The vanguard of muscular diplomacy

Less than two weeks until World Bank shareholders vote on Paul Wolfowitz's nomination to head the Bank and the protests continue to build. Naming John Bolton, a vigorous critic of the United Nations, to serve as US ambassador to the UN had seemed bad enough. But now President George W. Bush wants the head of the World Neocon Conspiracy to lead the ultimate philanthropist's bank. What is he trying to do, destroy these institutions?

The opposite, in fact. Multilateralists around the globe ought to be thrilled about these choices. These men are not going to endanger the future of the UN or the World Bank. Those futures are already in danger. Rather, the new candidates may turn out to be the institutions' salvation. For both men are strong enough to bring about change when change is necessary. Theodore Roosevelt gets cited too often in the context of the Bush administration but this time the comparison is apt. "Speak softly and carry a big stick." If Messrs Bolton and Wolfowitz get their jobs, they will practise muscular diplomacy.

To understand the novelty of the current moment it helps to look back a bit. A United Nations is a good idea - maybe. But long ago the UN began to veer away from its original mandate of preventing wars. By the 1970s it had made itself into a stage for anti-Americanism. By 1975 its General Assembly had passed the "Zionism is Racism" resolution, thereby denying the legitimacy of the only democratic state in the Middle East. Problems were always blamed on the US-Soviet standoff, yet after 1990, they persisted.

The US, for its part, played a critical but distant role - withholding dues, pushing reform only intermittently. Today the UN is still a theatre, alternating between tragedy and farce. It was tragic to see Libya named chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights. The oil-for-food scandal was also tragedy. But the UN policy on gender? Farce. On the one hand, the UN hosts sanctimonious "women's summits". On the other its high commissioner for refugees, Ruud Lubbers, must resign over numerous allegations tha the sexually harassed female subordinates for years. Even centrist Americans nowadays view the UN as bankrupt and dispensable.

The World Bank's troubles are subtler. The development bank was created to promote global growth. Yet all too often over the decades it has wilfully neglected the variables of both democracy and micro-economics in the growth equation. It has become obsessed with the environment. And it has battled too little for the entrepreneur and too much against poverty. The latter has often been a vain battle, especially when thuggish governments confidently sabotage- or profiteer from - Bank initiatives.

To address such challenges, 1990s' US administrations mostly tried noisy conciliation. Bill "Mr Diplomacy" Richardson, the US ambassador to the UN in the mid-1990s, came into office talking as though the UN's problems were confined to brand image. ("It's important that we rebuild a constituency in the United States for the UN. The UN is not popular," he told CNN). Republicans in Congress undermined both him and Madeleine Albright, his predecessor, by withholding UN dues. The result was that UN ambassadors spoke loudly but carried no stick. At the World Bank, likewise, diplomacy has tended to be the emphasis. James Wolfensohn, the departing president, works hard to be loved - and he is. But this in and of itself has proved a problem.

The new nominees by contrast are not conciliators. Mr Bolton wants to defenestrate the most egregiously corrupt diplomats and to steer the body back toward to the original intent of its framers: war prevention. Mr Wolfowitz served at the Pentagon in a period when it led the restructuring of Nato. On Friday he said carefully that he will not impose a "US line" at the World Bank. Still, he is likely to mount a similar restructuring there and shift its emphasis to nation-building and economic growth. His World Bank projects will reflect his experience in Indonesia where, as ambassador, he promoted stability and growth by promoting openness (read: democracy). In the 1990s, Mr Wolfowitz wrote prescient papers on the costs of inaction in foreign policy. He will make a good partner for Karen Hughes and Condoleezza Rice at the State Department in facilitating the creation of economic opportunity in the Middle East (translation: pressuring dinosaur Egypt).

The resistance to Mr Bolton and Mr Wolfowitz will be strong. But neither man is accustomed to popularity. Mr Wolfowitz, after all, has served as the human flak shield for foreign criticism of the Iraq war. As for Mr Bolton, as assistant secretary of state in the early 1990s, he successfully completed what was probably the least desired job in the federal government: walking around Manhattan's East Side knocking on individual embassy doors to beg for signatures for the repeal of "Zionism is Racism".

In other words, these candidacies represent tremendous change. Messrs Bolton and Wolfowitz will engage. The US now does pay its UN dues. Congress now will back up the envoys of the executive. And when the US-led coalition removed Saddam Hussein by force, it created a very big stick indeed. The pair can speak softly and still achieve more than predecessors. We can choose to resent this. Or we can recognise that it is all of our good luck.

© Copyright 2005 Financial Times

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