Substance – Not Ambassador Bolton’s Personality – Is the Question

Writing in Bloomberg News, Amity Shlaes argues that the opposition to Ambassador Bolton’s re-nomination is born from a conviction that he does not possess the right temperament for the job. “Doesn’t play well with others,” writes Shlaes. “That’s the charge against John Bolton…. Other UN diplomats don’t like him. They complain about him the way preschool teachers complain about an irritating child — too loud, too pushy.”

With respect to Ms. Shlaes, Bolton’s temperament is not the issue here. Among the many reasons to question the wisdom and utility of Bolton’s re-nomination, the fact that he does not possess the social graces typical of other diplomats in Turtle Bay is beside the point. Rather, questions about Bolton’s nomination are grounded in profoundly substantive critiques of his one year tenure as Ambassador. In issue after issue, Ambassador Bolton has undermined many of the interests he purports to serve. And in no subject is this clearer than UN reform. Ambassador Bolton is arguably among the most vocal proponents of reform in Turtle Bay. But as Barbara Crossette pointed out in Foreign Policy, Bolton too often stakes maximalist positions on relatively minor issues, thereby sacrificing larger reform to his own idiosyncrasies. For example, by opposing the mere mention of Millennium Development Goals in the 2005 World Summit outcome document, Bolton sent months of negotiation in a tailspin just weeks before the summit in September. (Bolton only dropped the issue once Secretary Rice smoothed things over in a conference call with Kofi Annan and an irate UK foreign minister Jack Straw.) In the end, the final document was a watered down version of many of the goals the United States-and other proponents of reform-hoped to achieve.

Similarly, Bolton often fails to signal America’s bottom line at critical points of negotiation. During discussions over the structure and mandate of the new Human Rights Council, our best allies at the UN were bending over backwards to accommodate the administration’s concerns. However, Bolton failed to articulate America’s red lines during crucial meetings prior to the vote on the council. As a result, Bolton failed to achieve a proposal that the United States could support.

Bolton’s preference for brinksmanship is also damaging to America’s long term interests at the United Nations. There was a near crisis stemming from a budget stand-off in June, and this became a diplomatic disaster for the United States. For one, this tactic backfired and strengthened the hand of the opponents to reform who successfully stalled much progress on reform in a General Assembly vote in May. Further, it isolated the United States, contributing to the steady erosion of American influence in Turtle Bay.

Bolton has been unable to achieve many of his stated goals on reform. But he has contributed to an atmosphere at the United Nations is becoming increasingly contentious and polarized. It is these substantive critiques, not questions about his temperament, which Senators must consider as they vote on his nomination.