At the Chicago rollout yesterday of president-elect Barack Obama's national security team, between the surprising continuity of keeping Robert Gates as defense secretary and nominating Hillary Clinton to head the State department--not to mention the onstage repetition of bromides like "bipartisanship" and "pragmatism"--it was easy to forget what a seismic change Susan Rice will bring as ambassador to the United Nations. It's not just that, as Matt Yglesias points out, Rice will assume a "cabinet-rank" position as UN ambassador that gives her more sway than perhaps even Bush UN ambassador John Bolton, whose indifference to his own jurisdiction was legendary. It's that she will bring an entirely different philosophy of global interaction to the UN.
To see how, look no further than just a flight of stairs above the Obama presser at the Chicago Hilton, where the conservative Heritage Foundation also held a conference on national security issues. The suddenly-fringe gathering offered more than a visual clash with Obama's new cabinet--it displayed precisely the Bush-era contempt for international institutions that Rice, with Obama's blessing, promised yesterday to reverse.
Heritage fellows advocated at length for massive weapons stockpiling as well as exploration of missile defense strategies--valid thought exercises, though shot through with digs at the domestic spending initiatives that Obama has promised. "They will reduce our defense spending for initiatives like 'universal health care,'" analyst MacKenzie Eaglen scoffed, to a few boos. And when approached after the event by a questioner worried that the U.S. might be acting as "the world's policeman," senior fellow Peter Brookes lit into the UN:
Now, the UN is good at lots of things, like handing out food and giving kids shots. [Laughter] You know, I'm not one to denigrate those things. What--they eradicated what, yellow fever in Africa by giving kids shots, that's great. But we have to be a lot smarter about realizing its limitations, and that's militarily. When you call in the UN you get a bunch of guys in uniforms standing around without guns, or they can't use them unless it's to defend themselves. I don't believe in global federalism; I also don't like the idea of the U.S. as the world's policeman. But the UN is ineffective, period, at defense of any kind. So we need to look somewhere else.
This supposed military impotence is one argument that is used by conservatives and well-meaning liberals to call for either the dissolution of the UN or its comprehensive reform. Naturally, there are inefficiencies to fight both within and without a sprawling international body like the UN. But I spoke with Susan Rice later, elsewhere in the Hilton. We chatted about Africa policy and World AIDS Day, on which both conferences took place. (Obama statement here.) I mentioned some of Brooke's comments to her, which she took in stride, with a sort of "guess who's in charge now" bemusement. Though she declined to speak on the record about UN policy, she again emphasized that she would take a radically different approach to the position, and mentioned wanting to call up former holders of the position for advice--with one notable exception: John Bolton. That's not surprising--she's on the record as feeling exactly the opposite way as Bolton and the Heritage folks. From a 2007 article she penned for UN Dispatch:
When Americans see televised images of bone-thin African or Asian kids with distended bellies, what do we think? We think of helping. For all the right reasons, our humanitarian instincts tend to take over. But when we look at UNICEF footage or a Save the Children solicitation, does it also occur to us that we are seeing a symptom of a threat that could destroy our way of life? Rarely ...
Efforts to illuminate the complex relationship between poverty and insecurity may be unwelcome to those who want assurance that global poverty and U.S. national security are unrelated. Yet, we ignore or obscure the implications of global poverty for global security at our peril.