Bracing for Bolton

The choice of John Bolton as United States ambassador to the U.N. speaks loudly about how President Bush will approach foreign policy in his second term. In the diplomatic arena – where symbolism counts above all – Bolton's name is synonymous with disdain for global institutions. For those who have pored over recent foreign policy gestures looking for – and finding – some signs of reconciliation, the choice is a painful blow.

The appointment comes at the U.N.'s high noon. Bogged down by the worst scandal in history – graft in relation to Iraq's oil-for-food program – the organization is desperately trying to re-engineer itself and rebuild credibility. Starting with a series of high profile firings along with a push to implement an exhaustive report on reform, Secretary General Kofi Annan is struggling to right the organization. Both he and the Bush administration recognize that doing so will require the support of the organization's largest contributor. Yet if the appointment of Bolton is any sign, the U.N. may be left to founder.

The international community knows Bolton well. A former head of the International Organizations Bureau of the State Department, Bolton claimed in 1994 that "there's no such thing as the United Nations," adding that if the U.N.'s building in New York "lost 10 stories, it wouldn't make a bit of difference." In 1998 he spoke against the payment of any further U.S. dues to the world body. Bolton made his name by bluntly denouncing all manner of international organs, including the International Criminal Court, a proposed U.N. instrument to curb small arms and light weapons, and a verification proposal that would have strengthened the bioweapons convention.

The Bush administration maintains that its selection of Bolton is based on the notion that some of the best U.N. ambassadors have also been the toughest, citing Jeane Kirkpatrick and Daniel Patrick Moynihan as examples. Both came to the U.N. committed to defending U.S. interests, and found that they had to fight hard to do so. But neither Kirkpatrick nor Moynihan made a career out of bashing the world organization.

Likewise, neither of President Bush's first two appointees to the U.N. post – former Ambassador and newly nominated Intelligence Chief John Negroponte and former Senator John Danforth – were pushovers by any stretch of the imagination. They both pressed hard on the administration's agenda, yet neither was perceived to have an axe to grind.

The best U.S. representatives at the U.N. recognize that their job is two-fold: representing the U.S. at the U.N. and – for all its flaws and weaknesses – representing the U.N. to the U.S. Just as U.S. ambassadors in foreign capitals work to interpret the views of their host governments, the U.N. ambassador plays a critical role in helping Washington understand how to work most effectively with the U.N.

The latter half of the job involves explaining that for all its unruliness and inefficiency, the U.N. plays an indispensable role as the only truly universal global forum. Its efforts to protect refugees in Darfur, feed and house victims of the Asian tsunami, fight HIV/AIDS, foster collaboration against terrorism and monitor nuclear proliferation – while not perfect – are widely respected and would be virtually impossible to replace. To communicate this effectively to U.S. policymakers, an ambassador has to have a degree of respect, if not for the U.N. itself, than at least for the ideals on which it was founded.

But throughout his career, Bolton has seen the U.N. not for its potential, but only for its flaws. If his past is any guide, Bolton is likely to take the U.S.-U.N. relationship backward to a pattern marked by continuous friction, unpaid American dues, and an organization crippled both politically and financially.

But perhaps more worrying than its consequences for the U.S.-U.N. relationship is what the Bolton appointment suggests about President Bush's outlook on foreign policy. In the run up to the Iraq War, the president was criticized for pushing American interests without consultation or regard for longtime friends. The result was the fragmentation of traditional alliances, and a long, lonely and deadly struggle to stabilize Iraq that is still underway.

There were some signs that President Bush, though never admitting so, had tacitly acknowledged the need to change course and rebuild frayed relationships. The appointments of Condoleezza Rice and Robert Zoellick to key posts in the State Department, and the president's remarks during his trip last month to Europe boded relatively well.

But while the health of the U.N. may not be a priority for the Bush administration, it matters a great deal to much of the rest of the world, including the many countries that depend on the organization to feed people, combat disease and mediate conflict. That the United States would put the U.N.'s most prominent critic in charge of U.S. relations with the world organization will be taken as a sign that the next four years will bring more of the same when it comes to the U.S.'s reluctance to listen and forge common ground.

In turn, we can expect the rest of the world to put their backs up, pouncing on policies they dislike and continuing to seek ways of working around – rather than with – the United States.

Bush deserves a lot of credit for dislodging the boulder of authoritarianism in the Middle East. But it is clear that if he is to avoid a landslide of chaos in the region, he will need the help of allies and institutions to grapple with the forces that change has unleashed. Likewise, with respect to combating terror, stopping the spread of dangerous weapons, and helping spread democracy as a bulwark against violence, the U.S. cannot act effectively if it acts alone.

During the 2004 election, President Bush's refusal to acknowledge having made any missteps during his first term was seen as shrewd politics. The appointment of Bolton suggests that it is something more: that Bush really does dismiss the concerns of critics around the world, that he believes the U.S. can and should go it alone. The U.N. will be one casualty. U.S. interests will be another.

Suzanne Nossel served as Deputy to the Ambassador for U.N. Management and Reform at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in 1999-2001. Nossel is currently an executive at a media company in New York City, and writes frequently on foreign policy issues.

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Suzanne Nossel

Affiliated Scholar