Perhaps the signature moment of John Bolton’s tenure as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations came last summer, when the No. 2 official at the U.N., Mark Malloch Brown, had the temerity to suggest some helpful hints to Americans. He said that Americans were acting against their own interests when they bashed the world body. Malloch Brown’s message was simple: you can’t depend on the U.N. for so much—using it as a forum for legitimizing action against Iraq, Iran, North Korea and Syria, for ending the war in Lebanon and keeping Syria out of Beirut—while at the same time dismissing it as a useless, corrupt institution. A Briton who has lived most of his adult life in the United States and is one of the most devoted friends Washington has at the U.N. Secretariat, Malloch Brown warned Americans they could “lose” the organization if they continued “the prevailing practice of seeking to use the U.N. almost by stealth as a diplomatic tool while failing to stand up for it against its domestic critics.”
Judging from Bolton’s reaction, you might have thought that Malloch Brown had just insulted the ambassador’s mother. Red-faced and furious, Bolton declared that Malloch Brown, as a mere “international civil servant” who had no right to say such things. “It's just illegitimate," Bolton said. The hardliners in the House of Representatives promptly voted to cut millions from U.S. dues as retribution for Brown's words.
That little-noted exchange offers a lot of insight into the problem of John Bolton, who announced Monday he was stepping down after Democrats made it clear that they would not confirm his recess appointment when they take control of Congress in January. Among the favorites to replace him were two people who could be considered his temperamental opposites: outgoing Iraq Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, and Undersecretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky. A brilliant Yale-educated lawyer, Bolton could be sharp and effective negotiating resolutions inside the Security Council. But by temperament and philosophy he had little use for the organization he worked in. Bolton simply never believed that the U.N., or at least large parts of it, had a right to exist. Often misidentified as a neocon, he is actually a passionate libertarian who, in his own writings and interviews, had often portrayed global governance and international law of all kinds as “illegitimate.” One of his chief agenda items was to roll back, rather than rely on, international organizations like the U.N. Why? Because they were not elected (though neither was he.) “The globalists have advanced while the Americanists have slept,” he once wrote.
And so Bolton proceeded to offend nearly every ambassador and “international civil servant” he encountered. Once portrayed by the Bush administration as a tough guy who would push for U.N. reform, he achieved almost no U.N. reform. At one point early in his tenure, as President Bush was seeking to take a softer, more multilateral approach to issues like Iran, Bolton had to be overruled by the White House when he sought to torpedo “millennium goals” for reform that the administration wanted. “He accomplished nothing,” says one senior U.N. official. Indeed Bolton was so objectionable a presence, even to stalwart allies like Britain, that on a number of votes on which U.S.-friendly countries used to abstain—like anti-Israel resolutions, small arms treaties or family planning programs—they often voted against Washington. During his almost 18 months in office, a once-mild caucus of developing countries inside the U.N. called the G-77 came to be a strong unified voice against Bolton—and against America.
Bolton could be effective when he was dealing strictly in the “great powers” club of the Security Council. He ably shepherded resolutions against Syria, Iran and North Korea, often putting in long hours to do so. But the Bolton era was mainly marked by his stubborn unwillingness to acknowledge that, as corrupt and inefficient as the U.N. sometimes is, it works more often than not in U.S. interests. Mark Malloch Brown himself was one of the best examples of that: as the longtime director of the U.N. Development Program he did more than anyone to advance George W. Bush’s grand project of spreading democracy around the world. The U.N. Development Program had once confined itself to programs like constructing water wells and irrigation systems. But as Malloch Brown told this reporter in 2002, he almost single-handedly turned the UNDP’s attention to teaching “democratic governance.” “That’s our biggest business,” Malloch Brown said. It is one of the many sad legacies of the Bolton tenure that he managed to alienate one of the last of America’s few remaining allies.