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At the U.N., Bluster Backfires

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By Sebastian Mallaby
Monday, June 12, 2006

Last month President Bush issued a rare apology. "Saying 'Bring it on,' kind of tough talk, you know, that sent the wrong signal," he confessed. "I think in certain parts of the world it was misinterpreted."

Well done, Mr. President, you've understood that bluster can backfire. Now how about sharing this insight with your ambassador to the United Nations?

John R. Bolton, the ambassador in question, has a rich history of losing friends and failing to influence people. He was notorious, even before arriving at the United Nations last year, for having said that 10 stories of the U.N. headquarters could be demolished without much loss; he had described the United States as the sun around which lesser nations rotate -- mere "asteroids," he'd branded them. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Senate refused to confirm Bolton as U.N. ambassador. "Arrogant," "bullying," and "the poster child of what someone in the diplomatic corps should not be," Sen. George Voinovich called him.

Bush sent Bolton anyway, bypassing the Senate by appointing him during a congressional recess. It soon turned out that dismissing foreign ambassadors as asteroid dwellers was merely a warm-up. As soon as Bolton got to New York, he blew up the preparatory negotiations for a gathering of heads of state, insisting that the other 190 members of the world body immediately agree to hundreds of changes in the summit document.

If Bolton had picked a fight on a worthwhile issue, this might have been justified. But one of the chief aims of his edits was to eliminate all mention of the anti-poverty Millennium Development Goals, even though these targets for reducing child mortality and so on are inoffensive. After a week of Bolton-induced bureaucratic battles, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice weighed in, explaining that the administration actually had nothing against the development goals. When the summit convened, Bush himself had to declare during his speech that he supported the targets that his ambassador had repudiated.

Bolton's next triumph was to demand U.N. reform, or rather to pretend to do so. An effort to create a credible human rights council was underway, but Bolton skipped nearly all of the 30 or so negotiating sessions. Then, when the negotiators produced a blueprint for the new council, Bolton declared it unacceptable, leaving furious American allies to wonder why he hadn't weighed in earlier to secure a better outcome. "The job now is to get clarity on what the U.S. wants," the British ambassador said icily. But what Bolton really wanted was quite clear: to allow the negotiations to falter and then to condemn whatever they produced, throwing red meat to his U.N.-hating allies on the right of the Republican Party.

Next, Bolton blundered into U.N. management reform, an issue that may soon precipitate a crisis. The top U.N. officials, led by Secretary General Kofi Annan, had laid out a menu of radical changes, designed to eliminate useless conferences and reports and to move staff to departments that most needed them. Bolton added his own brand of bluster to this plan: If poor countries carried on resisting management reforms, rich countries would stop paying for the organization. The deadline for agreeing on reform is the end of this month, but no breakthrough is in sight. Officials are wondering what to do if U.N. checks start bouncing.

Not many reformers at the United Nations believe that the budget threat achieved anything. To the contrary, Bolton has so poisoned the atmosphere that the cause of management renewal is viewed by many developing countries as an American plot. And if Bolton carries through on his threat to cut off money for the United Nations, the United States will be more isolated than ever. Refusing to fund U.N. officials who are planning for a peacekeeping mission in Darfur is not a winning strategy.

Last week the U.N. deputy secretary general, a pro-American Briton named Mark Malloch Brown, went public with his Bolton frustrations. He pointed out that the United Nations serves many American objectives, from deploying peacekeepers to helping with Iraq's elections. Given this cooperation, the powers that be in Washington should stick up for the United Nations rather than threatening to blow it up. They should not be passive in the face of "unchecked U.N.-bashing and stereotyping."

This merely stated the obvious. If you doubt that U.N.-bashing and stereotyping goes on, ask yourself what gallery Bolton is playing to -- or check out the latest cover of the National Rifle Association magazine, which features a wolf with U.N. logos in its eyeballs. But Malloch Brown's speech didn't seem obvious to Bolton. "This is the worst mistake by a senior U.N. official that I have seen," he thundered in response. "Even though the target of the speech was the United States, the victim, I fear, will be the United Nations."

Which would suit Bolton and his allies perfectly. But it should not suit Bush, at least not now that he's grasped that bluster can backfire. Arriving at the U.N. summit last September, a different Bush greeted the secretary general and gestured at Bolton; "has the place blown up since he's been here?" he demanded, teasingly. Well, it's now time for the new Bush to acknowledge that Bolton's tactics aren't funny. The United States needs an ambassador who can work with the United Nations. Right now, it doesn't have one.

smallaby@washpost.com


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