Ambassador John Bolton talks about the United Nations

Former Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton reflects on his time at the UN and shares his views about the institution. Photo: Flags outside the United Nations building

FLORIDA, January 26, 2013 —  The United Nations is the subject of intense controversy here in the United States. Some say our country should allow the UN. to play a larger role in its affairs, while others would like America to shun the institution. Whatever one’s opinion might be, chances are that it is strongly held.   

In this second part of our discussion, former Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton explains the greatest lesson he learned while serving at the UN. He also shares his views about whether or not it would be a good idea for America to make its foreign policy more reliant on the UN, if the UN has lost track of its founding goals, and what sort of role the UN plays in modern society. He tells us a bit about his life and career as well. 


Joseph F. Cotto: What was the greatest lesson that you learned while ambassador to the United Nations?

Ambassador John Bolton: America has to defend its own interests in the United Nations, because you can be sure no one else will. Acting like a well-bred doormat gets us nothing but more pressure to conform in an environment that it is often far from conducive to our values and interests. That can be done politely and graciously, but we should never confuse being friendly with making substantive concessions.

Cotto: Judging from your experience, would it be a good idea for America to make its foreign policy more reliant on the U.N.?

Ambassador Bolton: Absolutely not, although I believe President Obama would like nothing better than to do just that. He has, after all, nominated John Kerry as Secretary of State, the man who, in his 2004 presidential campaign, proposed a “global test” for American foreign policy, in effect asking for UN Security Council permission to defend our vital interests. Obama’s inclination to multilateralize U.S. foreign policy could well be a major source of debate in the next four years, now that he no longer has to worry about re-election.

Cotto: Has the U.N. lost track of its founding goals over the years?

Ambassador Bolton: The U.N.’s primary founding political goal — holding together the winning Wolrld War II coalition — was never achievable given Soviet efforts to dominate Europe and spread Communist influence globally. While the UN system performs many beneficial activities through the specialized agencies and by providing humanitarian assistance, the UN’s political decision-making bodies function no better today than during the Cold War on the major global issues. Countries pursue their national interests, and until the lions lie down with the lambs, the UN will reflect these disagreements and conflicts.

Cotto: In our contemporary global society, what sort of role does the U.N. generally play?

Ambassador Bolton: The UN’s specialized agencies have largely pursued their limited, defined missions without political conflicts interfering. Whether in the Universal Postal Union, the International Maritime Organization, or others, this important work should continue. Where the specialized agencies become politicized, however, they can actually become dangerous, as recently demonstrated by efforts in the International Telecommunications Union to impose transnational control over the Internet. 

Cotto: Tell us a bit about your life and career.

Ambassador Bolton: I certainly never expected to end up where I am today, I thought I would quietly practice law as a career, but Ronald Reagan’s election made it impossible to resist joining his revolution. What followed for me had less to do with a career plan, and much more with the sweep of events.

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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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