The reluctance of several Republican senators to embrace John Bolton’s nomination as U.N. ambassador marks a serious defeat for the Bush administration. This development may signal a historically significant shift away from the triumphal bluster that has recently imprisoned America.

During the past four years, particularly since 9-11, moderate Republicans have accepted President Bush’s policies of imperialism abroad and militarization at home. With the shock of those terrorist attacks wearing off and the reality of America’s isolation setting in, the Senate’s internationalist Republicans may be returning to their roots.

So far, they have focused on Bolton’s personal behavior and fact-averse stances on foreign policy issues. But these lawmakers also undoubtedly realize that Bolton’s contempt for the United Nations poses a fundamental danger to world security. A full-Senate vote on Bolton will give Republicans an opportunity to return to their historical role of supporting the United Nations as the bulwark of international law.

In 1945, during World War II’s final months, the Senate ratified the new U.N. Charter. These deliberations took place amid an essentially lawless global order. U.S. lawmakers’ overwhelming, bipartisan approval of the charter reflected what the Foreign Relations Committee described in its report as the American people’s virtually unanimous approval of the document.

In their statements on the Senate floor, internationalist Republicans said they embraced the charter in part because it established a framework to settle disputes peacefully. Warren Austin, the Republican Senate leader who served as the first U.N. ambassador, said the charter offered “the finest and best promise for peace and security in the world.”

Arthur Vandenberg, a member of the U.S. delegation to the San Francisco conference that drafted the charter, praised the organization’s emphasis on international law as a means of “substituting orderly justice for the jungle-creed that might makes right.”

Bolton has said that those who believe that international law “really means anything” wish to restrict America’s freedom of action. He has advocated working with other countries only “when it suits our interest.” Unlike 1945’s internationalist Republicans, he doesn’t get the fact that U.N. members undercut the organization when they repudiate the charter’s principles.

As Sen. Joseph Ball, a Minnesota Republican, pointed out, the United Nations could not succeed unless “supported continually through the years by the governments and the peoples of its member nations.” Those senators understood that the United States could not be a fair-weather friend to international organizations. They intended America’s commitment to be long-term.

Nonetheless, GOP opposition to the United Nations is not entirely new. Two Republican senators voted against ratification in 1945, citing concern that U.N. membership would lead the United States into imperial adventures of precisely the sort that Bolton and the Bush administration claim as our nation’s unilateral prerogative.

Both William Langer and Henrik Shipstead worried about the effects of endless foreign wars on the nation’s people, economy and political institutions.

Shipstead feared that the United Nations would provide a vehicle for powerful nations, including the United States, to dominate weaker ones; he wondered whether the postwar “Big Five” — the United States, Britain, France, the Soviet Union and China — would be “above the laws which they are going to make and which they are going to enforce.”

These questions still need to be asked. But nowhere in the debate on charter ratification did any Republican argue that the United States could or should be an imperialist superpower.

Bolton may take a genuine interest in internal U.N. reforms. Perhaps he favors a United Nations that plays a real but sharply limited security role in strategically unimportant regions — as long as it has the good sense to stay out of America’s way.

Perhaps the Republicans who appear to be rejecting Bolton’s bid to be ambassador have in mind Ball’s insistence that the United Nations would never succeed without firm U.S. support.

Perhaps their discomfort with this nomination reflects a growing awareness in Republican ranks that their party has abandoned its honorable heritage of lawful internationalism. In deference to the revival of this tradition in the Senate, Bush should withdraw Bolton’s nomination.

If Bolton does not step aside, moderate Republicans should weigh the wise words of their predecessors and vote him down. There are qualified Republicans — Sen. Elizabeth Dole, former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and Susan Eisenhower — who are far better suited to uphold the party’s original commitment to the United Nations and its important role.

This piece originally was published in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on May 16, 2005

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