When President George W. Bush nominated the outspoken John R. Bolton as his U.N. ambassador in March, it looked like the goal was to put a pit bull in New York to push for reform of the troubled, 60-year-old institution. In his long diplomatic career, Bolton, 56, who served as an Under Secretary of State in Bush's first term, has often railed against the U.N.'s ineffectiveness. But his appointment ran into opposition in the U.S. Senate, where it has languished ever since.
While the controversial nominee's fate remains uncertain, the surprise is that the Administration has recently shifted to a more conciliatory approach to the institution it once disdained. The White House is opposing a bill that would withhold half of U.S. dues to the U.N. until it adopts dozens of changes. Instead of playing hardball, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other U.S. officials have been meeting with U.N. diplomats and Secretary General Kofi Annan to discuss a compromise reform package that could win approval at a U.N. summit of heads of state on Sept. 14-16. "The prospects of a successful summit are improving," says Emyr Jones Parry, the British U.N. Ambassador, who is working on the compromise.
What accounts for the change in tone? The Bush Administration seems to have decided it has a big stake in the U.N.'s health and performance. Bush & Co. want a reformed U.N. to take on key tasks such as running Iraqi elections, supervising possible sanctions against Iran and North Korea, and keeping peace in Kosovo. "The U.N. system is critical to stability in the world," Under Secretary for Political Affairs Nicholas R. Burns recently told reporters. "It's important for us that [the U.N.] operate successfully," adds Marc Grossman, a former Administration official who is now vice-chairman of Washington consultancy Cohen Group.
All or nothing
Washington is backing a raft of Annan proposals to make the U.N. more effective. These include better auditing, more transparent purchasing rules, hiring based on merit instead of cronyism, and employee buyouts to cut the U.N. Secretariat's bureaucracy. The U.S. and Annan also agree on measures to replace the controversial Commission on Human Rights with a smaller council that will likely exclude chronic human-rights abusers from membership.
One threat to this spirit of compromise is the proposed expansion of the 15-member Security Council. The U.S. favors giving a permanent seat to Japan and perhaps one other country, and adding some rotating seats, but China opposes a seat for its Asian rival. Annan wants nine new permanent and rotating members, but the U.S. fears this would produce gridlock. Meanwhile, Germany, Brazil, Japan, and India have banded together to demand permanent seats, saying it's all of them or nothing. The debate "is proving to be very, very divisive," says Edward C. Luck, a U.N. expert at Columbia University.
The trick for reform advocates will be to delay a decision on the Security Council so the dispute doesn't derail other changes. That may be harder with a tough-talking Bolton in New York. But if Washington and London can persuade other nations to compromise, the U.N. might just implement its most important overhaul in years.
By Stan Crock in Washington
Edited by Rose Brady