JUST ABOUT EVERY head of state will be in New York for a U.N. summit two weeks from now, but the preparatory diplomacy has been anything but statesmanlike. John R. Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has demanded a long list of changes to the summit document that, though sometimes defensible in substance, has been presented in such a way as to deepen mistrust and resentment of the United States.
Neither U.N. officials nor Mr. Bolton's office have handled this dispute gracefully. Speaking in his capacity as a special U.N. adviser, Jeffrey D. Sachs, a Columbia University professor, has excoriated the Bush administration for backing away from a commitment to devote 0.7 percent of gross domestic product to foreign aid, but that was never a firm pledge. Meanwhile, Richard Grenell, Mr. Bolton's spokesman, reacted to a request for an interview with the ambassador by enunciating the principle that journalists need to support Mr. Bolton in order to have access to him. As to the diplomacy on the summit document, Mr. Grenell pooh-poohed its significance and predicted that it would fail anyway.
With luck, failure can be avoided. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has recently told her emissary to engage constructively, and she needs to make those instructions stick. Over the next few days, Mr. Bolton ought to nail down elements in the emerging U.N. deal that advance U.S. interests. He should resist the temptation to pick ideological battles over language in the summit document that may be vaguely annoying but that other countries hold dear. It may be true, as Mr. Bolton contends, that there's no need for the text to "encourage" the U.N. secretary general to carry out his duties; this is mere waffle. But it's not worth alienating U.S. negotiating partners to score points over wordsmithing.
The potential gains for the United States from this summit, as outlined in a contrastingly sane briefing by Assistant Secretary of State Kristen Silverberg on Wednesday, include the launch of a democracy-promotion fund that President Bush called for last year and that U.N. officials have now all but created. Another is the replacement of the U.N.'s Commission on Human Rights -- which mocks its own mission by allowing in countries such as Sudan -- with a more credible body. The summit also offers an opportunity to produce an internationally recognized definition of terrorism that would make it harder for Arab governments to pretend that people who blow up civilians may be viewed as freedom fighters. Finally, the effort to improve management efficiency and accountability at the United Nations, long pushed by U.S. administrations of both parties, could be advanced at this summit if the United States plays its cards adeptly.
Set against those potential wins, Mr. Bolton's complaints about the emerging U.N. deal are insubstantial. He wants, for example, to remove all reference to the Millennium Development Goals from the summit document. It's true that these targets -- to enroll all primary-school-age kids in class and cut child mortality by two-thirds by 2015, and so on -- generate much empty rhetoric, and that they are likely to backfire: Most will not be met, so aid agencies are setting themselves up for failure. But it's not worth going to the mat on this issue, and it's not true, despite what administration officials contend, that endorsing the goals would mean endorsing the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. The millennium goals appeal to donor governments as a way to mobilize political support for aid, and they appeal to leaders in developing countries. Why pick a fight over them?