By Stan Crock and Rose Brady When President George W. Bush nominated John Bolton as U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., critics thought the move showed utter contempt for the global body. After all, the hawkish 56-year-old Bolton has made a career out of bashing international accords and organizations, with the U.N. as one of his chief targets. "This is just about the most inexplicable appointment the President could make to represent the United States to the world community," a perplexed Senator John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) said after the Mar. 7 announcement.
But there may be an explanation that wasn't clear at the time. While Bolton, currently Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control & International Security, may question an institution that enables despotic Libya to chair its Human Rights Commission, he may prefer to try to overhaul rather than keelhaul the U.N. He may even help the beleaguered U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan keep his current job.
It would hardly be the first time Bolton surprised his critics with unexpected moves. A decade ago, as an Assistant Secretary of State for George H. W. Bush, he pushed reforms that gave donor nations more control of U.N. finances. "This is a job he has wanted for a long time. He'll probably try to criticize the U.N. and push it in the right direction," says Nancy Soderberg, a former U.N. ambassador and author of a new book on foreign policy, The Superpower Myth.
HELP WANTED. Indeed, it's not in Washington's interest to burn its bridges with the U.N. After going it largely alone in Iraq, the U.S. may need to turn to the U.N. for help with some of the thorniest problems looming in Bush's second term. Washington may ask the U.N. to impose sanctions on Tehran and possibly Pyongyang if talks on both those nations' nuclear programs fail. And the Bush team wants the U.N. to play a strong role as Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Palestinians prepare to hold their next rounds of elections.
"My guess is that the administration has discovered there are a lot of things it can't do by itself, including rebuilding Iraq, dealing with Iran, and dealing with North Korea," says John Ruggie, a Harvard University international-affairs professor and a former adviser to Annan.
If confirmed after his Senate hearing on Apr. 7, Bolton may play a constructive role in a new U.N. effort to transform itself. Many of the recommendations in the breathtakingly broad reform package that Annan unveiled on Mar. 21 could almost have been written by the White House. The U.N. boss hopes to win approval for the reforms before his term ends in 2006, perhaps starting as early as this September. That would bolster his record, which has been marred by such controversies as the alleged mismanagement of the Iraq Oil-for-Food program.
LOSING BATTLES. Bolton and Annan could make strange -- and politically powerful -- bedfellows on a host of issues. They no doubt agree on keeping human-rights abusers off a new Human Rights Council. Annan has endorsed the Bush Administration's Proliferation Security Initiative -- a global effort Bolton spearheaded to curb the spread of nuclear weapons. And the U.S. is likely to agree on beefing up U.N. peacekeeping capabilities. The U.S. "wants a stronger, more effective U.N. with whom to share the burden," says Timothy Wirth, president of the U.N. Foundation.
Achieving that goal may mean not trying to oust Annan, despite an upcoming report by Paul Volcker expected to highly criticize the role the Secretary General's son played in the Oil-for-Food program. Annan remains popular in the halls of the glass skyscraper at Turtle Bay on the East River, and Washington would probably fail to muster the votes needed to force him out. "We would be picking another fight we couldn't win," says Mitchell Reiss, vice-provost for international affairs at William and Mary College and, until recently, head of policy planning at the State Dept.
Of course, it won't be all plain sailing. The U.S. is likely to oppose Annan's proposal for a U.N. resolution that would detail criteria for the use of military force. And Bolton is sure to keep blasting the International Criminal Court, which he says conflicts with "basic constitutional principles of popular sovereignty, checks and balances, and national independence."
PLAYING NICE. Bolton's challenge, say U.N. watchers, will be moderating his blunt style. "Representatives from the U.S. who work quietly to build coalitions with others get a lot done," notes Edward Luck, director of Columbia University's Center on International Organization. "Those who see the U.N. as a place to preach make headlines, but don't get much done."
Bolton may stifle those impulses -- especially if Bush wants him to. While not long ago, some Bush team hardliners were extremely skeptical about Annan, Bolton now just might help the Secretary General secure his legacy. Crock is a writer for BusinessWeek in the Washington bureau. Brady is a Foreign editor in New York