President Trump’s selection of John Bolton to serve as his next national security adviser has generated alarm about what the move portends for U.S. foreign policy. The litany of concerns about Bolton includes his hawkish views on Iran and North Korea, his unshaken conviction that the Iraq War was good policy, evidence that he tried to intimidate intelligence analysts into agreeing with his conclusions, and reports that he harassed those who crossed him.

Bolton’s views on multilateral institutions and international law — and what he sees as their encroachments on national sovereignty — are at the heart of these concerns. Critics routinely reference his gibe that the U.N. headquarters building could lose 10 stories without any impact, as well as his contention that “there is no United Nations.”

But the image of Bolton, in part self-generated, as an inveterate unilateralist who has no use for the United Nations or multilateral cooperation requires some correction. Bolton’s record and worldview on that point are more complicated.

Bolton in theory

The root of Bolton’s hostility to trends in multilateralism is his belief that these processes have moved well beyond managing interstate relations. Increasingly, they aim to restructure domestic governance (through human rights treaties and other instruments), with little direct democratic input. Leftist activists “unable to prevail in a fair fight within America’s system of representative government,” he has written, “now seek international forums to argue their positions.”

Bolton’s caustic version of that argument has few fans in academia, but he certainly is not alone in focusing on the accountability problems in international governance. Leading international relations scholars have repeatedly identified a “democratic deficit” in much international governance. As Andrew Moravcsik has written, that deficit is “emerging as one of the central questions — perhaps the central question — in contemporary world politics.”

In their influential book, “Rules for the World,” political scientists Martha Finnemore and Michael Barnett noted that international organizations “have never received high marks as exemplars of democratic decision making” and worried about the emergence of “undemocratic liberalism.”

Such concerns don’t just show up on the political right. In another context and with slightly different language, Bolton’s complaints might echo what many on the left argue about the role of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in the developing world, or the tendency of multilateral trade agreements to create a race to the bottom in terms of labor standards and environmental protection.

And Bolton in practice


John Bolton addresses the American Conservative Union’s Conservative Political Action Conference meeting in National Harbor on March 3. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

So how does this worldview line up with Bolton’s government career? There are more than a few surprises.

A protege of James Baker, Bolton served as assistant secretary of state for international organizations during the George H.W. Bush administration. As the Cold War ended, many hoped the United Nations could play a newly central role.

And in 1990, when Bolton testified to a congressional subcommittee, he noted “unmistakable signs that the U.N. has emerged as the organization in which countries of the world actually can unite to confront challenges to international peace and stability.”

The August 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait raised in dramatic fashion the question of the United Nations’ place in the post-Cold War world. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher wanted to use the world body as little as possible — her concern was that an inflated U.N. role might, in the future, leave Western nations with less freedom to act.

Instead, the Bush administration chose to work intensively through the U.N. Security Council, which churned out resolutions that culminated in authorization to expel Iraq from Kuwait. Bolton remembers working with Baker and other senior colleagues “minute by minute” to secure international support for the U.N. measures. If Bolton thinks making the world organization the center of U.S. diplomacy was a mistake, he gives no sign of it.

Against the court, but not against cooperation

As undersecretary of state from 2002 to 2005, Bolton then put himself in the spotlight for his efforts to limit the reach of the new International Criminal Court (ICC), which more than 100 governments voted to establish in 1998. Bolton’s campaign attracted the ire of human rights groups and diplomats championing the ICC, but opposition to the court is hardly a fringe position in the United States.

Few, if any, senators at the time supported joining the court. Legislation to protect U.S. personnel from its reach passed with large and bipartisan margins. Working toward that goal, Bolton and his team negotiated dozens of bilateral immunity agreements during his tenure.

But Bolton also championed new multilateral cooperation in the form of the 2003 Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), which remains operational today, endorsed by more than 100 countries. Rather than utilizing a formal treaty or multilateral organization, Bolton and other PSI architects crafted a set of principles to streamline information sharing on and responses to the transfer of weapons of mass destruction and related materials.

While its effectiveness is not easy to assess, scholars have identified PSI as a useful model for flexible multilateralism. It was not a project that someone allergic to all multilateralism would embrace.

Bolton’s stint as U.N. ambassador was short — he was a 2005 recess appointment, unable to secure Senate confirmation because of his harsh rhetoric and concerns that he had tried to twist intelligence reports.

His 18 months in New York featured some jousting with the U.N. bureaucracy and U.S. allies, mostly over human rights issues, but his record as ambassador doesn’t support the image of Bolton as an anti-multilateral “wild man.” Via the Security Council, he agreed to a dramatic increase in the number of U.N. peacekeepers deployed — which resulted in higher U.S. peacekeeping bills. He labored over Security Council resolutions related to North Korea and Iran in a way that is perplexing if he believes that international law and institutions are irrelevant.

Beyond “Brand Bolton”?

Bolton’s 2007 memoir, “Surrender is Not an Option,” presents a tough foreign policy line and includes rhetoric that will resonate only with those already inclined to agree with him. He has honed and amplified that partisan persona through speeches at the Conservative Political Action Committee and regular appearances on Fox News. By most accounts, his Fox News appearances played an important role in the president’s decision to bring him into the White House.

The big question now is whether some of the complexity evident in his public record — including a willingness to work multilaterally — will turn up for work when he does.

David Bosco is associate professor of international studies at Indiana University. He is the author of books on the U.N. Security Council and International Criminal Court and is on Twitter @multilateralist.