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Bush at the U.N.: Right message, wrong messenger

Author: Stewart M. Patrick, James H. Binger Senior Fellow in Global Governance and Director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program
September 25, 2008
The Olympian



When President Bush delivered his valedictory to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, his message was right on target. The problem was the messenger.

The substance of Bush's speech was unassailable: While acknowledging that a "confident and effective" United Nations is essential, the president emphasized the need for more accountability and greater efficiency in what is indeed a flawed and frustrating organization. The United Nations struggles to meet today's most urgent threats, from terrorism to nuclear proliferation to genocide. It is a place where dictatorships have an equal voice to democracies, where mindless process can trump effective action, and where decisions often reflect the lowest common denominator. If the United Nations is to play a central role in the 21st century, it needs to demonstrate concrete results.

But the president's argument would have carried more weight if it had come from somebody who had worked hard to make the United Nations more effective. Over the last eight years, the White House has treated the United Nations with barely concealed disdain. This policy reached its apogee with the recess appointment of John Bolton as U.S. permanent representative. Bolton's in-your-face style alienated potential U.S. partners in New York and persuaded our allies there that the United States could not care less about rebuilding ties or working multilaterally to improve the United Nations' capacities.

The irony is that in practice the Bush administration has returned to the United Nations again and again to advance vital interests the United States is unable to achieve on its own.

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