Wednesday, March 16, 2005

International Power 

My first reaction to seeing Samantha Power's comment in the New Yorker on John Bolton's appointment as ambassador to the United Nations was to recall that she was pretty cute when we were in college together. She wasn't much of a drinker and seemed entirely immune to my many charms but she had a great smile, eyes that sparkled and an impressive figure.

My second reaction was to remember how annoying her politics were. She was always saying that what the world needed was another government with weapons, fighting men, and the power to tax, jail and destroy. She seemed entirely immune to any evidence about the dangers of global governance.

A typical conversation with Samantha would go something like this.

Samantha: "The lack of an international enforcement mechanism is a terrible weakness for international law that needs to be remedied through creating new institutions and stregthening existing ones."

ManhattanTransfer: "It's pretty when you push your hair back like that and get excited."

Samantha: "Can you take your hand off my knee? Did you know you're spilling whiskey on your shirt?"

ManhattanTransfer: "Let's find some place quieter to talk."

What I should have told her was that she needed to learn more more about how laws are made, adjudicated, and enforced, how institutions are subject to popular accountability or captured by special interests, and how liberty can be protected or eroded through the structure of government. International law as conceived by Power lacks any effective mechanisms for constraining arbitrary authority, preventing manipulation by private agenda and safeguarding liberty.

I'm of two minds on John Bolton. One the one hand, he's expressed a healthy skepticism of nation building and humanitarian warfare. It's to to be a good thing to have someone in the Bush Administration foreign policy aparatus who things that "the idea that we can national build for somebody else is just unrealistic." Great. Can we bring the lads and lasses home from Iraq now?

On the other, he's been a reliable ally of the neoconservatives who got us into Iraq and seem to be sharpening their knives for battle with Iran, Syria, Korea and China.

Samantha, however, doesn't suffer from multiple-mindedness on the subject of Bolton. Or rather, she's dead against him, even if she has to have it both ways. On the one hand, she describes coming confirmation as a failure of "independent judgment" on the part of the Senate. On the other, she points out that Bolton is "a longtime skeptic of tools that are increasingly part of the Bush Administration's arsenal." So is the problem that Bolton is a tool of the Bush Administration's "Democracy Project" or an opponent of it?

It's a trick question. The right answer is that Samantha's real objection is that Bolton doesn't like "humanitarian intervention" and the International Criminal Court, which are Samantha's pet projects. The core of Bolton's argument--that the creation of unaccountable sovereign entities is simply unacceptable to free people--is entirely sound. Why should Americans ever agree to subject themselves to a foreign court? There's really no more concise statement of the American concept of free government than John Steinbeck's Tom Joad declaring, "throw out the cops that aint our people." Samantha, however, wants a world policed by cops that aint no-one's people.

Samantha also objects to Bolton's appointment to the UN on the grounds that it is "an institution he openly disdains." Now it's not immediately obvious why people who are critics of government institutions shouldn't be appointed to head them. I understand why shareholders wouldn't want a CEO who disdains their company, but that's because the shareholders interest lies in the success and expansion of the company. When it comes to government, the interest of citizens often lies in constricting institutions. This is one reason the founding fathers provided for a system of checks and balances. The "disdain" objection is only persuasive to those who have internalized the perspective of the government (or, in this case, international) agency.

If only Samantha had accepted my invitation. Maybe I could have taught her a bit about whiskey, love and human liberty.