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Bolton in a China Shop

The U.S. ambassador to the U.N. is using some very undiplomatic tactics to upset the institution’s delicate (do-nothing?) balance (gridlock?). Is John Bolton the living emblem of American arrogance or the man to save the U.N.? Or both?


If you’ve been labeled a bastard, you may as well play the part. In mid-November, John Bolton, the newest American ambassador to the United Nations, issued an ultimatum: He planned to hold the U.N. budget hostage unless certain reforms he particularly coveted were made part of the deal. Even by American standards, and even from a man who once suggested the U.N. could do without the top ten floors, this was a rather startling—some might say insolent—threat. Today, just a day before Thanksgiving, his colleagues are sufficiently vexed that they’ve decided to say something about it.

“We’re not in favor of holding any individual items, or the budget, hostage to other issues,” says Sir Emyr Jones Parry, the British ambassador, to a scrum of reporters who’ve gathered outside the Security Council. He has a cautious bearing, as one might expect a British ambassador to have, and his face has the appropriately versatile, anonymous look of a diplomat. He is careful never to mention the United States, much less Bolton, by name, but it’s quite clear who and what he’s speaking about. “The EU position,” he adds, “is that we want the budget adopted in the normal way.”

“Wow,” says a veteran U.N. reporter after he walks away. “That’s the first time I’ve heard the EU tell the United States to fuck off.”

Just minutes after that, Bolton himself emerges, wearing gray pinstripes, a signet ring, and a maroon-and-gold tie so frankly unattractive it’s endearing. He’s smaller than one might expect, maybe five foot eight, but still commanding, and not just because he arrived at the U.N. brightly branded by a former State Department colleague as “a quintessential kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy.” A U.N. official had recently mentioned to me that there’s something compelling, almost Asperger’s-ish about the United States’ new ambassador, and when I see him at close range, it’s clear what he meant: Bolton is savantlike yet socially awkward, alert yet more attuned to his internal rhythms than external ones. He doesn’t make small talk. He launches straight into his remarks, which are direct and concise. He takes only a few questions, the last of which is a holiday softball: “At a time of world crises, what do you have to be thankful for this Thanksgiving, now that you’re here?”

Outside the United Nations, Bolton’s answer, highly political, would probably seem appropriate. But within its walls, at a time when the United States has turned its back on the Kyoto treaty and gone to grammatically tortuous lengths to defend its use of torture, his answer sounds strangely impolitic.

“That I’m an American citizen,” he says.

When George W. Bush nominated John Bolton as America’s ambassador to the United Nations this past March, it seemed like the president had finally found the man with the personality to match the arrogance and unpleasantness of our country’s present reputation. Bolton, a former undersecretary of State for arms control, proved unconfirmable by the Senate, and his failed confirmation hearings left a series of startling impressions, not just physical (the jowl of a basset hound, the walrus mustache of a state trooper) but characterological: He had a genius for obsequiousness, said former colleagues. A bad temper. An intolerance for dissent. Now, at this fragile juncture, Bolton was supposed to represent us at the U.N.?

Most of Foggy Bottom assumed that Bush was sending Bolton to New York because Condoleezza Rice didn’t want him in Washington. Bush had to appoint Bolton as U.N. ambassador during the August recess, when Congress was out of session. No one expects he’ll be confirmed at the beginning of 2007, when the Senate is required to try again. The shot clock is running.

So what happens when a man who appears to regard the U.N. more as a nuisance than a help to American interests is suddenly asked to show up there every morning? Especially when he knows his days are numbered?

Contrary to expectation, Bolton has not, as many feared (and secretly hoped), ground his colleagues to a pulp beneath his kicking-down shoes. Most ambassadors report the same thing about their interactions with him: He is correct, no-nonsense, even funny on occasion. He has paid nearly 125 courtesy calls to his fellow permanent representatives (or “perm reps,” as they’re called), and he’s paying them still. He has thrown a number of receptions at the American residence in the Waldorf Towers; he attends receptions, in spite of his ascetic 9 p.m. bedtime; and he mingles with colleagues in the delegates’ lounge. The first day he took his seat at the Security Council, he did not wait to be introduced, as is the custom, but went around the room and shook everyone’s hands, ambassadors and non-ambassadors alike.

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