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Paul Vallely: Good riddance, John Bolton

07 December 2006

Paul Vallely does not mourn the end of an arrogant mode of US foreign policy

So farewell then, John Bolton. Here are some of the adjectives that have been applied in recent days to the outgoing US ambassador to the United Nations: abrasive, brusque, combative, arrogant, rude, and bullying. Hardly the best qualification for the most senior diplomatic job in the world, you might imagine. On the contrary, said his fans: just what was required to kick the moribund UN into the real world.

There is more reason to celebrate the departure of Mr Bolton, however, than merely saying good riddance to his preposterously lugubrious moustache. This appurtenance sends out misleading signals, for, though it makes him look a bit of an Eeyore, he has not only the doleful demeanour, but also the kick of a more vicious kind of donkey.

In one sense, John Bolton was a perfect American ambassador, because he accurately reflected a foreign policy of the Bush administration that was itself abrasive, brusque, combative, arrogant, rude, and bullying.

The departure of Mr Bolton, then, is saying goodbye to more than one unpleasant individual. It symbolises a shift in policy in Washington, as the Democrats, with their new majority on Capitol Hill, temper the worst excesses of the instincts of President George Bush on how the United States should relate to the rest of the world.

The Bush worldview could never see the US as part of a complex interplay of governments engaged in finding an international consensus on the pressing global issues of the day. The Bush model is locked in a Cold War mindset, updated only to the point that, where there were once two superpowers, there is now only one — which can do pretty much what it likes, and shape the world accordingly. As Mr Bolton put it: “There is no such thing as the United Nations,” only “an international community that occasionally can be led by the only real power left in the world. And that is the United States, when it suits our interest.”

The bloody lesson of Iraq, however, is that even the power of a singular superpower is limited. And if George Bush has not really assimilated that lesson, his voters certainly have — and have forced the consequences, if not the understanding, of that upon him. The Democrats now hold the balance of power in both Senate and Congress, where even some Republicans have seen the need for change. The architects of hubris are departing. Donald Rumsfeld has gone; so now has John Bolton. George Bush’s own days are numbered.

What does the United States need now? To answer that, consider some of what Mr Bolton has done. He led the Bush opposition to the International Criminal Court, insisting that Americans should not be subject to prosecution in such a place. He derailed a bio-weapons conference in Geneva in 2001 because he didn’t want anybody inspecting the US. He pronounced that “the goal of those who think that international law really means anything are those who want to constrict the United States”. He even submitted 750 amendments to a UN summit to strip out a commitment to the Millennium Development Goals to halve world poverty by 2015.

What the US — and the rest of the world — needs is the exact opposite of all that. It needs to let go of its outmoded notion that sees US strategic interest in bilateral terms and is ideologically ill-disposed to multilateral initiatives such as the UN. The people of the United States need a policy that allows co-operation, rather than confrontation, to be the model for international relations. In a rapidly changing world — with China, India, Iran, and Brazil on the rise — the United States deserves better leadership, and a better diplomat at its helm.

Paul Vallely is associate editor of The Independent.

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