An assertive nationalist

By Mark Turner and Stephen Fidler

Financial Times

Published: April 16 2005

To his detractors, John Bolton, the man nominated to be Washington's next ambassador to the United Nations, is the incarnation of everything they fear about the Bush administration: a hawkish, supremacist bully, disdainful of international law.

To his admirers, he is exactly the dose of tonic the UN needs: a man unafraid to say when the emperor has no clothes, and strong enough to take on the mandarins. One thing is clear. If his appointment is confirmed, as expected, Mr Bolton is likely to make for some interesting times in an organisation struggling to restore confidence after a dreadful two years.

John Bolton was born in Baltimore in 1948, and attended Yale University. A sharp and eloquent lawyer, fond of argument, he spent much of his career in public service, at the US Agency for International Development, the Justice department and as assistant secretary for international organisation affairs at the State department (1989-93). It was here he became acquainted with the UN's curious brand of diplomacy. During the 1990 negotiation of Resolution 678, which authorised the first Gulf war after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Mr Bolton travelled to New York and "camped out" in the UN's delegates lounge to lobby Security Council members to take action, says one UN-based journalist. "For a period in late 1990 he became like part of the furniture," the journalist recalled. The resolution was passed overwhelmingly and is still considered a high point of international co-operation at the UN.

Mr Bolton knows the UN building well and has been seen lingering in places seldom frequented by senior officials. During the last General Assembly, for example, reporters noticed him poking around in the press office looking at documents laid out for the media. "Nobody knew who he was," said one reporter.

After his State department stint, Mr Bolton became senior vice-president of the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative think-tank, where he railed against the UN and its style of multilateralist nation-building. He famously said that if the UN secretariat lost 10 floors, it would make no difference. Mr Bolton's critics have leapt on that formulation to argue against his appointment. The irony is that a number of reform-minded UN officials privately agree with him, and wonder why he stopped at 10 floors.

In his most recent job as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, Mr Bolton firmly established himself as a forthright hawk - but one willing to turn to like-minded countries for specific jobs. He was the architect of the Proliferation Security Initiative, a scheme to intercept dangerous shipments. In his recent UN reform proposal, Kofi Annan, UN secretary-general, endorsed the idea.

Many commentators have wrongly cast Mr Bolton as a neo-conservative, who dreams of wielding US influence to further global democracy. Ivo Daalder, a foreign policy commentator, says Mr Bolton and others like him are better described as "assertive nationalists" than neo-cons. While agreeing with neocon aims to remove Mr Hussein, Mr Bolton argued US forces should not stay on to rebuild Iraq and had no business trying to run the place.

He has said that one of the biggest US foreign policy disasters since the second world war was Dwight Eisenhower's decision not to back the UK and France in the 1956 Suez Canal crisis. This, he believes, left the US as the lone policeman of the Middle East and had consequences that are still reverberating.

Amid the democratic panic about Mr Bolton's nomination, most UN ambassadors are sanguine. After initial shock, some acknowledge that at least, they would be talking to someone with influence in Washington. In fact, if Mr Bolton's stormy confirmation hearing at the Senate Foreign Relations committee can be believed, those who might worry most are his staff at the UN mission. Carl Ford, a former State department official, railed against Mr Bolton as a "serial abuser" and a "kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy" who bullied juniors to get his way.

The description might come as a surprise to Colin Powell, his former boss at the State department. Their views often clashed and Powell supporters say Mr Bolton went behind his back to consort with hawkish allies in the White House and Pentagon. Washington insiders say this encouraged the new secretary, Condoleezza Rice, to insist Mr Bolton move out of Foggy Bottom, the State department's headquarters. Mr Bolton "paid a price" for his independent views, "especially by earning the enmity of [deputy secretary of state] Richard Armitage," notes William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, a neo-con journal, who worked with Mr Bolton under George H. W.Bush. "In fact, Bolton has always had a reputation as a straight shooter and a good boss."

The Senate committee has delayed its vote until next week, to give senators more time to review allegations that Mr Bolton may have compromised the ability of US intelligence officers to speak their mind. The furore has eclipsed interesting insights into his view of international law, which he has argued does not exist and certainly should not trump the democratic mandates given the US political system. His fundamental point is that the UN is not an independent entity: it is a meeting of member governments, on which all responsibility should ultimately fall.

"The UN does what member governments tell it to do," Mr Bolton said. "You have to be realistic about what can be done through not just the UN but through any institution. Reform in the UN means member governments have to take their responsibilities seriously."