WASHINGTON -- In December 2001, at a conference on biological weapons, John R. Bolton stunned his fellow diplomats by insisting, without warning, that the nations of the world abandon their years-long effort to enforce the global treaty on germ warfare, according to conference participants.
The US demand, made in the final hours of a three-week conference in Geneva by a Bolton deputy, was a defining moment for the newly minted undersecretary of state for arms control. It underscored Bolton's guiding philosophy: that treaties alone do not keep the world safe from weapons of mass destruction.
It also highlighted Bolton's style, which several diplomats at the conference said left a lasting impression. Some diplomats who were present at the conference recounted to the Globe incidents that highlighted Bolton's legendary temper, including an episode in which he shouted at a South African diplomat who had objected to Bolton's stance on the treaty. Others complained that Bolton had promised to share his proposal with US allies in private prior to announcing it to the world, but broke his word.
Bolton, at the center of a heated confirmation battle over his nomination as ambassador to the United Nations, is praised by his supporters for forcing the world to accept uncomfortable truths, in this case, that member countries could never devise an effective system to police the 1972 treaty that bans the development, production, and stockpiling of biological weapons.
''He makes the argument that if you try to sugarcoat it, the other people are not going to get the message," said a US official who has worked closely with Bolton, speaking on condition of anonymity. But some foreign diplomats, arms control specialists, and some former US officials who worked with Bolton say his actions at the conference show how his confrontational style can undermine his policy stances.
''He had a very strong argument -- unfortunately, those arguments have been lost in the delivery," said Terence Taylor, a former United Nations biological weapons inspector who now works at the International Institute for Strategic Studies based in London. ''If you want your policy to gain international support, it has to be packaged with diplomacy, and I think that is the problem with Mr. Bolton."
The Geneva meeting, which was supposed to close with a statement of cooperation, ended abruptly in chaos and anger shortly after the American position was announced. Allies from the European Union were so furious that a planned meeting with US delegates did not take place.
''Mr. Bolton displayed a confrontational style in a diplomatic meeting, which perhaps made things more difficult to resolve," said Richard Lennane, the political affairs officer with the United Nations Department for disarmament affairs who recalled that he worked to calm the meeting after the clash with the South African diplomat, Peter Goosen. ''It was how he said it, rather than what he said, which caused the problems."
Goosen did not return a message left at his Pretoria office seeking comment.
Bolton declined through a spokeswoman to comment. Nominees rarely speak to the press during their confirmation process.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said that Bolton's no-nonsense style is exactly what the United States needs to overhaul the United Nations.
But his critics said Bolton's style at the Geneva conference angered allies at a difficult moment for US foreign policy. Emotions were still raw from the US rejection of the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto protocol. The United States had also rejected in July 2001 a draft agreement -- hammered out over six years by 144 countries -- for a system of international inspectors to enforce the biological weapons treaty. That rejection set the stage for the crucial conference beginning in November in Geneva, where Europeans hoped to come up with a compromise deal.
Bolton was a leading voice for rejecting the proposed enforcement system in part because he felt that international inspections could expose the trade secrets of US pharmaceutical companies, as well as biodefense secrets. Bolton also said the inspections regime would not work because germ warfare programs are too difficult to detect.
Bolton argued for the use of sanctions and other nonbinding national agreements as a way to achieve compliance instead of inspections.
Some at the White House were trying to find a way to placate European allies who were upset about the impasse.
Avis Bohlen, then assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Arms Control under Bolton, traveled around European capitals in September 2001, two months before the Geneva conference, discussing the possibility of a compromise, but when she returned, Bolton told her he did not want any legally binding enforcement regimen, she said.
''I think he had no great respect for the world of people who negotiated on biological weapons," Bohlen said. ''It was a close-knit world unto itself, and he didn't think that they mattered."
Bolton instead focused on writing a hard-hitting speech for the conference that would highlight the failures of the treaty. It accused Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Libya, and Sudan of pursuing biological weapons, prompting angry denials from the accused countries that were present.
Even after Bolton's opening speech, European allies held out hope that the United States would ultimately accept a system to enforce the treaty. Jean Lint, the representative of the European Union, met with Bolton in the cafeteria at the conference hall in Geneva, and they agreed to share proposals before presenting them to the entire conference, according to a European negotiator who was present but declined to be identified.
But the night before the conference was to end, Bolton got clearance from the National Security Council to demand that the enforcement committee be dissolved, according to Bohlen.
''I think it was pretty clear that he wanted to torpedo the meeting," Bohlen said. ''I don't think the National Security Council realized what an uproar it would cause."
In the final hours of the conference, Donald Mahley, the US representative to the enforcement committee who was speaking for Bolton, stood up and demanded that the committee be dissolved, although he added that the United States supported other forms of cooperation.
''It was dropped like a thunderbolt," said Taylor, the former weapons inspector.
The US official said Bolton meant to send a message that the United States would tolerate no more talk of inspections and enforcement. Bolton said at the time that he had sent out signals warning the Europeans that they should not have been surprised.
But newspapers quoted European diplomats calling Bolton a ''cheater."
The US official said that many at the White House were unhappy about the bad publicity, but that Bolton showed no disappointment. ''Did he evince great remorse and tear his hair out? Of course not. Did he exalt in the sense that, 'By God, we showed these guys?' No. He simply went about his business."
© 2005 The Globe Newspaper Company