Under normal circumstances, the stalled negotiations over the most significant package of United Nations reforms in 60 years would be front-page news. But as public and media attention is focused on John Roberts, William Rehnquist, and Hurricane Katrina, it is easy to forget that next week the United States will play host to the largest gathering of world leaders in history.
More than 170 heads of state will descend on New York for a summit billed as the culmination of the most extensive reforms to the United Nations since its founding in 1945. Replacing the discredited Human Rights Commission with a new Human Rights Council, enacting management reforms to increase oversight and transparency, increasing development aid to poor countries, and creating a more forceful mechanism to respond to genocide are all on the agenda. But if the current course of negotiations continues, diplomats expecting robust reforms will likely return home empty-handed, frustrated -- and mad as hell at the United States.
According to sources familiar with the negotiations, it is likely that an agreement on most of aspects of the UN reform package will not be reached during the summit, if ever. Instead, delegates are likely to put forth a significantly shortened text and leave out topics that cannot be resolved prior to the summit.
Negotiations over the substance of the reforms were thrown into complete disarray on August 17, when the recess-appointed Ambassador John Bolton submitted some 750 alterations to a 39-page text of proposed UN reforms. Since then, negotiators have been frantically going line by line through the document in a race to reach a consensus before the summit ends September 15. At their current pace, they are not likely to beat the clock. On Tuesday, the Prospect viewed the most recent working draft of the text of the proposed reforms. It is a messy and marked-up document that suggests that other countries are following the U.S. delegation's lead by reneging on previous agreements and hardening their own positions.
That other countries have struck new positions at this later hour is to be expected: Many of Bolton's edits on key issues amount to a huge and sudden shift in the U.S. bargaining position. Prior to Bolton's arrival, for example, the U.S. delegation had already completed rounds of negotiations over the wording of a section of the document that deals with development issues. Under the leadership of the former acting ambassador, Anne Patterson, the United States had been able to reach a working text agreeable to representatives of the United States, European Union, the Nonaligned Movement (which represents 116 mainly developing countries), and the so-called Group of 77 (G-77) of less-developed countries.
But in a pen stroke, Ambassador Bolton put the development section back on the negotiating table. Upon receiving the United States' proposed edits, other countries --particularly those in the G-77 -- that would be the main beneficiaries of development aid responded in kind and offered their own edits elsewhere in the text. Now, with little more than one week to go before world leaders gather in New York to herald these major reforms, negotiations are back to square one.
Perhaps no edit was more obnoxious -- and more instructive of the influence of Bolton in this process -- than the systematic removal of all 14 references to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and then their subsequent reinsertion. The MDGs grew out of a global agreement on aid and poverty eradication, known as the Millennium Declaration, that was signed at the UN's summit in September 2000. The “Goals” that Bolton initially decided the United States should not acknowledge are a set of eight development targets that grew organically from the declaration. These include, among other things, reducing by half the number of people who live on less than a dollar a day and reducing by two-thirds the child mortality rate by 2015.
While it's true that the United States never signed an agreement to help, say, reduce by three-quarters the Third World's maternal mortality rates, the Bush administration has never before been averse to the mere mention of the goals; and before Bolton came aboard, the goals were never a target of Bush administration animus. In the last year alone, the Citizens for Global Solutions, a nongovernmental organization, identified no fewer than five instances that the administration, in various official forums, approvingly referenced the MDGs by name. Further, in a meeting with NGO representatives shortly after Bolton's edits were leaked to The Washington Post on August 25, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns refused to support Bolton's rejection of them. Burns neither confirmed nor denied that the United States is dropping its support of the MDGs, and to those in the room this hinted that Bolton forged his own policy on the MDGs ahead of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Late Tuesday afternoon, after nearly a week of squabbling and unnecessary hard feelings over Bolton's rejection of the MDGs, the U.S. delegation relented on its objection to referencing the MDGs. In a one-page memo, the United States offered to reinsert the references to the MDGs. In addition, the U.S. offered to put back in various references to the Kyoto Protocol and a line about the U.N. recommendation that member countries earmark 0.7 percent of their gross national product for international development.
Of course, there is a lot more at stake in this summit than paying verbal homage to a series of unobjectionable and nonbinding development goals. On many issues, like calling for a new Human Rights Council, the American position is right on its merits. The problem, though, is that for the United States to get what it wants on the Human Rights Council -- which, broadly speaking, is an agreement that countries with poor human-rights records be barred from the council -- it needs to give a little elsewhere, particularly on development. To that end, the G-77 and some of our European allies are not likely to be hoodwinked into thinking that lip service to development goals is a major concession. Bolton may have wanted to shift the goalposts by fomenting controversy where it did not exist, but he soon found himself isolated.
On this point, an anecdote relayed to me by a source close to the negotiations is quite telling: On Monday, the United States introduced an amendment to the portion of the development section dealing with HIV that calls for recognition of the increase in international funding made available to fight AIDS. The G-77 said it could accept that amendment so long as the text also recognizes that additional funding and efforts need to be made available to fight the pandemic. The U.S. negotiator, however, vehemently rejected that suggestion, and in the process called the G-77 “greedy.” At that point the Jamaican ambassador, speaking on behalf of the G-77, noted that the environment was not conducive to negotiation and suspended the talks.
It is going to take more than a few minor concessions on the part of the United States to ensure that there is a document on real UN reform in a week's time. And if reform doesn't occur, the Bush administration can put yet another foreign-policy failure under its belt.
Mark Leon Goldberg is a Prospect writing fellow.