In the debate over John Bolton's nomination as ambassador to the United Nations, his defenders have repeatedly delighted at the prospect of a real discussion on the issues. "Senator Frist should schedule a floor debate without time limits," William Kristol argued in the Weekly Standard. If Democrats want this debate, Kristol wrote, "let Republicans make them pay a price" for it.
David Brooks, one of the New York Times' conservative columnists, agreed, explaining that the "global governance" Bolton disdains has little support in the country. "We'll never accept it . . . because it's undemocratic . . . Multilateral organizations look like meetings of unelected elites, of technocrats, who make decisions in secret . . . (W)e will never allow transnational organizations to overrule our own laws, regulations and precedents."
Perhaps the debate should center on the globe's most powerful international body, the World Trade Organization. Unlike the United Nations, the WTO can actually require that a country change its laws, regulations and precedents. Its rulings on disputes between nations are binding. It is undemocratic and filled with technocrats. And it was an American creation that most conservatives supported wholeheartedly.
It's strange. Most of our debates about multilateral bodies seem to involve those organizations that are really talk shops, with few actual powers. The ones that have real clout are almost all in the economic realm. And they surely are the most significant for most Americans. After all, average Americans don't much care about the structure of the (powerless) U.N. Disarmament Committee. But they do care about the regulations governing their local economy. The WTO has ruled against the U.S. on scores of issues, from cotton to textiles to steel. On all of them, the U.S. has quietly abided by its rules, which are pretty much "international law." And you don't hear Bolton or his defenders objecting to any of this.
Don't get me wrong. I think the WTO has been hugely beneficial to Americans -- and the rest of the world. It has expanded trade, opened markets and made our economy more productive. The president and Congress voluntarily signed up for it and could withdraw at any time. They agreed that in the event of disputes with other countries, an arbitration panel would decide what to do. That's delegation, not dictatorship, and democracies do it all the time.
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American firms understand that sovereignty has been breached anyway. Capital, goods and services move freely across borders. In such a world, to rant and rail against the erosion of sovereignty is pointless. Far better to manage this process in a way that benefits all. That usually means some system of (gasp) global rules.
Take a burning issue for American companies like Microsoft and Disney: They want China and India to crack down on pirating software and movies. That's why we're trying to get a global agreement on intellectual-property rights that becomes the "international law" governing this realm.
Trade is not somehow completely alien from all other realms. The same reality, of a world in which borders are being crossed and sovereignty eroded, applies in many other areas. And there is increasingly the reality of a world in which other countries want their interests taken into account. That means that for many issues, the only durable solutions will be ones that involve some rules that everyone agrees to -- which is a simpler way of saying (run for the exits!) "global governance."
Consider the area least amenable to such a transnational approach -- high politics. The United States wanted to punish the perpetrators of the horrific atrocities in Darfur. But to do so, it had to find some system by which such judgments could be made. It could not be a purely American process because that would look like imperialism and would lack international legitimacy. So Washington reluctantly (and quietly) agreed to refer Darfur to the International Criminal Court, which we have been actively trying to kill. Does John Bolton approve of this? All this would indeed be worth a long debate.