Stand’s Scott Fenwick recently sent around an article that has been generating some discussion on email so I thought I would transfer it to the blog where everyone can pipe in. The article is written by a Mr. John Bolton, who if you haven’t yet heard of him, is famous for being the only US Ambassador to the UN who wanted to get rid of the UN entirely. He is a notoriously polarizing figure in the neo-conservative vein whose period as the Ambassador to the UN was never approved by the rest of the government and was marked by an intimidation-heavy approach to diplomacy.

That said, his article in the Globe and Mail does have some interesting points. It’s about “humanitarian intervention,” that nebulous concept that is firmly embedded in our work and appears often in the world of international politics. Below I relate the main “points” in the discussion:

Scott Fenwick: “Although the topic is on “humanitarian intervention,” it wrongly suggests that the only way to end war/rights abuses is to send in the troops. Bolton’s article doesn’t even suggest using diplomatic action as an alternative.”

Josh Scheinert: “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this article. In fact, I think it’s very well done and presents real challenges for the human rights/ngo/r2p community that we need to be able to meet. His goal wasn’t to talk about tough diplomacy, sanctions or anything else. Merely to give a defence of realpolitik in the face of a subject largely premised on idealism…

“at the end of the day, Americans, Canadians, and the citizens of other signatories to R2P (Responsibility to Protect), aren’t convinced “why the should put their sons and daughters…. where there are no vital interests (humanitarian aside – because I’ll put myself in the category that does feel situations like these affect the national interest). So then the second challenge, is making people understand that this is part of the vital interest. But as of now, it’s not and people don’t consider it to be. So with that void looming and crippling our ability to act, like Bolton says, “we have to be able to explain…..”.

Evan Cinq-Mars: “While I do agree that Bolton’s article articulates very well the challenges on intervention posed by domestic opposition and realpolitik, there is a portion of his article that I find must be addressed:

“And as tragic as the situation is in Darfur, in a democracy we have to be able to explain to American citizens why they should put their sons and daughters at risk, in an area of undoubted humanitarian tragedy, but where there are no vital US interests.”

During conscience-shocking situations – like we are experiencing in Darfur – it is this ideology that has allowed atrocity to continue… The pursuit of national self-interest has already crippled the attempts at collective action to protect the people of Darfur (As Bolton points out with China, Russia and the veto). How will responding to genocide become “easy” if the ‘vital interests’ of a nation condemn it from acting, whether it be the US, Canada, Indonesia, Fiji, etc…

There must be a shift towards an ideology where the responsibility to protect ciitizens from genocide is synthesized with the ‘vital interests’ of a nation.

While aspirations don’t make foreign policy, aspirations are all these people have. Aspirations empower us to make responding to genocide a cornerstone of Canadian policy.”

These guys are smart. Those are some really well-articulated arguments and questions: what is “intervention,” merely military or military, diplomacy and other? what defines our national interests? What does the responsibility to protect doctrine refer to? How do you reconcile idealism with reality? What is the future of sovereignty? I feel that everyone should weigh in on these questions.

As for myself, I tend to believe that the phrase “humanitarian intervention” is a bit of fallacy, or maybe just poorly defined. Am I an “interventionist,” as Bolton claims, because I want my government to take action on Darfur? What if the actions I’m calling on my government to take are diplomatic, not military? Basically, as Scott mentions, there are a whole range of “intervening” tools in a government’s handbook and any one of them may work better or worse at different times.

That said, (though I hate to say it) Bolton is absolutely right that there is much confusion right now over the “responsibility to protect.” Josh and Evan are absolutely right that we no longer know exactly what state interests are. In a globalized world, how is averting a humanitarian disaster that could destabilize the global system (eg Afghanistan, Rwanda) not in our national interests? And then even more importantly, how the heck do we go about that? Someone else smarter than me recently argued with me that the evoking of R2P too often by advocacy groups is delegitimizing the concept for when it is really needed….either way you look at, the modalities are poorly defined, to say the least.

As I have previously on this blog, I would argue that averting humanitarian crises requires forceful, consistent and coherent multilateral actions in a range of areas, diplomatically, economically, and possibly as a last resort militarily. In the case of military action, there is still the most work needed, as Bolton rightly points out, as the road is unclear, the commitments tend to be half-hearted, and the mandates weak (I recommend people interested read Lakhdar Brahimi’s review of the UN Peacekeeping functions….among its proposals are a UN rapid response army, clear mandates, and more preventive actions).

Those are some thoughts to get people going…Please let me know what you are thinking in the comments. Or send me an email to be posted if you have particularly strong opinions…

4 comments on “Standing up to John Bolton

  • Really good article. I think he brings up lots of valid points, and they are things that I have wrestled with myself (specifically with R2P).

    I do believe that a strong unified effort by the ‘international community’ would create positive change in Darfur. However, as Bolton points out, that seams unlikely with countries from the UN security council pursuing their own interests (ie China).

    So… then my question is, how can we as advocates aid in ‘uniting’ the UN for the purpose of bringing peace to Darfur and other conflict affected regions?

  • That’s a great point. It is puzzling to me that the UN is such an un-representative body in some ways, opaque and difficult to approach. One idea I just had would be to write a letter to Harper about pushing for Security Council Reform.

    The other response to that is that the “unity” I’ve spoken of before doesn’t have to come specifically from the UN. The North-South Peace deal came about largely because of the work of a Contact Group that included the US, the UK, Canada, Norway (I think), and many of the neighboring countries. Just by unifying the positions of these few countries, they were able to have a substantial amount of pressure that we don’t see today.

    Thanks for the comment!

  • Gotta catch a bus so I need to be quick.
    What kind of security council reform do you mean? What specifically do you think needs to change?

  • Good question. I could write a whole thesis on that question. There are currently discussions in the UN General Assembly however about reforming the Scurity Council. I can’t really remember what the proposals are but they include things like give India, Japan, Germany, and Brazil a Permanent seat and veto, limit the veto altogether, increase the size, change permanent seats to semi-permanent seats, and other such modalities. You can learn more about it at

    One of the proposals that I kind of liked was a rotating regional semi-permanent seat, ie. two seats for Europe, three for Asia, two for Africa, etc. I think the veto probably has to stick around to keep the US, Russia, and China involved, but it would be nice to have limits on its use. check it out.

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