Many of us cheered loudly when President Bush announced the inspired choice of John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations in 2005. As one of the most hardnosed and down-to-earth policy-makers in Washington, Mr. Bolton seemed just the man for the job, an ambassador in the mold of Jeane Kirkpatrick who would not be possessed by clientitis. Meanwhile, Democrats and foreign media alike gasped at the choice.
Though Senate Democrats and certain "wet" Republicans refused to confirm Mr. Bolton (and the president then made a recess appointment), he was as effective an ambassador as is possible in the hostile environment of the United Nations. But as someone who is both highly intelligent and very outspoken, Mr. Bolton was far from your typical diplomat. As Sen. Joe Biden noted during Mr. Bolton's confirmation hearings as undersecretary of state for arms control in 2001, "My problem with you over the years is that you have been too competent."
Mr. Bolton's experience at the United Nations and in his various jobs in the State Department is the subject of his much-anticipated new book — anticipated with some trepidation at the United Nations, one might add. "Surrender is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad" arrived in the bookstores just in time for Christmas, and as a firsthand account of life in Foggy Bottom and Turtle Bay, it is an amazing blow-by-blow description from the front lines.
At the Heritage Foundation last week, Mr. Bolton spoke about the motivation for writing the book, about his desire to allow sunshine in to illuminate the mysterious ways of U.S. foreign policy in the making. "A senior State Department official once said to me," he noted, "If the American people knew how we make foreign policy, they would come after us with pitchforks."
"If the book does well, so will the pitchfork sales."
"Surrender is not an Option" is about what happens when a Republican president meets the permanent foreign-policy bureaucracy. One of Mr. Bolton's banner causes while at the United Nations — a cause embraced by the Bush administration — was institutional U.N. reform. Even in the context of Secretary-General Kofi Annan's own commission of reform, Mr. Bolton found that producing real change was a Sisyphusian task, as every move proposed by Mr. Annan seemed to make things worse, not better. (Recall that Mr. Bolton caused a stir by describing the new Human Rights Council as "a caterpillar with lipstick," rather than a butterfly.)
When asked what he would recommend for cleaning out the Augean stables in New York, Mr. Bolton recommends one simple but fundamental change: the way the United Nations is funded. Currently, the United States pays mandatory dues of 22 percent of general budget by mandatory assessment and 27 percent of the peacekeeping budget. He would make those contributions voluntary.
Mr. Bolton shocked the U.N. bureaucracy by stating in congressional testimony: "This has developed an entitlement mentality." Displeasure with Mr. Bolton's proposal was quickly registered by Mr. Annan and his deeply anti-American deputy Marc Malloch Brown (now a high-ranking foreign-policy official in the British government).
Mr. Brown correctly noted (though with great displeasure) that if contributions were voluntary, countries would only pay for what they wanted. Of course, nothing concentrates the mind of a bureaucrat as much as the threat of losing funding. As Mr. Bolton notes, the parts of the United Nations that relatively function best, UNICEF or the World Food Program, are voluntarily — and therefore competitively — funded. The new U.N. secretary-general has announced a proposed budget increase of 25 percent, so Mr. Bolton's idea remains highly relevant and has in fact been written into a legislative proposal by Sen. Norm Coleman, Minnesota Republican.
On the broader question of who has won the battle over U.S. foreign policy, Mr. Bolton hands victory to the Foggy Bottom bureaucracy over the Bush administration. On a number of issues, from North Korea to Iran to the Law of the Sea Treaty, he believes the president has lost focus, being preoccupied with getting Iraq right before the end of his term. Against what may be his gut instinct, Mr. Bush has accepted a line far closer to the traditional State Department line, under the guidance of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who now is the only main player in the field.
But true judgment in these matters belongs to the historians. And however historians will judge the president, they will be extremely grateful for Mr. Bolton's meticulous firsthand account on life on the front line of U.S. foreign policy.