The Future of Intervention

The UN is not yet prepared to handle international crises, leading Derek Chollet to consider McCain's plan for a new international organization.
  • Transcript


Question: Will the next American president need to act unilaterally, or is the UN prepared to collaborate? 

Derek Chollet: It’s not prepared to do it, it needs more reform, but I’ll do more than that. Another sort of thread throughout the story of these years is coming to grips with the potential but also the shortcomings of multilateralism, particularly the United Nations. Remember, this era begins with George H.W. Bush pronouncing the New World Order and expressing high hopes for the United Nations for working. George H.W. Bush had been an ambassador of the United Nations in the early 1970s. He loved being an ambassador to the United Nations so for him this was a dream come true. But then throughout that era we see sort of a story of people having to come to accept that the U.N. has real limits. The cost of maybe putting too much hope and too much power in many ways to an institution like the U.N., but at the same time we couldn’t get rid of it. When Clinton leaves office, the United Nations is an institution that we’re still working in and Kosovo was a classic example in which the United States had tried very hard to get U.N. Security Council authorization to act in Kosovo, to be able to stop Milosevic, the dictator’s repression of a Muslim minority in Kosovo. They were never going to get U.N. Security Council authorization to do so because Russia and China would veto the U.N. Security Council. So they used another institution like NATO. I think the difference is between Bush and Clinton, Bush 43 and Clinton, and I think the next president, whether McCain or Obama, will face and I think we are seeing differences with McCain and Obama, is that Bush came in office believing that the U.S. really didn’t need any U.N. authorization or any kind of international blessing, so to speak, to legitimize its actions. Of course it would be fine if we had partners but we don’t really need partners. We’re powerful enough. It would be nice just to share the burden but there’s no sort of inherent legitimacy that the U.N. lends. The Clinton administration had a different approach. They cared more about having partners, not just for instrumental reasons to share the burden but because they believe that having partners bestowed a certain sense of legitimacy on American power essentially. But that didn’t mean that they would sort of only work with partners. I think with Clinton the mantra was together if we can, alone if we must. And with Bush it was the opposite. It was alone if we can, together if we must. The impulse for Bush was that they didn’t want to work with allies that much because they weren’t interested in having any kind of hindrances on the use of American power and moreover, they didn’t think we really needed it. I think what’s interesting looking at the current campaign, Obama I think is squarely within this sort of Democratic tradition, big D, Democratic tradition, when it comes to multilateralism. He’s made very clear he believes in strong global institutions, he believes in having the U.N. work as well as it can, but he’s also realistic about its potential not to work. But he’s committed to try to fix it as well as think about building other institutions. John McCain is also interesting on this. He’s talked more about global institutions than any Republican presidential candidate has for quite some time. It’s interesting, in 1996 the campaign, we recount this in the book, then the Republican nominee, Bob Dole, used the U.N. and the U.N. Secretary General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, as like a punch line. He would sort of purposefully mispronounce Boutros-Ghali’s name on the campaign trail. They really tried to use the U.N. as a stick to beat up Clinton with, and now you have McCain saying much different things about the U.N. He’s clearly more in the conservative tradition but he’s gotten the message, I think, that we’d learned in the last seven or eight years but unfortunately I think we knew in the ‘90s and then the Bush administration came in and didn’t want to accept it, but I think the Republicans had gotten the message that institutions do matter. We have to be realistic about what they can actually be, and we have to be true to ourselves in the sense of no U.S. president should ever let any international body have a veto over what he deemed to be an American interest, particularly when our security’s at stake. But I think people understand that institutions matter. It’s good for our actions to be seen as legitimate in the world and it’s good to have partners. 

Question: What is the viability of the new Alliance of Democracies? 

Derek Chollet: Well McCain has actually floated it. Obama has not although some of his more prominent advisors have been in their own personal capacities supportive of it. I think that it’s both less and more than we should make it. I personally give McCain some credit for being a conservative who’s willing to talk about global institutions and as someone who is a liberal and who believes in making global institutions stronger and that that’s in America’s interest to do so. I think it’s significant that a Republican feels the need to talk about institutionalism. Now what McCain is saying, and I think this point is true and I don’t think many would argue on either side of the political aisle about this, is that our current architecture, institutional architecture for the globe: the U.N., the G-8, is not really relevant to the current power configuration _________________. The G-8 doesn’t have countries like China and India and Brazil, and it’s supposed to be the leading economies of the world. The U.N. Security Council is, in many ways, the permanent members with a veto, the permanent five members, were the powers who won World War II. So it’s reflective of the moment 1945, not 2008. So the first part of McCain’s message, which is we need institutions to be more relevant to today’s challenge, I think everyone agrees with it. His only answer so far is this league of democracies. Again, on the one hand I give a conservative credit for talking about the importance of global institutions and I think my view is the more institutions, the merrier, but here’s the reality. I don’t know of many other leading democracies who are really enthusiastic about the idea of joining or creating a league democracies. Without that I think it’s hard to see how something like this gets off the ground just as a practical matter but I think it would be unwise for liberals to sort of discount it completely because you don’t want to look as though you’re sort of defending the rights of authoritarian regimes, who sort of used their special role in councils like the U.N. Security Council to thwart action in places like Darfur, where there are many liberals who believe, as do I, that we probably need more of an international role in ending the genocide in Darfur.

Recorded on: 07/08/2008