As the Republican presidential candidates prepare for their first foreign policy debate, what do we know about the views of the GOP field on the international organizations that are playing such a key role on issues from Iran to the Eurozone to Afghanistan?
Parsing campaign rhetoric is not always worth the effort (remember George W. Bush's humble America?), but there is a deep and important issue beneath the rhetoric: the difficult relationship between American conservatism and "global governance" efforts (that phrase itself is despised by many conversatives, but it's probably the best one on offer). There's been some thought-provoking material produced on this recently, notably at the Lowy Institute, and it's an issue I'd like to explore in more detail over the next few weeks.
Recent campaign rhetoric often suggests that there is an unbridgeable gulf between the GOP and the organizations that much of the world (although certainly not all of it) thinks are important. Republican antipathy toward the United Nations is most strident and it generates an image of a party that has no time for multilateral institutions. I think the story is significantly more complex, but the UN is clearly an important element. And since the UN attracts so much conservative wrath, it's worth examining the specific charges that GOP candidates have explicitly and implicitly leveled against the world body. Here's the beginnings of a typology:
The United Nations encourages attacks on the U.S. and U.S. allies: Republican candidates have repeatedly cited the Palestinian bid for UN membership--and the broad support in the organization for it--as a case study in the organization's hostility to the U.S. and its allies. Mitt Romney put it this way:
American leadership will also focus multilateral institutions like the United Nations on achieving the substantive goals of democracy and human rights enshrined in their charters. Too often, these bodies prize the act of negotiating over the outcome to be reached. And shamefully, they can become forums for the tantrums of tyrants and the airing of the world’s most ancient of prejudices: anti-Semitism. The United States must fight to return these bodies to their proper role.
Rick Perry believes the Palestinian move should call into question funding for the UN as a whole (presumably he means more than just the existing funding cut-offs for UN agencies that admit Palestine as a member):
When you think about the Palestinian Authority circumventing those Oslo Accords and going to New York to try to create the conflict and to have themselves approved as a state without going through the proper channels is a travesty...And I think it's time not only to have that entire debate about all of our foreign aid, but in particular the U.N. Why are we funding that organization?
Mitt Romney appears to add a corollary; that the UN encourages American leaders to engage in unwarranted self-criticism as a means of currying international favor. The front-runner argued during the September 22 debate in Florida that President Obama used a speech to the UN as an opportunity to slam Israel:
The president went about this all wrong. He went around the world and apologized for America. He -- he addressed the United Nations in his inaugural address and chastised our friend, Israel, for building settlements and said nothing about Hamas launching thousands of rockets into Israel.
This basic complaint--that the organization is deeply hostile to the United States--has been a centerpiece of American foreign policy discourse since at least the late 1950s, when the decolonization wave turned the UN General Assembly from a friendly body that would reliably vote with the United States into a deeply unfriendly one. American politicians have been wrestling with how to respond ever since then. In his stint as U.N. ambassador in the 1970s, Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously tried to fight extreme rhetoric with extreme rhetoric. But calls for cutting funding--or possibly leaving the organization altogether--have been more common on the political right.
The UN drags the United States into conflicts: That's how Rick Santorum described the Libya intervention during the September 7 debate at the Reagan public library:
[T]his president was indecisive and confused from the very beginning. He only went along with the Libyan mission because the United Nations told him to, which is something that Ronald Reagan would have melted like the old Wicked Witch of the West before he would have allowed that to happen.
However confused as a description of what happened in the lead-up to the Liba intervention, this is a fairly well developed concern about international organizations--that they'll entangle the United States in conflicts that are not its concern. And it's worth noting that this kind of concern has emanated not only from conservative circles (check out this New York Times editorial as the Somalia debacle unfolded in the early 1990s).
From a legal and architectural standpoint, it's curious that the UN gets this rap. The United States of course can veto anything it pleases in the Security Council and so cannot be dragged into an operation against its will. (In fact, this concern should be most pronounced with regard to NATO, which gives the United States a legal obligation to defend a whole host of states from external attack.)
The UN is a vehicle for stripping Americans of their rights: This element of criticism also has a long pedigree. On the hustings, Michele Bachmann has been among the most active in citing this danger. Speaking about gun rights last month, she told an Iowa supporter, "I don't believe in the U.N. taking that right away from us...There are international treaties that want to do that."
Other entries for the typology are welcome. More soon on the relative merits of these complaints and the broader question of conservatism and global governance.