A s expected, U.S. President George W. Bush used a recess appointment to name Mr. John Bolton his ambassador to the United Nations. The move is a result of the bitter, partisan divisions that dog politics in Washington D.C, and a sign of Mr. Bush’s determination to send Mr. Bolton to the U.N. While his supporters say the appointment is good for U.S. relations with the U.N., the decision is yet another blow to U.S. international credibility. Mr. Bolton could reinvigorate the U.N., but there is nothing in his record to suggest he is prepared for the give and take that is essential to successful diplomacy.
News of Mr. Bolton’s nomination was greeted with dismay by internationalists and friends of the U.N. He is famous for noting that the U.N. would not suffer if the U.N. Building lost 10 floors and has argued that the United States has little or no use for international law or multilateralism in general. During his tenure as assistant secretary of state for arms control and nonproliferation in the first four years of Mr. Bush’s presidency, he was best known for his skepticism about arms control, his pugnacious approach to diplomacy — in one speech in Seoul he referred to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il more than 40 times, each time negatively — and his preference for muscular solutions to thorny international problems.
His image problems were compounded during congressional hearings on his nomination. Those sessions revealed that Mr. Bolton was a “kiss up, kick down” manager, according to another State Department official who crossed paths — and words — with him. Reports that Mr. Bolton’s testimony was incomplete and sometimes wrong did not endear him to the senators who had to consent to his nomination.
Questions about his access to intelligence intercepts and his purpose for requesting that information proved too much for several senators, who refused to agree to a vote on his nomination without answers that would clear up their growing doubts about his fitness for the office.
For reasons of its own, the Bush administration would not provide the information the senators demanded, so the appointment was stalemated. Once Congress took its summer break, though, Mr. Bush used his power to make a “recess appointment,” which will last only for the duration of the next Congress — i.e., until elections are held next year.
Recess appointments are intended to allow the president to fill personnel gaps when Congress is unable to act because it is not in session. Some view Mr. Bolton’s appointment as an abuse of the process. Mr. Bush counters that the U.S. needs a U.N. ambassador and that the Senate was stalling for political purposes.
The president is right, at least on one count: The U.S. does need a U.N. ambassador, but it is hard to believe that Mr. Bolton is the right man for the job. Worse, his credibility is now even more tarnished since the world now knows that the new ambassador does not enjoy the support and backing of the U.S. Congress, which, because it controls the purse, is an increasingly important partner for the U.N.
His supporters counter that Mr. Bolton’s very skepticism makes him valuable. The Bush administration’s commitment to his nomination, despite the political problems it has caused, is proof that he has powerful political backers. Mr. Bolton’s hard-nosed approach to the U.N. ensures that any reform effort or programs he endorses will get a fair hearing in Washington and will have already cleared a substantial hurdle: the doubts inevitably voiced by people like Mr. Bolton. In other words, his approval will be worth quite a lot.
The question then is whether Mr. Bolton genuinely believes that the U.N. serves a constructive purpose in U.S. foreign policy. For virtually all of the post-World War II era, the U.S. has acted under the assumption that the U.N., international law and multilateral organizations supported its national interests. Although Washington was obliged to surrender some autonomy to be a good international citizen and to show its leadership and commitment to a rules-based order, the gains justified the sacrifices.
In recent years, the cost-benefit result has seemingly changed. More and more individuals in the U.S. believe that there should be no restraints on U.S. action, and that the U.N., rather than serving as a vehicle that promotes U.S. national interests, is an obstacle to their realization. Until recently, Mr. Bolton was considered to be among those who thought this way.
The world is now watching to see whether Mr. Bolton understands that the U.N. is not hostile to U.S. national interests and that his country is better served by an international order that exempts no nation. It will be quickly apparent if he does. If he does not understand this, the U.N, the U.S. and the entire world will feel the consequences.
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