Conservative Contradictions; Capital, Goods and Services Move Freely across Borders. in Such a World, to Rant and Rail against the Erosion of Sovereignty Is Pointless

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Byline: Fareed Zakaria (Write the author at

In the debate over John Bolton's nomination as ambassador to the United Nations, his defenders have repeatedly delighted at the prospect of a real discussion on the issues. "Senator Frist should schedule a floor debate without time limits," William Kristol argued in The Weekly Standard. If Democrats want this debate, Kristol wrote, "let Republicans make them pay a price" for it. David Brooks, one of The New York Times's conservative columnists, agreed, explaining that Bolton's disdain for "global governance" has little support in the country. "We'll never accept it... because it's undemocratic... Multilateral organizations look like meetings of unelected elites, of technocrats, who make decisions in secret... [W]e will never allow transnational organizations to overrule our own laws, regulations, and precedents."

Perhaps the debate should center on the globe's most powerful international body, the World Trade Organization. Unlike the United Nations, the WTO can actually require that a country change its laws, regulations and precedents--not simply national laws but often state and local laws. Its rulings on disputes between nations are binding. It is undemocratic and filled with technocrats. And it was an American creation that conservatives supported wholeheartedly. (Well, not all. Some conservatives, like Pat Buchanan, have been consistent and have argued passionately against it from the start.)

It's strange. Most of our debates about multilateral bodies seem to involve those organizations that are really talking shops, with few actual powers. The ones that have real clout are almost all in the economic realm. And they surely are the most significant for most Americans. After all, average Americans don't much care about the exact structure of the (powerless) U.N. Disarmament Committee. But they do care about the regulations governing their local economy. The WTO has ruled against the U.S. on scores of issues, from cotton to textiles to steel. On all of them, the United States has quietly abided by its rules, which are pretty much "international law." And you don't hear John Bolton or his defenders objecting to any of this.

Don't get me wrong. I think the WTO has been hugely beneficial to Americans--and the rest of the world. It has expanded trade, opened markets and made our economy far more productive. It is not really that undemocratic. The president and Congress voluntarily signed up for it and could withdraw from it at any time. They agreed that in the event of disputes with other countries, an arbitration panel would decide what to do. That's delegation, not dictatorship, and democracies do it all the time.

The WTO was America's idea, a way to make other countries open their markets and increase trade. …