Friday, January 04, 2008

To See Ourselves As Others See Us

My review of John Bolton's book in Chatham House's "World Today"

Ian Williams

In no way is John Bolton's lengthy book a cerebral consideration of American foreign policy, although those intrigued by why that policy has so often been confused and contradictory will find enlightenment in this obsessively detailed memoir of Washington infighting and United Nations pugilistics. There is much on how policy on Korea, Iran and UN reform came about, but little on why. His Manichaean view divides the world between those who support the United States and everybody else. Almost reassuringly, the long list of implied anti-Americans begins inside his own country, and indeed his own administration: ‘Eastern Elitists’, State Department' careerists’, the ‘High Minded’, the ‘True Believers’, the‘EAPeasers’ (State Department East Asia and Pacific staffers), and eventually those whom the ‘Risen Bureaucrats' seduced – Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice – and, although he avoids direct criticism, President George Bush.

As the little boy calling into question the imperial wardrobe, he evokes some sympathy as he berates ‘EUroids’, and ‘the EU’s proclivity to avoid confronting and actuallyrecognising problems’. Similarly his exasperation with the sausage-making machine of US policy and the UN ‘process' that substitutes ‘consensus’ or the ‘unity of the Council’ for actual results, will resonate with anyone who observed the Balkans’ resolution-strewn trail to Srebrenica, or now, Khartoum's juggling with resolutions and statements. But such limited appreciation fades in the face of his partisanship. He had no compunction about using the same processes to get his own way. Belabouring the tediously consensual processes of the UN, he reveals his real grouse: ‘consensus’ was supposed to mean that the US was satisfied. He genuinely cannot see that other members could claim an equal right to paralyse decision-making. As he complains, the Human Rights Council certainly fails to live up to expectations, but a major reason for that is Bolton's active sabotage of European Union efforts to negotiate and subsequent American abstention from involvement. Disturbingly, Bolton describes UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon’s wholesale adoption of his agenda for UN reform, but more reassuringly, he also notes that this did not survive his own departure from the UN when it became clear that he would not get confirmation from the US Congress.


Above all, his book should inform over-fond adherents of the' Special Relationship’. Pervading it is visceral contempt for Britain and its representatives, especially when they disagree with him. Like the former UN Ambassador Emyr Jones Parry, who makes him doubt how Britain won an Empire but explains why it lost America, and indeed for Jones Parry’s successor John Sawers and former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. He sneers, ‘Many Brits believed their role in life was to play Athens to America’s Rome, lending us the benefit of their superior suaveness, and smoothing off our regrettable colonial rough edges.’ Former Prime Minister Tony Blair's loyalty to the Bush administration gets no thanks whatsoever. Among the few he praises is UN Special Representative, Terje Roed-Larsen of Norway, whose ‘propensity for speaking his mind’ was ‘always a source of delight to me.' The delight was not for ‘speaking truth to power’, but because Roed-Larsen fought tenaciously for the American view of the Middle East inside former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s administration. Similar outspokenness from the ‘petty bureaucrat’, Mark Malloch Brown – British swell! – and Annan himself, provoked petulant rage. Bolton's vigorous pursuit of national self-interest was not in itself innovative, but his rejection of the normal forms of alliance building and negotiation to pursue those interests was. His book is a Parthian machine gun salvo at the ‘Risen Bureaucrats’ of the State Department who defeated him, with their view that US interests are best served by recognising that other countries can have their own interests, and still be allies – if you listen to them. Bolton famously did sticks, not carrots. And got diplomatic peanuts in return.

Surrender Is Not an Option’ by John Bolton, Threshold Editions, ISBN-13:978-1-4165-5284-0 $27/£18.

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