I first started covering John Bolton in 2005. At the time, the United Nations was gearing up for its largest-ever meeting of heads of state to mark the organization’s 60th anniversary. The fete was to take place the annual United Nations General Assembly that September, the focal point of which was a major package of reforms that had been painstakingly negotiated by countries prior to the September summit.
But weeks before presidents and prime ministers were to arrive to celebrate the successful signing of these reforms, John Bolton entered the picture. Bolton was granted a recess appointment by George W. Bush on August 5, just as negotiations entered their final stages.
The talks were immediately thrown into disarray.
Bolton inserted hundreds of objections to a late draft of the agreement, creating new “red lines” for the United States where none had previously existed. His objections covered issues big and small — even on semantics. For example, he rejected the mere mention of a poverty-alleviation program called the “Millennium Development Goals.” He refused to budge from his maximalist position on this and every other edit he made to the document.
At the time, he seemed to relish in the chaos that he had sewn. During late night press encounters he would quip “All night, all right!”, as if his goal was less to negotiate in good faith and more to just drag out the negotiations as a deadline loomed.
Eventually, as I reported at the time, then-Secretary General Kofi Annan got so fed up with Bolton’s antics that he called then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and asked her to reign him in. She did. The reform packages passed at the eleventh hour.
That incident presaged Bolton’s entire tenure at the UN. The memoir he wrote of his experience at the UN was titled “Surrender is Not an Option.” But Bolton’s time at the UN suggests that, to him, the natural give and take of diplomacy is akin to “surrender” and must be avoided at all costs. Understanding how he performed his job at the UN gives us big clues as to how he might approach the job as National Security Advisor to which he has just been named.
At the United Nations, Bolton demonstrated a profoundly zero-sum view of international relations. Other countries’ gains — no matter how insignificant — were ipso-facto America’s losses. This upended traditional alliances at the UN. Typically the United States and its European allies would band together in negotiations that reflected common interests. But Bolton was never willing to give an inch and accept the kinds of trade-offs proposed by American allies. In his memoir, he reserves his harshest criticism and deepest vitriol not for the representatives from Iran or Venezuela, but for his British counterpart, UK Ambassador Emyr Jones Parry, whom he mercilessly pillories as an “EU Roid.”