WASHINGTON — The United Nations is a mess. Often corrupt and venal, always inefficient and wasteful, frequently captured by the worst political interests, and commonly motivated by the most extreme ideological impulses, the organization is anything but “the last great hope of mankind.” If anyone can push it toward real reform, it is John Bolton.

Bolton, nominated by U.S. President George W. Bush to be America’s ambassador to the world body, is perfectly qualified for the job. He served as assistant secretary of state for international organizations in the first Bush administration and as under secretary of state for arms control and international security since 2001.

He has written knowingly (and scathingly) about its failings. Further, Bolton is more concerned about protecting Western security and prosperity than undertaking abstract global crusades. Finally, Bolton is famously blunt-spoken. A decade ago he declared: “If the U.N. secretary building in New York lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a difference.”

He was right. It wouldn’t.

Denying the obvious can’t hide the organization’s failings. After all, it was Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali who, when asked how many people worked at the U.N., quipped: “about half of them.” The challenge for the U.N.’s supporters is to change the organization so that someone would notice if it lost 10 stories.

Bolton can help.

In 1997 he contributed a chapter to a Cato Institute book on the U.N., “Delusions of Grandeur: The United Nations and Global Intervention.” Bolton acknowledged, “The U.N. was an admirable concept when conceived” and “is worth keeping alive for future service.”

But, he added, “it is not worth the sacrifice of American troops, American freedom of action, or American national interests. The real question for the future is whether we will know how to keep our priorities straight.”

We must start by recognizing what the U.N. has become. “During the 1960s and 1970s anti-Western and anti-American U.N. General Assembly majorities regularly and enthusiastically trashed our values,” he wrote. Washington eventually responded, rejecting the Law of the Sea Treaty, withdrawing from UNESCO and cutting U.N. funding.

Fighting back “laid the groundwork for rare opportunities to use the Security Council constructively.” Examples included modest peacekeeping missions and the U.N.’s imprimatur for allied action in the Persian Gulf War.

For Bolton, “the lesson was plain. When there was a vital U.S. interest at stake, the U.N. could serve a useful role as an instrument of U.S. policy. When the United States led, the U.N. could work.”

Nevertheless, it wasn’t easy. And it wasn’t sustained after the Clinton administration decided “to engage in international social work and ivory-tower chattering.” The disastrous effort at nation-building in Somalia was one consequence.

Moreover, noted Bolton, the Clinton administration was “unsuccessful in restraining waste, fraud, and abuse throughout the U.N. system.” The organization was unwilling to act so long as the wealthy industrialized nations continued footing the bill.

What to do? First, the U.N. should concentrate on humanitarian relief and traditional peacekeeping. “What should be relegated to history’s junk pile at the first opportunity, however, are the chimerical Clinton notions of U.N. “peace enforcement,” “nation-building,” and “enlargement’,” he argued.

Second, the U.N. Security Council should not be “reformed,” as Secretary General Kofi Annan recently proposed. Bolton opined: such efforts “should not obscure our present ability to make the council function effectively, at least in certain circumstances.”

Finally, he pressed for real “management and financial reform.” That requires changing the U.N.’s finances — but not by giving the international body its own tax source, as proposed by some.

Rather, Bolton suggested, we should “eliminate assessments altogether, moving toward a U.N. system that is funded entirely by purely voluntary contributions.” Then governments could hold the U.N. accountable for any misbehavior.

What sensible person could disagree with these proposals?

Some idealists long have believed the U.N. to be the remedy for original sin. Create a strong world government and humanity’s ills will disappear.

Bolton, too, is an idealist, but one with common sense. “Above all, let us be realistic about the United Nations,” he wrote.

“The U.N. should be used when and where we choose to use it to advance American national interests, not to validate academic theories and abstract models. But the U.N. is only a tool, not a theology. It is one of several options we have, and it is certainly not invariably the most important one.”

Free peoples everywhere will be able to sleep more soundly after the Senate confirms Bolton as the U.S. representative to the U.N.

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