Sometimes what the Bush administration doesn't do is as amazing as what it does do. This week is going to bring a Class A error of omission. But before I tell you about that, consider the following pieces of conventional wisdom.
Just about everyone, inside the administration and out, agrees that globalization is unstoppable. This globalization spreads prosperity and freedom, but it also sets the stage for global financial crises, global terrorist networks and the fast diffusion of disease; and, we lack competent global institutions to manage these problems. The policy conclusion is that the United States should seize every chance to make global institutions more effective.
Conventional wisdom, piece number two: The United States has no serious military or economic rival, but this may not endure forever. As Michael Mandelbaum argues in his forthcoming book, "The Case for Goliath," the United States underpins global prosperity by providing a global currency, secure shipping lanes and a host of other public goods; it's scary to think what might happen if the United States lost the ability to perform this function. The policy conclusion is the same: The United States should build global institutions that will help keep the world stable even if American supremacy fades a bit.
Conventional wisdom, piece three: There's more to this American power than money and military muscle. You can only defeat terrorism if American ideals win hearts and minds in the terrorists' recruiting grounds, and if other countries willingly support U.S. initiatives on things such as terrorists' finances or Iran's nuclear program. Guess what: The policy conclusion is the same again. The United States needs to legitimize its actions by creating effective global institutions and acting through them.
You get the point: Global institutions matter. They matter more now than before globalization brought the people and problems of weak states to American and European cities. But even though globalization has increased the need for global institutions, it has simultaneously made them harder to manage.
Up until the 1990s, you could do a global trade deal or a global environmental deal if the United States, Japan and Europe were on the same page; together, these players accounted for nearly all of the world economy. But thanks to the energy unleashed by globalization, emerging powers led by China, India and Brazil now demand a seat at the top table. As a result, global efforts such as the Doha round of trade talks are hung up over arguments between emerging economies and rich ones.
So the trick with global initiatives is to make them inclusive enough to be legitimate but narrow enough to be manageable. The Bush administration usually appears to understand this. It has shown a healthy interest in regional institutions such as the Organization of American States and the African Union, believing that these offer legitimacy without paralysis. The OAS and the AU help to set norms of democracy and accountability on their respective continents, legitimizing American pursuit of those objectives.
The administration has also gone along with a clever move on climate change. There's no way that China or India will accept tough emissions targets as part of a second Kyoto Protocol, so Kyoto-style global negotiations are hopeless. Instead, climate change has been handed off to the World Bank; thanks to its 24-member board, on which some seats are held by single powerful countries and others by clusters of lesser ones, the bank is a good forum for global diplomacy -- it is both manageable and legitimate. The bank is trying to create financial incentives that would move clean technologies into fast-growing emerging economies. This would promote Kyoto's goals without requiring impossible Kyoto-ish diplomacy.
Which brings us to this week's error of omission. After two years of planning, the United Nations is convening a summit of world leaders that was supposed to relaunch the organization 60 years after its creation. The key challenge was to refashion the Security Council, whose five permanent members reflect the power relations of another age, excluding the second-biggest economy in the world (Japan) plus 1 billion Indians and all of Africa and Latin America. Intelligent Security Council reform, which would create a weighted system of representation modeled on the World Bank's board, would serve the United States well. It would end the Russian and Chinese vetoes, and, by bringing in emerging democracies such as India and Brazil, it would strengthen the Security Council's ability to legitimize global action.
Rather than seizing this chance to bolster a key global institution, the Bush administration joined the debate on Security Council reform belatedly and limply. Bowing to congressional pressure, it declared that reform of the patronage-ridden U.N. secretariat was a higher priority, even though such reform has been on the U.S. agenda for years and is largely hopeless. Having made the wrong strategic call, the administration compounded its error by picking petulant fights over the U.N. poverty-fighting Millennium Development Goals, jeopardizing the limited prospects for secretariat reform still further.
So whatever comes out of this week's summit, it's not going to be the full-blown relaunching of the United Nations that its sponsors had aspired to. And a large part of that failure will reflect the Bush administration's refusal to get behind reform. It is a squandered opportunity.