President George W. Bush, relying on an emergency constitutional provision designed for a mid-1700s era when congress met for only a few months each year and it took six months to get from anywhere to anywhere, used the Senate's summer recess to appoint UN-basher John Bolton to be the new U.S. ambassador to the global organization. The recess appointment means no Senate confirmation is required.
Bolton's appointment sends to the UN a U.S. representative who has stated that "there is no United Nations. When the United States leads, the United Nations will follow. When it suits our interest to do so, we will do so. When it does not suit our interests we will not." He said that one could lop off the top ten floors of UN headquarters and no one would know the difference. (He made both remarks in a 1994 debate with myself and others.) And, he wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the U.S. has no legal obligation to abide by treaties it has signed and ratified.
This means the new U.S. ambassador comes to the United Nations unequivocally committed to the Bush administration's long-standing policy of unilateralism: Violating international law and undermining the independence, relevance and importance of the UN.
It looks like a grim day for those who fight to reclaim the United Nations as part of the global opposition to the U.S. drive towards war and empire. The real dangers of Bush policy at the UN are, unfortunately, already well underway. Those include placing a State Department official in a new position of Undersecretary General for Management, with a mandate to "streamline" the secretary-general's own staff. Ostensibly to prevent alleged corruption, the real effect will be to place U.S. eyes and ears, and crucially, accountability to Washington, at the center of the United Nations. The Bush administration has also succeeded in winning UN support for establishing a so-called "democracy fund," aimed at privileging those developing countries willing to accept U.S.-dominated political arrangements.
Bolton's appointment represents the victory of the rabid over the realists, but there is little question that he represents -- albeit in an exaggerated form -- the Bush administration's anti-UN views. Those who argued that Bolton should be opposed because he didn't represent U.S. policy were simply engaging in wishful thinking.
But the appointment does include some consolation prizes.
Bolton arrives at the UN incalculably weakened by the refusal of the U.S. Senate, after five months of hearings, to confirm his nomination.
The well-publicized refusal of Condoleezza Rice to make Bolton her deputy indicates he is not top dog in her State Department. The public airing of his bullying tactics and, more importantly, his eagerness to ignore actual intelligence information in favor of asserting fanciful claims of Iraqi nuclear programs or Cuban bio-weapons, mean few in UN headquarters or among the global diplomatic corps are likely to take Bolton's "persuasions" seriously.
The result will be a serious setback to the Bush administration's capacity to coerce the United Nations into its all-too-common role as a tool of U.S. foreign policy. And that is all to the good. While the pre-Iraq War rhetoric of UN "irrelevance" has cooled, there is no doubt that Bush's unilateralist trajectory remains in place. Bush's tactical goal may have shifted from UN collapse to UN capture, but the strategic effort remains unchanged -- to undermine the UN's role as partner of global civil society and those governments willing to stand up to the U.S. drive towards unilateralism and militarism.
With John Bolton at the helm that goal will be much harder to achieve.
As a result, for international social movements, and governments determined to maintain their independence, this may turn out to be a great opportunity instead -- a crucial moment to advance our campaign to reclaim the United Nations as part of our global mobilization for peace and against war and empire.