John Bolton returns to a UN he made a career of blasting
Donald Trump’s national security adviser once infamously suggested that if the UN tower ‘lost 10 storeys, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference’
This story is published in a content partnership with POLITICO. It was originally reported by Nahal Toosi on politico.com on September 23, 2018.
When US President Donald Trump arrives at the United Nations’ annual gathering in New York this week, it will be a homecoming for his national security adviser, John Bolton.
But not a particularly happy one.
Bolton served as a US ambassador to the UN during the George W. Bush administration, a perch he used to denounce the institution in which he kept an office. Bolton railed at the UN as bloated, inefficient and a potential threat to US sovereignty.
He infamously suggested that if the 39-storey tower on Manhattan’s East River “lost 10 storeys, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”
It’s little wonder, then, that Bolton’s return to the UN is the subject of chatter among UN officials and diplomats already converging in New York.
Some diplomats are wary about the mustachioed Trump adviser refreshing his UN broadsides, while others are looking to gauge Bolton’s influence on the president and will be listening closely for echoes of his rhetoric in Trump’s own words.
“J.B. is coming home,” quipped one Trump administration official, warning anyone who might wonder whether he’s softened his views toward the world body: “He hasn’t changed.”
Younger UN diplomats who weren’t around when he served as the US ambassador to the institution in 2005-06 are anticipating Bolton’s arrival with some alarm and plenty of curiosity, said a former UN official who stays in touch with people there.
Many have only heard stories about the man who pugnaciously defended the US invasion of Iraq, which was hugely unpopular among many UN member states.
Bolton has not been shy about recounting his battles at the UN, publishing a memoir in 2007 that included a chapter titled: “Sisyphus in the Twilight Zone: Fixing the Broken Institution, or Trying To.”
“They talk about how worried they are about the fact that he's attacking the foundations of the multilateral system,” the former official said of the younger diplomats.
Bolton will make his presence felt on the policy front this week, too, speaking at a side event focused on Iran, a divisive subject for the General Assembly.
UN veterans are less ruffled than their younger colleagues. They’ve seen the Bolton show before, and they’re expecting a rerun this year.
“People will anecdotally be like: ‘Oh, my God, there he is’, but it’s not like he’s the bogeyman,” a long-time UN diplomat told POLITICO.
The White House declined to comment for this story.
Richard Gowan, a senior fellow at the United Nations University, a research arm of the UN, said that in their own way, UN diplomats “love” Bolton.
“The fact that he is such a fierce and consistent critic of the organisation is a sort of compliment,” Gowan said.
“He may not like the UN, but at least he takes it seriously.”
UN officials say they are less anxious about Bolton’s UN-bashing ways because he is not arriving at the General Assembly as secretary of state or once again the US ambassador to the United Nations.
Instead, as national security adviser, Bolton won’t be interacting directly with as many UN diplomats.
Several current and former UN officials also told POLITICO that it’s hard to tell just yet if Bolton’s presence in the White House is making a significant difference in US foreign policy, given how disdainful Trump already was toward multilateral bodies before Bolton arrived.
For instance, Bolton’s recent speech declaring that the United States will no longer engage with the International Criminal Court didn’t surprise UN officials.
After all, Bolton, who joined the Trump administration in April, has long despised the ICC. When he served on the George W. Bush team, he helped negotiate dozens of bilateral agreements with other countries to ensure they never referred US personnel to the court. (Even without Bolton advising them, US presidents have generally kept a distance from the ICC).
While Bolton is believed to have supported the Trump administration’s decision to quit the UN Human Rights Council – a 47-nation body intended to investigate and call out human rights abuses – such a move likely would have happened without him.
Nikki Haley, the current US ambassador to the United Nations, has long been unhappy with the council’s criticism of Israel and its membership, which includes governments notorious for abusing their citizens.
After leaving the Bush administration, Bolton spent many years advocating hawkish views on TV and in print, advising military action against North Korea and Iran and “a retaliatory cyber campaign” targeting Russia.
As Trump’s national security adviser, Bolton has tempered some of these positions publicly, going along with the president’s desire to engage Moscow and Pyongyang.
But overall, Bolton appears to share much of Trump’s world view – one that emphasises US interests above all else.
“In terms of US objectives, the administration’s policy is pretty well-established,” said Brett Schaefer of the conservative Heritage Foundation.
As far as the General Assembly goes, he added: “This idea that [Bolton] will be like Godzilla going to Tokyo is nonsense.”
Multiple foreign diplomats, however, said that Bolton’s return to the US government appears to have had an impact on Haley’s role within the administration.
Bolton’s predecessor as national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, had no known hardcore views about the United Nations and largely left Haley to run her own show in New York.
With Bolton in the mix, however, the speculation among international diplomats is that Haley must factor in his UN-sceptic views.
“We’re sensing that Haley is moving closer to the line that maybe John Bolton and the White House represent,” a Western European diplomat said.
“Earlier, our sense was she was more of a bridge builder.”
A US official dismissed that analysis.
“Ambassador Haley has been consistent in pointing out what does and doesn’t work at the UN since the beginning of her tenure,” the official said.
The Western European diplomat said there are some questions about whether, under the direction of Bolton, America will start attacking the UN’s operational budget and system of membership dues.
The Trump administration official, however, insisted nothing of that sort is in the works.
Trump surprised many diplomats during last year’s General Assembly with a few kind words about the global institution, saying it was time to “Make the United Nations great” and complimenting the UN’s attempts at institutional reform.
Ultimately, Trump is likely to get most of the attention at this year’s General Assembly.
Bolton, Gowan said, “will not try to upstage his boss”.