John Bolton: Tough Love or Tough Luck?

Susan E. Rice
Susan E. Rice Former Brookings Expert, Distinguished Visiting Research Fellow - School of International Service, American University

March 8, 2005

President Bush has shocked even his most cynical critics by nominating the combative neoconservative John Bolton to one of our most complex and sensitive diplomatic posts: U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Bolton served the past four years as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, though then-Secretary of State Colin Powell initially resisted his appointment.

Powell’s successor, Condoleezza Rice, who passed over Bolton for deputy secretary despite strong support for him from Vice President Cheney, put on a brave face yesterday in announcing his appointment to the United Nations. She stressed the administration’s commitment to U.N. reform and praised Bolton as a friend of the United Nations who helped repeal the noxious General Assembly resolution equating Zionism with racism. But as Rice must know, keeping Bolton off her team at State may prove a Pyrrhic victory, if he takes his notoriously abrasive style to New York.

The job of U.N. ambassador is always important and delicate, but arguably never more so than now. The United Nations is facing unprecedented, justified criticism for its role in the oil-for-food scandal and its failure to prevent peacekeepers from sexually exploiting civilians in Congo. Several Republican members of Congress are gunning for Secretary General Kofi Annan’s head. In response, Annan is shaking up his management team and reminding the United States how badly it needs the United Nations.

Indeed, the United States is relying on the United Nations to carry out a massive tsunami recovery effort and 17 peacekeeping missions, to support the democratization processes in Afghanistan and Iraq, and to pressure Iran to halt its nuclear program. At the 60th anniversary of its founding, the United Nations has rarely been more relevant or in greater need of reform.

President Bush seems to understand this. In December he pledged three international goals for his second term. “The first great commitment,” he said “is to defend our security and spread freedom by building effective multinational and multilateral institutions and supporting effective multilateral action.”

Is John Bolton the right man to lead this effort? Having served as assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs from 1989 to 1993, Bolton may be deemed qualified, but his record on multilateral issues is alarming. He told the Wall Street Journal that “the happiest moment of his government service” was when the Bush administration renounced the treaty on the International Criminal Court. Bolton led the administration’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, scuttled an important biological weapons protocol and weakened an international agreement to limit small-arms trafficking. On these issues, Bolton’s positions at least reflected administration policy.

But Bolton holds many strong views that diverge sharply from current U.S. policy. He described the United Nations as “a great, rusting hulk of a bureaucratic superstructure . . . dealing with issues from the ridiculous to the sublime . . . .” More important, he maintains that the United States has no legal obligation to pay its U.N. dues.

Once a paid consultant to the Taiwanese government, Bolton favors Taiwan’s independence and its full U.N. membership—a dangerous position in light of cross-straits tensions and our efforts to obtain Chinese pressure on North Korea. Will Bolton set aside his support for a Taiwanese U.N. seat while manning the U.S. seat on the Security Council?

Bolton flatly opposes the use of U.N. peacekeepers in civil conflicts, because he does not deem these “threats to international peace and security.” By his logic, the United Nations has no business doing peacekeeping in many places where the Bush administration has supported its deployment of forces.

Bolton has testified against U.N. involvement in Congo, an inter-state conflict that has cost 3 million lives. He blasted the United Nations’ concept of operations for its Ethiopia-Eritrea operation and rejected the U.N. civil administration missions in Kosovo and East Timor. Will Bolton undergo such a conversion on the road to First Avenue that he can effectively support U.N. peace operations?

Finally, Bolton criticized any ” ‘right of humanitarian intervention’ to justify military operations to prevent ethnic cleansing or potential genocide.” One must wonder how forcefully he will work to halt what the administration deems genocide in Darfur.

Rice asserts that Bolton will be an outspoken, effective U.N. ambassador in the vein of Jeane Kirkpatrick and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. If his appointment serves to bring the United Nations’ most rabid critics in Congress to heel, it may have some merit. Bolton could yet surprise his skeptics by giving “tough love” a whole new definition. To do so, he will have to be for the United Nations what Richard Nixon was for China: a hard-liner who effectively forged groundbreaking change. Those of us who believe the United States needs an effective, reformed United Nations can only hope he succeeds.