This article appeared in The Times UK on November 15, 2016. Click here to view the original article.
By John Bolton
November 15, 2016
In the closing days of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, crowds at his rallies frequently broke into chants of “Drain the swamp!” The swamp in question was Washington, which Trump voters generally saw as interested only in preserving its own comfortable status. “Swamp” was a particularly insightful characterisation, recalling the 19th century when European diplomats considered Washington a hardship post because of its hot, humid summer weather, and the miasmas emanating from the swamplands along the Potomac. By analogy to British politics centuries ago, Mr Trump’s coalition reflected the “country party” against the “court party” in Washington.
There is also considerable swampy territory abroad, where international organisations sometimes act as if they are governments rather than associations of governments and sprout bureaucracies with pretensions beyond those of cosseted elites in national capitals. These international swamplands have thrived under the Obama administration, but their days may now be numbered.
International bodies take many different forms, and it serves no analytical purpose to treat them interchangeably. Nato, for example, is not equivalent to the United Nations. Neither is equivalent to the European Union. Each has different objectives, and different implications for constitutional and democratic sovereignty. For a century, the sovereignty issue has been central in US foreign-policy debates. Starting with the Senate’s 1919 rejection of the treaty of Versailles, to the 1999 defeat of the comprehensive test ban treaty, to America’s 2002 unsigning the treaty creating the International Criminal Court, preserving American sovereignty has been an important principle.
Similarly, the Brexit referendum was, above all else, a reassertion of British sovereignty, a declaration of independence from would-be rulers who, while geographically close, were remote from the peasantry they sought to rule. The peasants have now spoken. Unable to drain the Brussels swamps alone, Britain walked away, which the US has itself done on occasion, withdrawing from Unesco under Ronald Reagan (joined by Margaret Thatcher’s Britain). The Brexit decision was deplored by British and American elites alike, but not by most US conservatives, and definitely not by Donald Trump.
It does not surprise Americans that British elites have not reconciled themselves to losing: their counterparts in America are equally appalled that somehow mere voters rejected the heir apparent to the presidency, and many are now in the streets protesting. They would all be better advised to heed Alexander Hamilton’s comment about the House of Representatives during New York’s ratification debate over the constitution, “Here, sir, the people govern.”
Indeed, ultimately the people do govern. In America, popular sovereignty is embodied in the constitution’s first three words: “We the people.” By endorsing Brexit, British voters have put the bilateral US-UK relationship at the top of Washington’s agenda after Inauguration Day.
Although the transition is still young, Mr Trump has always had a decidedly different view of Brexit from Mr Obama, who contemptuously warned Britain that it would go “to the back of the queue” in trade negotiations if Leave prevailed.
Now, with some imagination and resolve, London and Washington can fashion a new economic relationship, perhaps involving Canada, with the potential for significant economic growth. Let the EU wallow in strangling economic regulation, and the euro albatross that Britain wisely never joined.
Unravelling Britain’s EU bonds will doubtless be difficult and perilous, especially if EU political theologians prevail over commonsense businesspeople. Rewriting trade rules with the United States will also be complex, but the potential economic upside for both countries is enormous.
This is a unique opportunity, and why a successful trade deal should be at the front of the diplomatic queue for both governments.
Nato received considerable attention during the presidential election as Mr Trump criticised member governments whose defence budgets were inadequate. His concern for European under-spending on national security was no different from what US officials, on a bipartisan basis, have lamented for decades. Importantly, Mr Trump has made it clear that his intent is to strengthen Nato, which has been floundering in the post-Cold War era, with its objectives in doubt and its decision-making increasingly sclerotic.
Nato is America’s kind of international partnership: a classic politico-military alliance of nation states. It has never purported to assume sovereign functions, and is as distant as is imaginable from the EU paradigm.
Looking forward we should urgently consider the proposal by José Maria Aznar, the former Spanish prime minister, to make Nato a global alliance. Mr Aznar has suggested admitting new members such as Japan, Australia, Singapore, and Israel, a dramatic departure from Nato’s original transatlantic focus, but which recognises new global realities. Much depends on whether Europe’s Nato members still have a global perspective, or whether they are content for Europe to be simply an appendage to the Asian land mass.
Then there is the sprawling United Nations system, which provides the most dramatic opportunity for change in international organisations. Proposals to reform the UN and its affiliated bodies such as the World Bank and the IMF are almost endless. The real question is whether serious, sweeping reform of these organisations (which make Nato decision-making processes look like the speed of light) is ever possible.
We have not lacked for daring ideas in this field. In 1998, during the Asian financial crisis, the former secretaries of the Treasury William Simon and George Shultz, and Walter Wriston, a former chairman of Citibank, wrote in The Wall Street Journal: “The IMF is ineffective, unnecessary, and obsolete. We do not need another IMF, as Mr [George] Soros recommends. Once the Asian crisis is over, we should abolish the one we have.”
They were willing to think creatively about what new circumstances required, including discarding international organisations no longer fit for purpose.
Twenty years on, we still need such creativity, not just regarding the IMF but the World Bank and the regional development banks. We should consider privatising all the development banks, with the possible exception of the one for Africa. There is no lack of investment capital globally, and private capital flows now easily eclipse concessional flows, with the gap growing steadily larger. We should ask why US taxpayers are compelled to provide subsidised interest rates for loans by international development banks that benefit foreign competitors. As US domestic budgets decline over the next several years to reduce the budget deficit and begin whittling away at our enormous national debt, these international expenditures will receive exacting scrutiny.
The United Nations and its vast array of programmes and specialised agencies are ripe for reform. Much of what has marginalised the UN for decades is inherent in the international political system. National interests continue to dominate in UN decision-making and that will never change.
At best, the UN’s chief political bodies, especially the security council, will reflect the larger world. At worst, which is unfortunately all too often, the peculiar cultures of UN enclaves such as Geneva and Turtle Bay in New York make UN deliberations more otherworldly and irrelevant than most outsiders can imagine.
The one reform that might make a difference is financial. Most UN agencies are funded by “assessed” (meaning mandatory) contributions; agency budgets are decided and then each government pays a percentage of the total determined by arcane calculations and intense private bargaining. The assessed-contribution mode is especially grievous for the United States, whose assessment rate is generally 22 per cent of regular budgets, and 25 per cent for UN peacekeeping (under a US statutory cap; it would otherwise be over 28 per cent). Britain’s regular budget share is 4.46 per cent, and 5.8 per cent for peacekeeping.
As with all entitlement programmes, UN agencies funded by assessed contributions underperform, often in dramatic ways. By contrast, agencies funded by voluntary contributions often function far more effectively. Unicef, the World Food Programme and others have tended to be more agile and productive, largely because they understand that failure to perform will motivate funders to direct their money elsewhere.
Voluntary funding is what the UN needs across the board. We should shift all UN agencies from assessed to voluntary contributions as rapidly as possible. This will be exceedingly difficult diplomatically, given the inevitable wailing and gnashing of teeth from UN bureaucracies, and even from member governments.
A European diplomat once told me that his country could not be allowed to decide for itself its level of contributions, but had to be told. That is not a winning argument in America.
So much to do and so little time to do it. Revolutionary moments in international affairs occur but rarely, and many potential eras of sweeping change never materialise because of the timidity of political leaderships.
Neither Britain nor America seems in a timid mood today. Let’s hope we can deliver.