Just as it looked like George W. Bush might be nudging toward multilateralism, he goes and appoints John Bolton as his ambassador to the United Nations. There could be no clearer sign that the contempt for the international organization, which was such a prominent feature of Bush’s first term, will extend into his second term with still greater force and eloquence.
During the first term, Bolton was undersecretary of state for arms control—a revealing position, since no other official in government was more hostile than Bolton to the very idea of arms control. A former director of the Project for a New American Century—the neocon movement of the ‘90s from which nearly all of Bush’s national security team sprang—Bolton opposed not only the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (de rigueur for any Bush appointee), but also the international bioweapons conference, the ban on chemical weapons, the nuclear test ban; any accord that limited anything the United States might someday want to do. At State, Bolton’s main job was to serve as Vice President Dick Cheney’s agent at Foggy Bottom, monitoring, opposing, and, to the extent possible, thwarting from within the moderating influence of Secretary Colin Powell and his crew of pin-striped diplomats. He was particularly active in sabotaging Powell’s efforts to open up nuclear disarmament negotiations with North Korea.
When Powell left at the end of last year, the neocons lobbied for Bolton to rise to the post of deputy secretary of state—a campaign that Condoleezza Rice staved off, appointing Robert Zoellick, a pragmatist and career diplomat, instead.
The move was seen as a crushing blow for the neocons; whatever the course of Bush’s second-term foreign policy, the State Department would at least function as an independent fiefdom.
Now comes today’s startling news of Bolton’s rerouted ascension. The shock of the appointment is not so much that Bolton is a neocon but that he virulently opposes the institution to which he’ll be posted—not just the United Nations as it has evolved (or devolved) over the years, but the very principles on which it stands.
“There is no such thing as the United Nations,” Bolton said a decade ago on a panel of the World Federalist Association. “If the U.N. Secretariat Building in New York lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”
He has also declared, “It is a big mistake for us to grant any validity to international law even when it may seem in our short-term interest to do so—because, over the long term, the goal of those who think that international law really means anything are those who want to constrain the United States.”
The United Nations has its problems; it wouldn’t be a bad thing for Bush to have appointed some hard-nosed arm-twister—say, a latter-day Daniel Patrick Moynihan—to run the U.S. mission. But Moynihan—or, for that matter, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Ronald Reagan’s cage-rattler at the general assembly—had no problem with the concept of international law. Bolton, as a matter of principle, opposes everything about it.
Here’s where things get troublesome, not just for those who value international law but also on a purely pragmatic level. All the remarkable developments that have taken place lately, especially in the Middle East, may—in some cases, certainly will—have to be settled at the U.N. Security Council.
Getting Iran to give up its nuclear weapons program will require at least the threat of U.N. sanctions, whether or not Bush joins France, Germany, and Britain in their negotiations with the Iranians. If Syria withdraws its troops from Lebanon, the country is likely to become more unstable, not less so; a new U.N. resolution and possibly U.N. peacekeepers may be needed to preserve order. If Israeli-Palestinian peace talks result in an accord, U.N. resolutions will be in order, if just to replace those tenuously in effect over the past few decades. If internecine strife impedes the forming of a new Iraqi government, the United States—which is trying to back away from its image as an occupier—will not be able to unite the factions on its own; and the United Nations, however flawed, will loom as an acceptably neutral party.
In short, if the trends that President Bush is celebrating continue to unfold—that is, if traditional structures of authority continue to break down and new patterns of politics take shape amid great turbulence—the United Nations is likely to play a greater role, if just as a legitimizing intermediary, in the coming years. It would therefore be a good idea, for our own influence, if the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations were someone who takes the organization a little bit seriously.
However, it is probably a mistake to view Bolton’s appointment as merely an unwise choice. This administration, it should by now be clear, acts with uncommon unity. High-level officials are chosen for their inclination to serve the Oval Office. The fact that Bolton has been selected as the new man at the United Nations indicates that, to the extent President Bush pursues diplomatic solutions to international problems, he will not do so through the United Nations. If there was calculated reason behind his nomination, Bolton will use his chair as strictly a bully pulpit.
Bush and his team may feel that their much-derided unilateralism has been the cause of the remarkable events these past few months—the elections in Iraq, Ukraine, and the Palestinian Authority; the uprisings in Lebanon, which may spur the end of Syria’s occupation; the popular stirrings in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and possibly elsewhere. Even if they’re right, and they did bring all this about (a proposition that’s true in some respects and a huge stretch in others), it’s another thing entirely to turn elections and uprisings into democratic governments. Moses couldn’t do it by himself. Neither can Bush. And John Bolton is the wrong man to help him sway others to the cause.