Blow to multilateralism

Bush nominates John Bolton, a man who has criticized arms control and other international treaties, as the U.S. ambassador to the U.N.

Julian Borger
March 8, 2005 7:33PM (UTC)

European hopes that the Bush administration would bring a more multilateral approach to its foreign policy were dealt a blow Monday with the nomination of an outspoken hawk as America's ambassador to the United Nations. The nominee, John Bolton, a former undersecretary of state for arms control, has built a reputation for public disdain for international treaties and organizations, including the U.N. He told a conservative audience 11 years ago: "The [U.N.] secretariat building in New York has 38 stories. If it lost 10 stories, it wouldn't make a bit of difference."

Announcing his nomination, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said: "The president and I have asked John to do this work because he knows how to get things done. He is a tough-minded diplomat." Although his previous job at the State Department had nothing to do with it, Bolton asked to be allowed to sign an official letter in 2001 withdrawing the U.S. from the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court. More recently, Bolton led Washington's campaign to oust Mohamed ElBaradei from his post as the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency because he had not ruled Iran in violation of its international obligations.


Bolton's nomination, which is likely to be the subject of a bitter confirmation fight in the Senate, is potentially bad news for British diplomats at the U.N. Their Washington colleagues dreaded dealing with him because of his sometimes blustering manner and his vigorous opposition to international conventions Britain supports, such as the International Criminal Court, the comprehensive test ban treaty and the anti-ballistic missile ban. In 2001, Bolton also scuttled a protocol intended to strengthen the biological weapons convention, declaring it was "dead and is not going to be resurrected."

"He was the administration's most vocal critic of arms control agreements," said Lee Feinstein, a foreign policy strategist during the Clinton administration, who works at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank. "It's interesting to pick someone like Bolton at a time when the [U.N.] secretary-general has made a decision to address a number of U.S. concerns." However, one U.N. official said the appointment might have a positive impact if it accelerated the process of internal reform. "Being known as a critic isn't necessarily a bad thing, if it's constructive," the official said.

Bolton's nomination jarred with recent signals from the White House that it was prepared to pursue a multilateralist approach to its relations with the rest of the world in its second term. President Bush and Rice were conciliatory during recent trips to Europe, and European diplomats pointed to the appointment of several moderate figures to top jobs at the State Department.


But one former State Department staffer said: "This is a politically bold move by Condi to placate the right, because she has been coming under attack lately. She's buying political space on the right, but she's also getting an expensive headache."

Julian Borger

Julian Borger is a correspondent for the Guardian.

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