The Bush administration’s popularity and influence have never been lower. And the international diplomatic community couldn’t be more delighted about it.
“Officially, of course, we were neutral, but just about everybody was pleased,” said Edward Mortimer, the former director of communications for United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, referring to the Republican loss of both houses of Congress in November’s midterm election. “I think the general feeling was that maybe the orbit of the U.S., after hurtling away from everyone and into unilateralism, was beginning to come back.”
The diplomats of Turtle Bay, bruised and battered by their dealings with the White House and its erstwhile ambassador, John Bolton, are fairly reveling in schadenfreude these days, even as they wonder about the possible consequences of the world’s only superpower being transformed so rapidly into a diplomatic lame duck.
Mr. Mortimer, who acknowledged in an earlier e-mail message that he couldn’t have spoken with such candor while a U.N. employee, added that most people at Turtle Bay felt the election results showed “an element of sanity on the part of the U.S. electorate, that it was not willing to tolerate the excesses of this administration, especially in relation to foreign policy.”
But some diplomats talk warily of a power vacuum created by the weakened U.S. position. The midterm-election result drove the final nail into the coffin of Mr. Bolton’s hopes to remain the U.S. ambassador. At present, U.S. interests are being represented by acting ambassador Alejandro Wolff, pending the arrival of Mr. Bush’s new nominee, Zalmay Khalilzad. The Senate has yet to confirm Mr. Khalilzad, who has served as ambassador to Iraq since mid-2005. Meanwhile, U.S. interests at the U.N. have languished.
One European diplomat noted that the U.S. suffered an embarrassing setback last month when an American-backed Security Council resolution on Myanmar was vetoed by both China and Russia. Mr. Bolton had reportedly been against tabling such a resolution, suspecting that it would be met with a veto. But, after his departure, the measure rose again.
“If they had had someone here who had more power in Washington, maybe he could have stopped that coming up,” said the diplomat, whose nation is a permanent member of the Security Council.
The diplomat also suggested that the administration’s weakness could have repercussions in the ongoing debate about Iran.
“We’re pretty sure the Russians will push in the direction of more dialogue—and of doing nothing. It is possible that with the U.S. weakened, they will feel more emboldened about holding that line,” the diplomat said.
The U.S. did receive a boost on Friday with the appointment of Lynn Pascoe, a 63-year-old career diplomat who is currently the U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, to the world body’s top political post.
It was a sign, for some observers, that the ebbing of the President’s political power is unlikely to have immediate, dramatic effects on the world stage.
Professor Edward Luck of Columbia University noted that even nations antagonistic towards the U.S. generally acknowledge its importance to the institution. And he said that the administration’s diminished political capital “may encourage some countries to act up.”
“But,” he continued, “changes in Bush’s strength don’t change the nation’s strength all that much. People recognize that if they push too far, the U.S. begins to pull back from the U.N., and that is bad for everyone.”
There is another reason that the joy that reverberated around the halls of the U.N. after the American midterm elections may prove to be short-lived: The international diplomatic corps doesn’t really trust the Democrats, either.
While the Democratic Party won an election based largely on opposition to the President’s unilateralist decision to take the nation to war in Iraq, there is no guarantee that the new leaders of Congress will be much more kindly disposed toward the international bureaucracy in Turtle Bay. The Democrats, after all, are answerable to an American audience, too.
Mr. Mortimer zeroed in on one particular philosophical difference between the American body politic and most of the rest of the world: “Many Democrats aren’t wild about the U.N.,” he said. “Democrats tend to be very pro-Israel. They see the U.N. as anti-Israel, and that puts them off.”