When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced the nomination of John R. Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations, she proclaimed that he would serve in the tradition of our best ambassadors “with the strongest voices.” She cited Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Jean Kirkpatrick as the models. But the Bolton nomination hardly fits any historical tradition. It is a defiance of history.
Both Moynihan, who served in the mid-1970s, and Kirkpatrick, who served in the early 1980s, faced a UN at the nadir of its fortunes. It was an object of contempt for many Americans and Europeans, not all of them conservative. The Cold War had paralyzed the Security Council, the UN’s only source of power. No issue of significance could be solved there so long as the United States and the Soviet Union were prepared to veto each other.
Most of the noise at the UN came from the General Assembly, controlled by the many formerly colonized nations of the Third World. The General Assembly was a powerless body of incessant talk. Many small countries took advantage of the Security Council’s paralysis to attract attention by denouncing the United States and other rich countries in the General Assembly. That satisfied their pride but brought disdain down on the UN.
Some American policymakers hoped that the tart tongues of Moynihan, appointed by President Ford, and Kirkpatrick, appointed by President Reagan, might shake some sense into the UN. That strategy really didn’t work. The infamous “Zionism is Racism” resolution, for example, was passed by the General Assembly on Moynihan’s watch. But those kind of antics only hurt the UN even more. If the UN was going to keep shooting itself in the foot, that was not the fault of the American Ambassador.
The nomination of Bolton as another Moynihan or Kirkpatrick is a strong indication that many Bush Administration policymakers still have the same contempt for the UN that their predecessors had in the 1970s and 1980s. But the UN has changed drastically since those depressing days. With the end of the Cold War, the Security Council has fulfilled its potential for significant influence and action in many world crises. Countries like Britain and France no longer deride the UN. They dispatch their most experienced ambassadors there and use the UN as their main diplomatic stage. Bolton, however, regards that historical change with deep distrust.
Over the years, Bolton has often taken the pose of a smart aleck throwing brickbats at the UN and its supporters. I felt a lot of them in the mid-1990s after I wrote my history of the first 50 years of the UN. We even appeared on a few forums and television shows together with me defending the UN while he attacked it. A lot of his quotes were outrageous, much like the ones cited these days by editorialists bemoaning his nomination.
But there is a serious and deeply philosophical line to his thinking. Bolton sees only one important use for the UN — as an instrument serving American policy. From any other side, he sees it as a possible source of danger to our sovereignty. For this reason, he believes we should always be on guard against any Secretary-General who relishes independence.
In 1999, a commission appointed by Secretary-General Kofi Annan castigated both Annan and the Security Council for failing to prevent the massacre of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Rwanda five years earlier. When Annan endorsed the findings, Bolton, then with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, was upset. Annan could criticize himself all he wanted but, in Bolton’s view, it was illegitimate for him to blame the governments that make up the Security Council. “The issue is whether an international civil servant has or can be given the authority to criticize the performance of member governments,” Bolton told the New York Times. “...He’s well beyond pushing the envelope on that score.”
Bolton berated Annan that same year for claiming that the Security Council should be the sole source of legitimacy on the use of force. “These are sweeping — indeed breathtaking — assertions,” Bolton wrote, “made all the bolder by the fact that the UN Charter describes the secretary-general as merely a ‘chief administrative officer.’”
While this description was accurate, Bolton failed to add that the Charter also authorized the Secretary-General to “bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.” It is this clause that has encouraged most Secretaries-General to fashion themselves into spokesmen and negotiators for world peace.
Moreover, Dag Hammarskjold, the mystical Swedish civil servant usually regarded as the greatest Secretary-General in the 60-year history of the UN, set a precedent for acting on his own when he felt his act would contribute toward peace. While he recognized there were limits to what he could try to do on his own, Hammarskjold told a news conference in 1953, “I think that the right of initiative in a certain sense, informally, of the Secretary-General goes far beyond what is described in the Charter.”
In line with this historical precedent, many governments and peoples, especially the weaker ones, have tended over the years to ascribe a special role to the Secretary-General that is not set down in the Charter. While carrying out the decisions of the powerful nations in the Security Council, he is also the only international statesman with the obligation of speaking out and acting for the morality and peace of the world as a whole.
Annan was clearly following this tradition when he dispatched letters to President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi last November urging them not to assault the city of Fallouja. The letter failed to stop the onslaught. Instead, it infuriated the White House and probably contributed to a feeling within the Bush Administration that someone like Bolton was needed to cut the Secretary-General down to size. To do so, however, will require a lot of erasure of history.
Stanley Meisler is the author of Kofi Annan: A Man of Peace in a World of War and United Nations: The First Fifty Years.
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