TOPICS: America’s legacy of unlikely UN envoys

Peter Grier and Faye Bowers

John F Kennedy picked Adlai Stevenson, a famously eloquent political rival. Richard Nixon tapped Pat Moynihan, a maverick Democrat later to serve as a senator from New York. Bill Clinton’s final choice was Richard Holbrooke, a forceful geopolitical negotiator. When it comes to picking an ambassador to the UN, US presidents have often opted for prominent and outspoken political officials. That’s the kind of person needed to make US points heard in the cacophony that can be the UN.

John Bolton may or may not be qualified to follow in these footsteps. That’s a decision the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is weighing this week as it conducts confirmation hearings on him. To opponents, Bolton is a too- strident critic of the world’s pre-eminent international organisation. But one things seems sure: If approved, he would be far from the first US envoy to the UN to have the word “controversial” often cited in front of his name. On Monday, Bolton, who is currently the top State Department official for non-proliferation, told senators he would work to make the UN “more effective.” The UN has both strengths and weaknesses, Bolton said. Perhaps seeking to soften his image, he told senators, “We see the UN as an important part of our democracy.”

But Bolton appeared to face united opposition from the panel’s eight Democrats. They cited, among other things, his contention in 1994 that it wouldn’t make a bit of difference if the UN building lost 10 stories, and his past description of UN peace enforcement and nation-building efforts as “chimerical.” In addition, Democrats have questioned Bolton’s temperament, and charged that he may have tried to have two State Department analysts fired as he considered them too soft on Cuba.

There are 10 Republicans and eight Democrats on the foreign relations panel. If the Democrats can lure one GOP Senator to cross lines, they can block Bolton’s nomination from going forward with a tie. At time of writing, however, it appeared that the most likely Republican defector, Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, was leaning toward approval of the nominee. Generally speaking, UN ambassadors are articulate, have made major contributions in some way to an administration’s foreign policy, and are people who might conceivably be elevated to higher position some day. “But most importantly, what they have in common is their ability to articulate the foreign policy of the administration, and they have the confidence of the president. That’s the case with John Bolton,” says Robert Pfaltzgraff, an international security expert at Tufts University’s Fletcher School in Medford.

Other experts hold that Bolton might be further toward the controversy end of the scale than other past UN ambassadors. Bolton’s nomination is “both a challenge to the UN and a reflection of arrogance on the part of the US, or Bush,” says Roberta Cohen, a former senior adviser at the UN who is now at the Brookings Institution. But despite her specific objections to the Bolton nomination, Cohen notes that general trend of tough ambassadors holds true. “After all, the UN has about 191 states and even though the US is the most powerful, an ambassador who really stands out in that crowd can be an asset,” says Cohen. — The Christian Science Monitor