It would be hard to find any senior U.S. official who has expressed greater public disdain for international law or the role of the United Nations than John Bolton. That's why it comes as a shock that one of the most hawkish and least diplomatic figures in the Bush administration would be nominated for the job of UN ambassador, particularly at a time when Washington appears keen on rebuilding its multilateral ties and on playing a key role in reform of the world body.
Of the UN, Mr. Bolton once famously remarked that "there is no United Nations." He also said that if the UN headquarters in New York lost the top 10 storeys where the most senior people keep their offices, "it wouldn't make a bit of difference."
Within the State Department, where he is an undersecretary of state in charge of such sensitive subjects as international security and arms control, he has been an intransigent opponent of arms-limitation treaties, the Canadian-backed ban on land mines, and economic and security concessions to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program. Mr. Bolton also battled for a harder U.S. stance on Cuba, arguing that the Castro regime was secretly developing biological weapons. When an intelligence analyst would not support the claim, Mr. Bolton is alleged to have sought the man's transfer. Those positions were all consistent with his view that might makes right and that the United States should pursue an assertive and, if necessary, unilateral foreign policy in defence of its own interests.
Regardless of Mr. Bush's reasons, he has made a peculiar choice for the next UN ambassador. Canada and other countries eager to see a reformed, more efficient and effective world body can only hope that Mr. Bolton is joining the UN diplomatic circle to give Washington a strong, tough voice at the negotiating table. If, however, his mandate is to continue pushing the unilateralist foreign-policy views he shares with other senior members of the Bush administration, it will be of no value to anyone.
It is in Washington's best interests to have a strong, functioning international institution, one where the administration can find or build consensus on such important issues as the Middle East peace process, Iranian and North Korean nuclear development and the future shape and powers of the UN Security Council. And for that, it helps to have not only a strong voice at the UN but a credible one.