The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Exit Interview

The former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations talks of political philosophy, foreign policy and bureaucratic craft.

Published on March 1, 2007

On January 10, AI editor Adam Garfinkle sat with outgoing U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton to discuss political philosophy, foreign policy and bureaucratic craft. Following is an edited transcript.

The American Interest: To get us started, tell us a bit about your background—home, school and the like.

John Bolton: I come from a working class family in Baltimore, which gave me most of the values I still have now: hard work and patriotism most of all. I progressed through a fairly standard educational route: public schools, college and then law school, after which I practiced law here in Washington. But I’ve always been interested in political philosophy, even in junior high school, and over the years I’ve followed that interest in one way or another. Even when I was practicing law, a lot of what I did was constitutional law. I was one of the lawyers in the Buckley v. Valeo case in 1976, for example—the challenge to the post-Watergate financial reform laws.



[credit: Damir Marusic]

And I’ve always been interested in international affairs, too. As a high schooler looking to apply to colleges and as an undergraduate at Yale, too, I considered a career in the Foreign Service. Though I eventually became a lawyer and never entered the Foreign Service, I retained an interest in foreign policy and was fortunate enough to be able to follow through on that, beginning with the Reagan Administration, then in a series of other jobs, and then with both the Bush 41 and Bush 43 Administrations.

AI: What influential persons or books sent a shiver up your spine when you were young?

John Bolton: As for a lot of people in my generation, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, which I read as a kid, had a big influence on me. But so did Adam Smith, John Locke and Edmund Burke. Also, I was a volunteer in the Goldwater campaign in 1964—my first real lesson in politics. It was a very salutary lesson, too, because Goldwater was humiliated, but that didn’t turn me off politics. It only made me a more determined libertarian conservative. At Yale in the late 1960s, the campus climate was not exactly conducive to conservative thought, and that just hardened my attitude further. I’d say it prepared me well for the State Department in later years.

AI: Let’s talk about the times before the 2000 election for a moment. You were in the Bush 41 Administration State Department, the IO [International Organizations] bureau, right? What did you learn from that and other pre-Bush 43 experiences about the nature of the policy process?

John Bolton: I’ve had the advantage of being in several different positions. I was at the White House at the beginning of the Reagan Administration; then at USAID; then I worked for Dick Thornberg at the Justice Department; then I stayed with [Secretary of State] James Baker from Bush 41 to Bush 43. So I saw different bureaucracies under different presidents. One thing I learned was that to have a maximum impact on policy, it’s important to go into bureaucracies that don’t initially seem to be very friendly places. For example, at the start of Bush 43 in January 2001, many of my friends wanted to go to the Defense Department, or stay on the NSC staff at the White House. I knew immediately that I wanted to go to the State Department, because that was the place needing the greatest degree of change. That’s where the greatest challenges would be. The experience of being a conservative at Yale, and other earlier experiences, too, taught me that you can effect the maximum degree of policy change in perhaps the least likely environments.

AI: We’ll come back to Bush 43, but first let’s discuss an issue that concerned you when you were not in government: the International Criminal Court. As I recall, you weren’t fond of the idea in general, and even less fond of U.S. participation in it—but your reasons were not only or mainly the conventional ones: danger to American servicemen overseas, or the theatrics of high U.S. and allied officials being sued and harassed for political purposes. You emphasized the ICC’s lack of democratic accountability. Has your critique mellowed, seeing as how the dire predictions made by some opponents of the ICC really have not come true?

John Bolton: What I predicted for the ICC were two radically different futures. One was that it could become very powerful and dangerous; the other was that it could become almost irrelevant, like the International Court of Justice, which was created at the same time as the UN. So far, the second alternative turns out to be the more accurate prediction, but that doesn’t necessarily tells us what the ICC will be like forty, fifty or a hundred years from now. The concern I had was that the ICC—not so much the court itself as the prosecutor—represented the creation of a potential source of enormous power that was not elected by anyone, and that had no democratic accountability whatsoever, even indirectly. I thought the creation of that sort of power without being tied to any democratic base was a real threat, and I continue to believe that.

This goes to an issue that is not well understood—in academic circles, certainly, but even among policy professionals in the United States and overseas—and that’s the concept of sovereignty. Sovereignty is not an abstraction, in America at least. Sovereignty is a reflection of the will of the people. In America, the people are sovereign—not a monarch or a distant government. We are sovereign. So infringements on our sovereignty have a direct impact on our control over our own government and governments that deal with us. That’s what I was concerned about as much as anything: the transfer of potential authority over us without our having the ability to bring it to account.

AI: But you’re not against sharing sovereignty in alliances or other inter-governmental alliances when that advances American interests, are you?

John Bolton: It’s a question of what leaves power with the United States. An alliance can be a very effective way of enhancing our security and our reach in the world. I think the difference is between—and this is a crude distinction, admittedly—intergovernmental organizations, on the one hand, and super-governmental organizations on the other. It is one thing to have the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico; it’s another thing to create a European Commission in Brussels, or any of the various predecessor organizations that were either super-national organizations or aspired to become such. If European nations want to do that with their sovereignty, that’s up to them—although it’s not so clear that European national electorates want in fact to do that. For the United States, it is not at all unnatural to be concerned with conglomerations of power like the ICC that are often not even accountable to their member governments, let alone to the citizens of their members.

AI: So accountability is the standard by which we should judge and select the array of items on the global governance menu?

John Bolton: Accountability and legitimacy, because under our system legitimacy comes only from the people. There’s no airy sense of legitimacy out there in the international system for most Americans, as there is for many Europeans, who have an almost natural law sense of legitimacy.

AI: So, to take one example, the International Bank of Settlements is an organization that is very effective, in part because it bears a low political profile. That’s an intergovernmental organization, so that’s fine.

John Bolton: Right, and look at the International Postal Union, created in the mid-19th century, or, more recently, the International Civil Aviation Association—

AI: Or the International Organization on Migration?

John Bolton:—another excellent example, right. None of these organizations purports to have a reach beyond its specific mission, and one reason they’re successful is that they don’t try to expand their mission or politicize it. They’re single-minded in their approach to problem-solving. We need those organizations, and we will probably need more of them as the world becomes more integrated. But that’s a different need and a different model of effectiveness and legitimacy from what has happened over the years at the UN itself, which is best described by what many people call the “norming” function—namely, the idea of basing international order not on the cooperative decisions of sovereigns but on super-governmental institutions based on transnational norms. Many people view this in a very positive light; I view it very negatively.

AI: One more question about the ICC: There’s been a little give in U.S. foreign policy recently with respect to the ICC, and it has had to do with Sudan—specifically with Darfur. What’s your take on this: a sensible tactical adjustment under difficult circumstances or a slippery slope where we should not have set foot?

John Bolton: The practical consequences of what we did with the Darfur resolution you are referring to, Resolution 1706, are not great, but they do represent a foot on the slippery slope. It is not intellectually acceptable to say that it’s okay to prosecute Africans, but not okay to prosecute Americans. That was one of the arguments made by those in our own government who wanted to agree to the resolution—that it’s not going to have any effect on us or on our service people. That, to me, is not a compelling argument, because it does not address the illegitimacy of the ICC itself.

In addition, I think that a number of other countries, including some of our friends represented in New York, saw that they had the Bush Administration in a tough predicament. They put us in a contradictory position, where to get them to lean forward on Darfur, we had to swallow ICC involvement. There wasn’t a good alternative for us, and they knew it. During my time at the UN, this was one of the things I concentrated on avoiding—having even our good friends in New York put us in a similarly impossible positions on other issues.

AI: It’s also not clear that bringing in the ICC has made the Sudanese government more willing to allow UN forces in Darfur. The contrary seems more likely, as General Bashir and his associates now imagine the possibility of their being hauled up on international charges. But let’s move on to Florida 2000.

There is a lingering image from Florida 2000, even among some Republicans, that the GOP fought dirty, what with Katherine Harris and Jeb Bush on its side. It colored the run-up to the 2004 election, also a close call hinging on one state. The impression left in the American body politic ever since is that even presidential elections are smarmy and tainted with being illegitimate. Is that a fair impression?

John Bolton: Well, what was illegitimate in Florida was the Florida Supreme Court’s unwillingness to follow the course of Florida state law. That’s what required a lot of what happened in the Florida recount, and I would say that the Republicans were essentially the victims of that fact. Michael Novak of AEI told me, after the Florida Supreme Court decision that decided the election in favor of Bush, that he was worried at the time that the Democrats were going to wipe us out in the recount. He described, in an impression shared by Ben Wattenberg, that what was going on in Florida was the street-fighters versus the preppies, and that the preppies were going to lose. Obviously, Bush was successful, but it was not a pleasant business. I didn’t enjoy it.

AI: After the inauguration, you ended up at what’s called “T” in the State Department (though no one seems to remember why it’s called that), as Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security. Quite a mouthful, isn’t it?

John Bolton: Bob Joseph and I spent six years trying to get rid of the “arms control” part of the title, but—

AI: Yeah, it eats up the stationery, doesn’t it? How did you end up in that job?

John Bolton: Well, Colin Powell called me a few days after he was announced as Secretary of State, and we talked about several different positions. Some people were interested in various slots at the State Department, and Powell had by that time made some decisions already, including to have Rich Armitage as his Deputy. We discussed other positions, but this was the one he offered me and, though I lacked a deep arms control background, I thought that, given the priority candidate Bush had put on withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, it would be an exciting place to be. So I was happy to accept.

AI: How did you get along with Powell as time passed? I ask because, as you know, you’ve been accused of many things. In fact, you’ve been accused of more things than any person I know of, including the charge that you were really odd-man-out at the State Department. Some said that you were a cat’s paw of the Vice President, a mole in the State Department whom Powell didn’t really want but was more or less forced to take on. How do you respond to all this?

John Bolton: It’s the stuff of urban legend invented mainly by a credulous press, and one of the faults I would attribute to our media is that they don’t understand the playing out of policy differences. They can’t, or at any rate they don’t, seem to understand that person X can argue one view on a problem, person Y another and person Z yet another, but that they can still reconcile and come to a policy decision. In the minds of the media, everything becomes personality-driven. They even do it in Supreme Court appointments: Kennedy is the centrist, and Stevens is out here, and O’Connor is over there. Because of their own intellectual limitations, few journalists analyze issues at a conceptual level, so they’re left with a “who’s up, who’s down” kind of reporting.

There were lots of disagreements inside the State Department, and inside the Administration. There always are, and that’s both good and normal. Personality does play a role, of course, because policy isn’t made by abstract forces but by actual people. But the notion that we have pro-such-and-such coalition meetings in one corner and anti-coalition meetings in another just doesn’t reflect the reality of how decisions get made in government.

AI: But there were times when you’d make a speech—I particularly remember one case concerning North Korea where you were very tough on the Dear Leader—and mid-ranking State Department personnel would wonder out loud, “How did that happen? The Secretary’s office couldn’t have cleared that.” The reasoning was that your confrontational language conflicted with the President’s determination not to allow the North Koreans to spin us up, to extort us into headlines and seize control of our quality time. How do you parse such reasoning?

John Bolton: I know the speech you’re talking about. Well, both Powell and Rice read that speech before I gave it. Here’s the fact: I’m a very good bureaucrat. Every speech I gave in every significant respect was cleared in advance. That doesn’t mean I got to say exactly what I wanted to say. There were a lot of changes. But everything was cleared by the bureaucracy. That is what makes some of my critics go truly wild, because they couldn’t get me on process fouls. I think in part that comes from earlier experiences in the bureaucracy—I knew how to make it work. I’m proud to say that I’m a good bureaucrat, because ultimately it was good protection for getting done what I think the President wanted done.

AI: Of course there are always disagreements within and between the State and Defense Departments, within and between the intelligence community and the White House, and so on. But how would you “rank the rancor” within the Bush 43 first term to other administrations you’ve seen up close, including the Bush 43 second term?

John Bolton: How administrations get along internally clearly depends in part on the institutional differences you’ve mentioned, and in part it depends on the closeness of the cabinet secretary with the president. Bush 41 is probably closer in operation to the second term of Bush 43 from the State Department perspective, because Jim Baker was roughly as close to Bush 41 as Condoleezza Rice is to Bush 43. The difference, then, is in the first term of Bush 43, where Powell did not stand as close in that relationship as these other two secretaries did.

The different circumstances that different administrations face are also significant. For example, in the second Reagan term, questions of arms control with the Soviet Union were hugely divisive between State and Defense, whereas in Bush 43 there was no question that we were going to have a new strategic relationship with Russia. There were disagreements on specifics, but the broader debate had been overtaken by some fundamental high-level decisions. And, of course, 9/11 came along and had an impact, as well.

AI: As I said, you’ve been accused of much. Just the other day I heard someone call you an “extremist”, and even some Republicans I know have called you a “right-wing nut” in my presence. You’ve been accused of being a leaker, of being brusque to the point of bullying, of being bombastic and indiscreet with language in diplomatic settings. I think you’ve been accused of just about everything except having sex with a feral cat—and I might need to check again on that one. And this was all before you even went up to New York.

I raise all this because my first boss in Washington for a brief time some 28 years ago was Richard Perle. At the time, Richard Perle had been given a nickname: The Prince of Darkness. Now, you’ve not yet got a nickname—

John Bolton: Yes, I always envied that…

AI: Well, Richard seemed not to mind the nickname. In fact, he had a large newspaper clipping referring to him as the Prince of Darkness taped to the back of a door in the Russell Senate Office Building. To him, I think, the nickname meant, first of all, that he carried weight in important debates. More than that, I think he took it as a sign of honest disagreement over principles—at that time concerning what was and what wasn’t genuinely beneficial arms control policy. He was content to be in a minority position because he believed in the principles he espoused. So is that how you feel, too? All these accusations would bother anyone at some level, but is it worth it, in your view, because of the principles involved?

John Bolton: It would bother anybody at a personal level to be accused of not being polite, in effect, and I have been unfairly accused of that. But it certainly doesn’t bother me to the extent that it reflects the beliefs and arguments I advance. I can’t speak for my critics, of course, but I think their views reflect how I chose to perform in a bureaucracy like the State Department. Let me try to explain what I mean.

One thing the career Foreign Service is very good at is what they describe as “finding what direction the building is moving in.” Of course, the building itself doesn’t move, but we at the State Department refer to “the building” as the community within its walls. Take, for example, a Foreign Service officer who is thinking of taking position X on a certain issue. If he hears that the building is moving in the other direction, it’s rare that he or she would say, “I don’t care what direction the building is moving in, I’m taking position X and I’m going to articulate it and try to persuade others.”

Now, it’s a fact of life in a bureaucracy that higher authority gets to make decisions. You can only push so far until somebody above you makes the decision. In my case in T, “somebody else” meant only Secretary Powell, so I was in a very privileged position. When subordinates or others would advise me that “the building was moving” in a different direction, it never bothered me in the slightest. When the Secretary made a decision, first Powell and then Rice, I followed it; whether I was T or at USUN, I always followed my instructions. What the building couldn’t understand was why I would continue to advocate a position when everybody knew it was not likely to prevail. In some cases, contrary to expectations, I did prevail; in many others I did not. But I never feared to lose because I felt it was important to make the arguments for the positions I believed in.

AI: It’s certainly noble to argue for unpopular positions before higher authorities have made a decision. But I’m not sure everyone would agree that you always exactly followed instructions after they made a decision. Some staffers claim that as UN Ambassador you slow-rolled instructions, or argued back with them. On the other hand, as I have observed it, the UN ambassadorship is an odd position because, although the ambassador’s immediate superior is the secretary of state, he or she is nominated by and is the president’s personal representative in New York. That suggests the occasional existence of some slight bit of blue sky between the White House and the seventh floor of the State Department. Is there sometimes ambiguity, or tension, or flexibility in the UN ambassador’s interpretation of instructions?

John Bolton: There is some built-in flexibility in those instructions and, just as important, in the very nature of a negotiating environment, which is what I was in. There were some cases where I had no flexibility at all. Secretary Rice would say, “I want X” and that’s what I went after. But Secretary Rice wasn’t always directly engaged in every less-than-major issue I dealt with, of course. And one of the problems with the State Department bureaucracy is that it’s a very inefficiently structured bureaucracy in the sense that areas of responsibility are not clearly defined—unlike, say, the Justice Department, where areas of responsibility are clearly defined. The Tax Division litigates tax cases. The Lands and Natural Resources Division litigates those cases. But the State Department has both regional and functional bureaus, and any issue can easily generate a situation in which five, six or seven bureaus have equities in a particular matter. That’s an inherently unsatisfying situation for the UN ambassador, who then gets pinged by half a dozen assistant secretaries to do mutually contradictory things at the same time. Now, the UN ambassador has the luxury of having a job that covers almost the whole world. It’s a luxury because it allows an integrated approach to policy. The downside to the job is also that it covers almost the whole world, because it invites—almost guarantees, really—bureaucratic friction.

AI: So you’re going to piss someone off no matter what you do.

John Bolton: Every day, yes.

AI: One more thing you’ve been accused of—and this is the last accusation I’m going to throw back into your face—is of being a neoconservative. It happens often, but it has always puzzled me. What’s your definition of a neoconservative and, according to that definition, are you in or out?

John Bolton: I am not now, nor have I ever been (general laughter) a neoconservative. I remember the original definition of a neoconservative in the early Reagan days was that of a “liberal being mugged by reality.”

AI: And you were never a liberal to begin with.

John Bolton: I was never a liberal. As I said, my first campaign involvement was for Barry Goldwater, back at a time when many future neoconservatives were debating the fine points of Marxism and socialism. I describe myself not as a neoconservative but as a national-interest conservative, if I can use that phrase.

AI: You can use that phrase as long as you don’t italicize it (general laughter).

John Bolton: I look to define and defend American interests, and to protect and expand them. I think the whole foreign policy discussion these days has gotten lost in a war of bumper-sticker-length phrases that obscure much more than they elucidate. Self-described neoconservatives can fend for themselves. I’ve always considered myself a realist, but I also consider myself very profoundly anti-communist. American interests and values in equal measure were and remain implicated in my anti-communism, and in my anti-totalitarianism more broadly construed, and I don’t see any inconsistency there.

AI: Let me push a little more here. What neoconservatism has come to mean over the past five or six years is a kind of armed Wilsonianism, a form of idealism that wishes to remake other societies in our own image. This is not just an abstraction: We have the President’s “Freedom Agenda”, we have U.S. Middle East policy defined by the President’s November 2003 National Endowment for Democracy speech, and we have the globalization of that concept in President Bush’s Second Inaugural. I have several friends in the Administration who, my instincts tell me, are skeptical of this secular messianism, and cringe privately before the crusading kind of language that goes with it. Of course, while you’re serving the President in an official capacity, you’re not going to go tell everybody how skeptical you may be of ideas like that. But now you can.

John Bolton: The use of armed force on behalf of American interests doesn’t bother me, but, yes, the Wilsonian part does. I’ve never slipped into Wilsonianism of any kind—at least I hope I haven’t. But I think, in a way, that the President is being mislabeled here. If you look at the range of his speeches, he’s not talking about what the old or new Wilsonians were talking about—the spread of democracy. He’s talking about liberty. And that’s very different.

I identify with the liberty interest from my days as an anti-communist, because that was for me the value side of wanting the collapse of communism: People within the communist empire would be free to choose, not that they would necessarily choose Wilsonian democracy. Freedom to choose and what is chosen are two different things, and I think that’s what mattered to them, as well. So I’m not so sure the President is as neoconservative as people say he is.

AI: Interesting. Let’s talk a bit about Korea, which engaged you in the State Department quite a bit during the first term. One day the story of what happened between July 2002 and the year beyond will come out in memoirs, the FRUS [Foreign Relations of the United States] will be declassified, and the public will eventually get some sense of what went on. In the meantime, however, all sorts of stories have arisen. Many people outside and some inside the Administration have argued that the U.S. government did not handle that period very well—but they make different cases arguing different errors for different reasons.

One argument goes something like this: The United States should not have made a big deal in public about our new intelligence on North Korea’s secret uranium enrichment program, and should never have walked away from the 1994 Agreed Framework, because we didn’t have a way to limit the problem and stark public rhetoric risked making it worse. Those plutonium rods sitting in those pools, it is argued, would never have been reprocessed if we had taken a more low-key approach. On the other hand, some Administration figures deeply involved in this policy—including those who differed with you from time to time—don’t credit this argument. They deny that the Administration had much choice about whether or not to “out” the North Koreans on their violations, because our fuel shipments to North Korea were predicated on the Administration’s certifying to Congress that the North Koreans were in compliance with the Agreed Framework. Beyond that, however, there were other disagreements over how to handle the problem. Tell us how you saw it.

John Bolton: Well, the range of tactical disagreement was quite large. What was clear to everyone inside the Administration was that the Agreed Framework had failed, that the North Koreans had violated it, and that there was no way to keep things together anymore on that basis. Those outside the Administration who focus on what the North Koreans did with the spent fuel and the plutonium route to nuclear weapons, which was the principal focus of the 1994 Agreed Framework, have consistently, to this very day, failed to grasp the significance of North Korea’s enriched uranium effort, which the North Koreans, as best as we can tell, started on very soon after they signed the Agreed Framework.

Inside the Administration, the real issue was how thoroughly to sever our ties with the Agreed Framework and how effective the policy path we have chosen—the Six-Party Talks—would be. I’m sitting here today in January 2007 and the Six-Party Talks have not succeeded: North Korea continues to pursue both routes to nuclear weapons—plutonium separation and uranium enrichment—and continues to pursue an active program to develop a ballistic missile capacity to deliver those weapons. The idea that we could put all this back in the box, that the Six-Party Talks could come up with Agreed Framework II, is unworkable.

AI: As it turned out, we did not walk away decisively from the Agreed Framework. We said we were temporarily suspending fuel shipments until the matter on the table—the uranium enrichment issue—was settled. It was the North Koreans who walked away by expelling the IAEA inspectors and breaking the seals, right?

John Bolton: I think the North Koreans walked away from the Agreed Framework long before that, because they were clearly violating it from sometime in the mid- to late 1990s. It’s therefore not a question of whether we or they walked away in the autumn of 2002. If a major violation constitutes walking away—and I can’t understand an argument that it doesn’t—then they walked away first, well before 2002.

AI: That’s not what the Administration said at the time, however, was it?

John Bolton: It took a while for us to make a break with the Agreed Framework. Eventually the line was that the North Koreans have walked away. I would have drawn the distinction much more starkly, that the North Koreans have violated it and therefore the Agreed Framework was finished. I think we should have moved then to do, in effect, some of the things we’ve done now: move more aggressively in the Proliferation Security Initiative, through some of the financial sanctions we’ve imposed, and I would not have gone the route of the Six-Party Talks.

AI: But the President decided otherwise. He wanted to negotiate, potentially, in a multilateral framework.

John Bolton: That was the first issue, and this is a very significant debate: Do we negotiate directly with North Korea or do we negotiate in a multilateral context? And Bush, derided by his critics for being a unilateralist cowboy, says “Let’s negotiate multilaterally.” Persistently since then—Senator Kerry and I had a little exchange in my last confirmation hearing—critics have asked why the President refused to negotiate directly with North Korea. It’s like being in an episode of The Twilight Zone to listen to this, after critics had blasted him for not engaging in multilateral diplomacy in other contexts.

AI: Granted that’s been pretty breathtaking, but I disagree with you about the Six-Party Talks. They haven’t succeeded yet, but I don’t think they’ve failed either. These talks are not just an exercise about Korea and North Korea’s weapons, but a larger and arguably more important exercise in Sino-American relations. Clearly, the only country with the power to curtail or even end what North Korea’s up to short of using force is China, and this diplomatic exercise could still yield good results ultimately through the Chinese. I’m happy to pursue it because I can’t see any other way to get at the problem, particularly since we don’t have attractive military options or regime-change options to turn to. Therefore, it seems to me that opposing the Six-Party Talks is an example of the unattainable best becoming an enemy of the possibly better.

John Bolton: I don’t disagree that this is a critical moment in Sino-American relations. The issue with respect to the Six-Party Talks is how much, in effect, we deferred to the Chinese in the leadership of those talks, and I think we’ve deferred too much.

Moreover, couldn’t we have done more with the Chinese to convince them that the diplomatic route ultimately couldn’t succeed? I think there’s a real confluence of Chinese and American interests for the proposition that North Korea must not have a nuclear weapon. That cannot be to China’s advantage because of the instability it creates in Northeast Asia in leading other countries to consider having nuclear weapons. The most effective way to accomplish that objective is through regime change in North Korea. I think the Chinese could produce regime change. That, rather than the Six-Party Talks, is the way to stop North Korea from having nuclear weapons.

AI: But the Chinese can’t be brought even to consider that, it seems to me, except through the Six-Party mechanism. They won’t ever push hard on the regime in Pyongyang unless they have a regional understanding first about how to pick up the pieces.

John Bolton: Well, the Chinese do fear that if they push hard on the North Korean regime, they would not only end the regime but they would also collapse North Korean society with it, and then have to face a huge refugee problem. Worse, it might also produce a reunited Korea, which the Chinese don’t want either. And that’s where the disjunction in Sino-American perception occurs. I still think we could do more and I think, given the present lay of the land after the last unsuccessful go-round of the Six-Party Talks, it’s time to say privately to the Chinese: “You put forth a great effort, but it didn’t work. The North Koreans have publicly tested a nuclear weapon, so now it’s time to get serious.”

AI: Let’s move from the State Department “T” days back to the UN. Many say you were trying to harm the UN by stealth, taking positions and stances that would ensure failure to resolve certain issues and then pointing a finger and saying, “See, this place doesn’t work.” But of course the UN is a big place. There’s the Security Council and the General Assembly and Secretary-General’s office itself and the many functional agencies. Does any of this work to serve any U.S. interests? Do different aspects of the UN system require different policy approaches?

John Bolton: The UN is an instrument of U.S. policy, and it has a lot of different parts, as your question makes clear. Some are more successful than others. Among all the political organs, the one part that works is the Security Council. It’s for that reason that I cared a lot about not messing up the composition of the Security Council and thus interfering with the one institution that worked halfway decently. As it happened, there were a lot of people in New York who just couldn’t wait to change the composition of the Security Council, even though that would have risked turning it into an organ almost as ineffective and irrelevant as the General Assembly.

I think the specialized functional agencies, in many respects, work quite well, especially the ones funded by voluntary contributions as opposed to those funded by assessed contributions.

AI: Because they’re more accountable?

John Bolton: Exactly. The World Food Programme, UNICEF, the UN High Commission for Refugees are all funded primarily by voluntary contributions. I think what the failed effort at UN reform shows is that marginal, incremental management reforms are never going to be enough to make the UN the organization it could be. What we need to focus on now are more sweeping reforms to change what is basically a system of assessed contributions to one that is based on voluntary contributions. Looking at the UN as an instrument for helping to advance U.S. foreign policy, this means that if we’re not satisfied with it we can either try to fix it or go someplace else. I think competition in the marketplace for international problem solving is a good thing. Of course, that is anathema to many people at the UN, but from the U.S. point of view it’s the only outcome that’s acceptable to us. I was never out to harm the UN; I was out to solve problems and advance U.S. interests.

AI: There’s been much debate over whether the new Human Rights Council is an improvement over what came before, whether it’s just as bad as what came before or possibly even worse. It’s hard for me to imagine that it could be worse, because what went on before was an embarrassment to the human species. How do you rate it? As a sub-par outcome at the very least, right?

John Bolton: Right. We voted against the new Human Rights Council because we thought that, at best, it represented only an incremental improvement over the old UN Human Rights Commission. At the UN you only get one shot at reform every generation or so, so if we accepted a tiny improvement, that was all we were going to get. So we argued to the Europeans, principally, that we shouldn’t keep compromising, shouldn’t keep accepting the watering-down of the various reform proposals, because just getting a new body created isn’t worth the achievement if you have to give up all your principles to get it.

AI: Didn’t the Europeans argue back that you either have to compromise or you get nothing, and so stay stuck in the same terrible situation?

John Bolton: They did, and this gets to the fundamental question of what you think is achievable at the UN. I think we’ve had higher standards, and that it would have been better for the organization, not to mention the United States, to keep insisting on real reform and not acquiescing to what actually happened. This is a rare case where you have a controllable, nearly scientific experiment to examine: Our side was saying, “Don’t give in. This is no improvement. We’ll end up with something no better than the predecessor.” And Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International were saying, “No, let’s go for what we can get, and then we can make this work.” So who was right? Nearly a year into the creation of this new institution, the Bush Administration’s prediction has turned out to be correct. What this says is that if you want real, meaningful change, you have to be prepared for a long-term struggle. The process outcome of simply getting a new body should not trump the substantive outcome of getting the right body.

AI: Let me ask you more generally about the phrase “human rights.” This phrase means different things to different people. On the one hand, Americans instinctively support human rights as a legacy of the Enlightenment. But it’s an abusable term, too, isn’t it?

John Bolton: My personal view is that genuine human rights are a pretty narrowly defined category, principally what today would be called political rights. Even the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights has too many “rights”, and I’m uncomfortable generally with delineating rights that themselves become entitlements. I personally prefer a narrow definition that, precisely because it’s narrow, means that preserving those rights becomes critically important. In the UN declaration and other versions since, practically every remotely positive-sounding phrase has been turned into a “right.” Today virtually everything is a right in a UN context, like the right to development, for example. God knows what that means. Thanks to that sort of expansion of the concept, advocates of human rights have gotten to a point where the phrase is losing its meaning. I think that’s tragic, because nothing is more important than protecting real human rights.



[credit: Associated Press]

AI: So what about Kofi Annan? Kofi’s now out of the UN, as are you. And I know you recognize what a tough job it is being Secretary-General of the UN: The guy has a lot of responsibility, but not a lot of authority or power, since the UN is mainly a creature of what the member states will or won’t allow it to do. On the other hand, there’s the oil-for-food scandal and the clear failure to get management reform off the ground. So all that said, how would you rank Annan?

John Bolton: Personally he’s a very kind and gracious man. There’s no doubt of that. But I’d rank him near the bottom of Secretaries-General. Then again, I’d rank almost all of them near the bottom, and the reason is the same: In substantial part they did not fulfill what the UN Charter says is the Secretary-General’s responsibility. The Charter defines the Secretary-General as the UN’s “chief executive officer.” Now, that’s not a very appealing title. It doesn’t say anything about being the world’s chief diplomat or secular pope. But if Kofi had spent more time being the UN’s CEO, maybe the UN wouldn’t be saddled with the oil-for-food scandal and the enormous negative impact that has had on the perception of the UN in the United States.

That’s one reason why in selecting the new Secretary-General, the United States and other countries put more emphasis on finding somebody who would take that responsibility seriously. At some point I said we needed a proletarian Secretary-General, someone who would really get his hands dirty and run the organization.

AI: Someone from the streets of Baltimore, huh? Do you think Ban Ki-moon is that man?

John Bolton: I think that of the candidates who were available who were politically realistic he was the best choice.

AI: We’ve talked about human rights, but there’s another concept or catchphrase that has become prominent lately—“the responsibility to protect”—and this gets back to what you were saying earlier about sovereignty. We all know the arguments here: The main argument for a “responsibility to protect” is that we live in a world where what goes on within state borders is just as important or more important to U.S. national security as what goes on across those borders. We can’t afford the old Westphalian notion of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states anymore. A lot of national-interest conservatives are ill at ease with this idea, however, because it’s not clear who is authorized to make judgments about where intervention happens and where it doesn’t. They suspect a politically abusable concept, not entirely unlike the ICC.

Nevertheless, the General Assembly has affirmed the notion of the “responsibility to protect.” It’s been a part of the corpus of United Nations law, so to speak, since September 2005. The idea is so pervasive that even Senator Jesse Helms was prepared to accept this idea on moral grounds. What’s your take on all this?

John Bolton: Let me just say on the sovereignty point that I don’t think there was ever a world of Westphalia where sovereignty was like a big hard shell that has deteriorated over time, particularly in the post-World War II environment. Those who favor proceeding toward greater global governance, as they call it—not global government—tend to agree with Steve Krasner’s book on sovereignty, where he pointed out that Westphalian sovereignty has always been something less than absolute.

Sovereignty has changed, but it hasn’t deteriorated. It’s just that the circumstances now differ from what they were then. The “responsibility to protect” language adopted in September 2005 was something we accepted. We achieved what we wanted, which is to say, in the first instance, that the fundamental “responsibility to protect” lies with each sovereign state. There are circumstances where, one potential actor having forfeited that responsibility, others can act, but this does not imply a duty to act. That was something the State Department legal advisor was very concerned about.

Clearly, this is a murky area in practice. We confront it directly in the situation in Darfur today. Although events may have moved on by the time we see this in print, we see in the papers literally this morning President Bashir saying again that he won’t accept UN peacekeepers in Darfur—and perhaps, as you suggested earlier, fear of ICC indictment plays a part in that. In any event, Sudan’s opposition led Kofi Annan, in the last months of his tenure, to say that we have to compromise away from Resolution 1706, which authorized the transfer from the African Union to a UN peacekeeping force. I personally felt that stating a willingness to accept compromise was a mistake. The Security Council had said “here are the terms”, in effect, and we should have made Khartoum accept that agreement.



AI: But how would we do that? We’ve never been prepared to use force. The Defense Department has simply refused to “open up a file” of any kind for Darfur—not one single helicopter, not one spy satellite reprogrammed, not one boot on the ground.

John Bolton: Well, if we’re not prepared to follow through on things like Resolution 1706, we never should have adopted it. I think the real answer in Sudan is regime change, to get a different government in Khartoum, and I think there are a variety of ways we could do that. But then, I see regime change as a possibility in a lot of different places. In any event, I think on Darfur we will find out how serious people are about “the responsibility to protect”, because each compromise that Annan proposed away from 1706 was a retreat from the very responsibility to protect he had advocated. Darfur is a case study in what it may ultimately come to mean.

AI: When you look back on the time since September 11, 2001, do you think that the Administration overreacted rhetorically after that event? Has our foreign policy as a whole become captive, too narrowly focused on some issues to the excessive exclusion of others? Has the kind of language the White House has been using all along generated a climate of, if not fear, then anxiety that is very un-American?

John Bolton: I think the problem is not being able to keep people focused on the real threat. The real threat is not terror coming from already known and defined places. It’s terror combined with weapons of mass destruction in the hands of states or terrorist groups anywhere that might be inclined to use them. That doesn’t mean that the threat is not acute, and it may be growing, but it should be clear to the American people what kind of threat it actually is.

I think part of the problem is that too many Americans don’t live in a climate of fear. Five years after September 11, without a subsequent attack of that size on American territory, people have been led to think the threat has disappeared. Yet we can see even now in Somalia, where elements of al-Qaeda tried to regroup, that the threat is still there. A rogue state or a terrorist group with weapons of mass destruction turns those weapons automatically into weapons of mass terror. And that is why the notion of preemption to make sure that attacks don’t take place in the first instance is a proper response to the kind of environment we face.

AI: I’m glad you mentioned preemption. Very shortly after the preemption language was unveiled in September 2002, Condoleezza Rice, then National Security Advisor, went to New York to give the Wriston Lecture, in which she elaborated on the conditions in which preemption might be used. It seems to have gone right by a lot of people, but preemption was never meant to replace deterrence, only to supplement it in those cases where we could not logically depend on it.

Of course, there’s another argument about what kind of Pandora’s Box we opened by talking about preemption in public. A lot of people think there’s nothing wrong with preemption, but that there is something wrong with talking about it openly, and without consulting our allies beforehand. I agree that preemption makes sense in certain circumstances, but I’m not sure the Administration has done such a good job of explaining what it means in practice.

John Bolton: I think as a general proposition we haven’t explained a lot of concepts well. I’m not an expert in public diplomacy, but my theory is that you should go out and say what your position is, and say it to as many different people as you can, in as many places as you can, and I don’t think we’ve done that. I don’t have any grand strategy for public diplomacy, other than to show up and state your case as often as you need to, which is one of the things I tried to do in New York.

AI: We haven’t mentioned Iran. Iran is both like and unlike North Korea. There are people in the Administration who think that a negotiated solution to this ultimately could work. There are others who think that such a negotiation could not work except with very sharp sanctions that really bite, but which we are unlikely to get thanks to opposition in the Security Council. A third group thinks none of this will work, but that we have to go through the motions of showing the world that we’ve done everything we could short of using force, should it ever come to using force.

Beyond that, there’s an inherent paradox here: If we take the use of force off the table, which the President has refused to do, then we undercut all the rest of the diplomacy we can employ. But if we leave the threat of force on the table, it amounts to an incentive to the Iranians to move faster to get nuclear weapons. That’s a nasty double-bind. Because of these difficulties, in part, the accusation made against the Administration is that it doesn’t have a policy, that disagreements have paralyzed the bureaucracy, and that the President has never forced the issue to closure. Is this how you read the problem?

John Bolton: In part, what we’re doing now is comparable to what we did with China and North Korea, which is to say, China will take the lead on North Korea, and we’ll let the EU Three—the “Euroids”, I call them—take the lead on Iran. When we first thought hard about Iran, it was in the context of the new strategic framework with Russia, and the assistance that Russia was giving Iran for the construction of the Bushehr nuclear power plant and other aspects of their program. But after we withdrew from the ABM Treaty and signed the Treaty of Moscow reducing strategic deployed warheads, we began to look at Iran in a broader context.

Now, my original thought was that we would get a statement by the IAEA about the Iranian nuclear program, refer it to the UN Security Council, and let the Security Council take action on Iran, all of which would have been done in early 2003. The problem with the approach we’ve taken is that it has taken too long. We’ve allowed the Europeans over that period of time so much running room, and the Iranians have very skillfully used the negotiations to their own advantage.

AI: To buy time, basically.

John Bolton: Right. Hassan Rowhani, the former Iranian chief nuclear negotiator, said in a speech covered in the New York Times that they have used the calm of negotiations to perfect their uranium conversion process while they’ve also been working on their enrichment process and everything else they need to do. So we can go through an infinite number of diplomatic steps, but it’s like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice: We get captivated by the process and it takes over. Going through the process with the IAEA and the Security Council took on a larger role than stopping Iran’s nuclear weapons program. That’s why we’re in a potentially difficult circumstance, where time is not on our side. The Administration’s tenure is growing short, and we face a potential crunch.

AI: So what’s next for you? Have any 2008 presidential candidates been calling? Would you like to associate yourself with a campaign, or are you more inclined to sit and write?

John Bolton: I subscribe to the perspective that you draw down intellectual capital while you’re in the government, and when you’re out of government, you have to take advantage of the time to increase it. I do think the 2008 election will be extremely important. Particularly in the foreign policy area, there are some real differences in approach that have not been resolved during the six years of the Bush Administration and are unlikely to be resolved in its remaining two years. So I take that seriously, and even though I’ve only been out of the government a couple of days now, I’ve already begun to think about what I should be doing in future.

AI: Whatever it is, it probably won’t be boring.

John Bolton: Probably not.

AI: Thanks for talking to The American Interest.

John Bolton: It’s been a pleasure.