported Ban has now lost interest and in effect abstained, while another voted to "discourage" his candidacy. But none of the other candidates could muster enough support to match Ban's 13 "encouragements". And none of the fearless delegations would actually admit to being one of the two nay-sayers.

But was that "discourage" vote a tactical offer to negotiate, or a flat-out veto? Was the loss of interest an invitation to try harder? Some delegations hinted darkly that the British and French were negotiating to overturn Annan's recent decision that removed their previous duopoly over peacekeeping and political affairs.

Or were delegates playing for time in the hope that former Thai deputy prime minister Surakiart Sathirathai, battered by a coup at home and a poor straw-vote showing, would pull out? Would that clear the way for another candidate from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), where Singapore, always productive of potential candidates, has two or three in hand?

In previous years, the Security Council would solemnly consider even self-nominations to the post. This time the council decided that countries had to nominate candidates. In some ways, this is antithetical to a core principle of the UN, since the secretary general is an international civil servant, above country.

The overt national sponsorship has led to what is almost a caste hierarchy for candidates, who have benefited from their governments' support for their campaigns. Rivals are already scrutinizing recent deals among India, South Korea and other voting powers for signs of undue influence reminiscent of a US election.

And perhaps to everyone's relief, it spared them considering voting against Aung San Suu Kyi of Myamnar, unlikely to get the generals' nomination and unlikely to get past ASEAN consensus.

Surakiart, Thailand's candidate, handicapped by the coup, was kept in the running by the military government's enthusiastic support for his campaign - which of course may actually backfire with some delegations and certainly must cause some chagrin to other ASEAN wanna-bes.

The second runner-up hitherto has been Shashi Tharoor, the Indian candidate currently heading the UN's Department of Public Information - and incidentally a prime mover behind Annan's original candidacy. He is clever and articulate - which in this race may well work against him - and, most damning to some, a UN insider.

But just as the sub-Saharans never really regarded former secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali, an Egyptian, as a genuine African, the concept of a secretary general from Asia was sorely tested by the candidacy of Prince Zeid of Jordan. He did surprisingly badly in the straw poll, perhaps because of fears of what the apocalyptic Christian right would make of a descendent of the Prophet sitting in the world's most prominent seat. But his poor showing had more to do with the fact that East Asians and South Asians don't really regard Arabs as Asians.

Jayantha Dhanapala, Sri Lanka's veteran disarmament diplomat, did surprisingly badly in the straw polls too, unless you consider that successful advocacy of disarmament does not always sit well with a select group that includes the world's leading arms merchants. Anyway, he took the hint and dropped out, just as two new candidates popped up - whom the British, French, and thus presumably behind the scenes the Americans seem to want to make space for. Ashraf Ghani, finance minister of Afghanistan, is articulate and opinionated (good opinions too!) to the extent of being Shashi Tharoor with a bonus calculator.

With Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, perhaps the only real question is whether the Russians or the Chinese would veto her first, but while she has an argument - gender balance suggests it is more imperative for a woman's "turn" rather than an Asian's - enough delegations are committed to Asia to scupper her chances.

The biggest objection to Ban Ki-moon, who allegedly has support from both China and the United States, is his perceived lack of charisma and his emphasis on harmony. US commentators seem to regard him as reliable, which means, from their point of view, pliable.

However, hearing him speak, one is struck by the resemblances to Kofi Annan at the start of his tenure. No one who only judged the public appearance of Annan would have suspected the way he expanded to fill the office. Being soft-spoken is not inconsistent with having firm principles.

As Ban evokes it in his stump speeches, being foreign minister of South Korea requires serious tightrope-walking skills, among the US, China, Japan and the North, but no one looking at Seoul's recent foreign-policy stances would see him as an enthusiastic cat's paw for the US administration, while many governments would prefer a pragmatic diplomat to a preachy secular pope.

However, that does not preclude, indeed rather requires, the moral stature gained from having what the late British foreign secretary Robin Cook termed an "ethical dimension" to the job.

For example, Ban expresses strong support for the International Criminal Court and for the Responsibility to Protect - the doctrine of humanitarian intervention adopted in principle at least year's World Summit. Neither China nor the United States is totally ecstatic about either concept, but both are perceptive enough to realize the slimness of the chances of any candidate who opposes bedrock UN decisions.

In fact, the US would be hard put to find any candidate even remotely morally, intellectually or politically acceptable to the rest of the world who would accept Washington's views on multilateralism.