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John Bolton: diplomacy redeemed?
By Dan Smith
Global Beat Syndicate
WASHINGTON—John Bolton has been faulted mainly on two points: first, publicly disdaining the UN other than when that organization can be manipulated to support or legitimize U.S. policy. Second, by threatening to have State Department intelligence experts who disagreed with him “re-assigned,” trying to manipulate their analysis so that it would appear that the department’s official position “validated” his own preconceived views.
Advocates for Bolton’s confirmation dismiss the first objection by asserting that what the UN needs right now is someone who will talk straight and tough and push through reforms in the way the UN works. As for the second objection, Bolton’s supporters point to the twin facts that no one was re-assigned or fired and that Bolton adhered to the analysts’ conclusions in public speeches.
Stepping back from specific instances and looking at the overall picture, the heart of the stand-off in the committee is whether the nominee possesses the necessary degree of reflective judgment critical to represent our national interests as one of 191 UN-member states that have to work together to live together.
Bolton’s record in private life and in public service betray questionable judgment and lack of understanding of context. Steeped in the adversarial, investigative, and factual traditions of law and science, Western cultures tend to look favorably on “straight-shooters” who do not hesitate to voice their opinions. But such bluntness does not carry over into other cultures, many of which have deeper roots than ours. Add poor timing—Bolton’s July 31, 2003 characterization of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il as a “tyrannical dictator” during a speech in South Korea just days prior to the first six-party talks on the North’s nuclear weapons program—and judgment does become the issue.
As for the UN itself, Bolton’s stated opinions call to mind Dick the Butcher, one of the armed mob plotting regicide in Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 2. Dick favors as the group’s first action that they “kill all the lawyers.” (Bolton, by the way, is a lawyer.) In the context of the play, this was less an assault on a profession or a class than on government and law—that which orders a society. Bolton has remarked that there would be no difference if the UN building lost the top 10 stories (where the Secretariat is housed) and that treaties are mere political promises in the international context. These are attacks on multi-national agencies and international law, the engines responsible for improving the quality of life and spreading human rights around the globe.
Although Bouviers’ 1856 Law Dictionary defines diplomacy as “the science which treats of the relations and interests of nations with nations,” diplomacy is not science. It is the art of skilled, discreet, sensitive communications and actions, done at the right time, designed to advance national interests without giving offense or cause for offense unnecessarily. (It has also been defined as the ability to tell a person to go to hell so skillfully as to make him look forward to the trip.) And while “diplomat—John Bolton” is not automatically an oxymoron, his exercise of the diplomat’s portfolio during this Bush administration is most reminiscent of old-fashioned “gunboat diplomacy”—intimidation by the threat or use of military force—than of one of Joseph Nye’s elements of “soft power.”
But there may be a simpler explanation, particularly given the administration’s emphasis on morality. Tracing the word’s etymology leads to the British statesman Edmund Burke, usually credited with the first use (in 1796) of the word. But Burke employed it in an unflattering context: “mendicant diplomacy” required by necessity. That unfavorable image was made worse in an entry in the 1870 Encyclopedia Britannia, which noted that “diplomacy was long regarded...as a kind of activity somewhat morally suspect.”
With Bolton, is redemption at hand?