John Bolton, the recently appointed US ambassador to the United Nations, has been criticized for the amendments that he has proposed to the draft communique for the forthcoming UN Summit. I’ve spent an interesting couple of hours reading through Mr Bolton’s proposed changes, which can be read in full here (large PDF file). They provide an interesting insight into Mr Bolton’s approach; and they are not all bad.
Many of the changes are just tightening of the language, adjusting some of the UN-speak into plainer English; reducing repetition and superfluous words (such as deleting "hereby"). I welcome a simpler text, though I do not think that it is worth disrupting international consensus to achieve this.
Another group of changes are aimed at eliminating favourable references to existing multilateral agreements. Some of these changes remove mention of agreements that the US does not support (such as the Kyoto Protocol and the International Criminal Court). More worryingly, other changes would remove references to agreements which the US has ratified. For example, the amendments would remove the references to the commitments by nuclear nations in the Non Proliferation Treaty (which the US has ratified) to take steps towards nuclear disarmament; and would take out the reference to the Convention on Biological Diversity. It is not clear whether this reflects a desire on the part of the US to step aside from these international commitments: if so, they should defend their new position openly, rather than try to back out of agreements by stealth.
The proposed changes relating to international poverty are the most interesting. The amendments would remove nearly all the references to the Millennium Development Goals. Until now, the official US position has been that it accepts the first seven UN goals, as set out in the Millennium Declaration of the General Assembly, but does not consider itself bound by the quantitative MDG targets that were subsequently defined as a way to measure progress towards the agreement in the Millennium Declaration; the US has also consistently opposed the eighth Millennium Development Goal (which is the one about developing a partnership for global development).
Many of the proposed US amendments have the effect of removing a bold attempt by the UN system to put itself in the role of coordinating international development policy, instead of the World Bank and IMF. For example, the amendments would remove this:
We further reaffirm the need for the United nations to play a more decisive and central role in international development policy and in ensuring coherence, coordination and implementation of the development goals and actions agreed by the international community …
On this, I think Mr Bolton’s amendments are right. I recognize that there is a case to be made for the UN to play a more central role in promoting development: it is possible to argue that the UN has more legitimacy (because countries are represented on a more equal basis); and some people feel that the World Bank and IMF promote a particular ideological view of economic policy, where the UN bodies would accept a more diverse range of opinion about the best way to achieve poverty reduction. But whatever the theoretical merits, the UN system is too dysfunctional to take on responsibility for coordinating development policy; and the World Bank actually does rather a good job at the moment. I also agree with the basic tenets of the so called Washington Consensus; and I don’t believe it is in developing countries’ interests to weaken our resolve to base poverty reduction on a common set of broad policy goals which include macroeconomic stability, free and open markets, political accountability and investment in the health and skills of people. Effective international development policy is too important to allow people to play politics with it; until the UN system is reformed and shows itself capable of taking on this role, the US is right not to endorse a shift of power and responsibility to the UN. (The appointment of Kemal Dervis as the Administrator of UNDP is a good first step towards the UN becoming more effective.)
But while I agree with blocking language which attempts to shift power from the World Bank to the UN, the other changes to the draft conclusions on development seem to me to be much more sinister.
Recall that in 2000, world leaders (including the President of the United States) signed up to a Millennium Declaration which said:
We will spare no effort to free our fellow men, women and children from the abject and dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty, to which more than a billion of them are currently subjected. We are committed to making the right to development a reality for everyone and to freeing the entire human race from want.
The process of drafting by committee has done much to obscure the really important issue of the September UN summit: are we willing to accept, now in 2005, that we are not going to meet the lofty objectives we set for ourseves in the Millennium Declaration? Or are we going to do something about our failure to act, which will require more resources and greater efforts on the part of rich countries? This conference could have been the moment at which the world is shamed by its failure to act to meet the objectives it set for itself, and galvanized into action. If we do not do so now, it will be impossible to meet the 2015 objectives. By removing references to the Millennium Development Goals, and the likelihood that they will not be met, the US approach would ensure that we do not face up to what is arguably the world’s most important challenge.