In praise of … John Bolton

This article was published on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website on 12 June 2006.

The man who famously said “There is no such thing as the United Nations.” is no diplomat in the conventional sense, despite his job title. John R. Bolton is a neoconservative troubleshooter appointed last year to represent American interests at the UN, and push an agenda of radical reform on that beleaguered organisation.

Prior to being appointed US Ambassador to the UN, Bolton’s greatest achievement in public life was the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI): an international effort to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Critics have condemned the PSI, which is targeted primarily at North Korea, but likely to be used also against Iran, for what they claim is its disregard of international law. Supporters counter that the PSI merely exploits loopholes in maritime law, and serves the interests of international security.

Neither united nor representative of the world’s nations, the United Nations functions as a liaison between sovereign states, many of which are far from free. The US is criticised often for its lack of constructive engagement with the world outside its borders, but then is condemned also for its behaviour within the UN. When the US acts alone, or in co-operation with other states independently of the UN, it does so when the UN is unwilling to act, incapable of acting, or prevented from doing so as a result of either Security Council vetoes or obstruction within the General Assembly by a well co-ordinated group of non-aligned states.

Take human rights. The farcical UN Commission on Human Rights was recently abolished and replaced with an elected body, but there are serious flaws in the constitution of the new Human Rights Council, and stalwarts of freedom and human dignity such as Cuba, China and Pakistan have been elected to it. John Bolton argued forcefully for the setting of strict membership criteria, but in the end the US voted against the plan drawn up by former General Assembly President Jan Eliasson. This was unfortunate, but Bolton has said that the US will work with the Human Rights Council while continuing to press for fundamental changes to its standing orders.

Since being appointed to the UN role, John Bolton has softened his usual belligerent tone and worked closely with other Security Council representatives in an attempt to achieve concrete action on a number of issues. On the question of Iranian nuclear activities, Bolton’s strategy has been to reinforce IAEA resolutions, and he appears to be getting somewhere with his good cop, bad cop routine.

The latest UN row concerns Deputy Secretary General Mark Malloch Brown and his ill-advised attack on John Bolton and the US administration. Bolton has called on UN chief Kofi Annan to repudiate his subordinate’s remarks, but Annan has refused to do so. Both sides have dug their heels in, and the argument will not be resolved until the departure at the end of this year of both Annan and Malloch Brown. There is now much talk of who will be the next UN Secretary General, and some say that Tony Blair’s foreign policy speech last month at Georgetown University is a job application of sorts. What a thought!

There may be much to criticise in US foreign policy, but the Left should reject anti-Americanism and acknowledge that previous attempts to reform the UN and get it to work effectively have failed, yet reform it must if it is to survive. Bolton clearly needs to be kept on a tight leash, but his plain speaking and consummate political skill can achieve positive results.

If John Bolton did not exist, we would have to invent him.