There is an unspoken but long-understood historical tradition among both the Republican and Democratic parties about whom they decide to send as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. With the nomination of John Bolton to be the next American envoy to the U.N., it is worth reminding ourselves of what that hoary old protocol constitutes and why both parties have adopted it as a regular practice.
The unwritten convention is that Presidents from both parties pick their most distinguished leaders from among their ranks-men and women of immense prestige, who are committed to the notion that the United Nations is important to America’s national security, and whose standing and words will have immediate impact around the world. It is a consensus view crossing political lines that Washington cannot afford, given the interlocking nature of the world’s problems, to trifle with the only body on the planet that deals directly with life and death for every nation on earth.
This understanding was reached 60 years ago, at the historic conference in San Francisco that established the United Nations. At that meeting, both Democrats and Republicans hammered out a common concordat for the international security organization. While Democrats got the initial credit for the formation of the U.N. under Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, the Republicans serving on the U.S. delegation were equally enthusiastic about its creation. Leaders like Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan praised the United Nations as “the world’s only chance” to stop World War III. New York’s Thomas Dewey, the Republican nominee for the Presidency in 1944 and 1948, observed: “There is a clear mandate from the American people” for the United Nations.
John Foster Dulles, later Dwight Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, said, “I believe it could be a greater Magna Carta.” Other iconic Republican figures, such as Nelson Rockefeller (whose family gave the land in New York for the U.N. building) and Harold Stassen, lauded the establishment of the U.N.
Since then, the 25 American appointees to that august body by both parties have fit the same profile. They have included a former Secretary of State, Edward Stettinius, and a future Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright; a former Presidential nominee of the Democratic Party, Adlai Stevenson, and a future Republican President, George H.W. Bush; two former Republican Senators, Henry Cabot Lodge and John Danforth, and a future Democratic Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan; a former Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Arthur Goldberg; the future Democratic mayor of Atlanta, Andrew Young, and a future Democratic governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson; and a series of distinguished career diplomats-Vernon Walters, Thomas Pickering, Richard Holbrooke and John Negroponte. Admittedly, mixed in with this exalted lot have been a few lesser figures.
However, John Bolton’s history as a minor governmental official of scant accomplishment, along with his now-famous litany of denunciations regarding the U.N., leaves him decidedly outside this tradition. Mr. Bolton’s meager record of public service is a formidable limitation. But his swaggering observations that nobody really cares whether 10 stories might be sliced off the U.N. building; that we do not have any obligation to pay our dues to the organization; that the Security Council should be reduced to one member, namely the United States; and (perhaps his most notorious sally) that “there’s no such thing as the United Nations,” all betray an underlying and withering contempt for the organization that is virtually unprecedented in the annals of U.S. engagement with the U.N.
Given his arrant disdain for the organization, he seems a man utterly devoid of the talents necessary to work with other states to advance U.S. interests.
Some observers, in his defense, argue nonetheless that Mr. Bolton resembles two past appointees whose intemperate behavior at the United Nations drew widespread global attention-Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Jeanne Kirkpatrick-yet were still notable envoys. However, both took the U.N. seriously as a forum in which to argue for American positions. The flamboyant Moynihan denounced Uganda’s Idi Amin as a “racist murderer” and criticized the now-famous resolution equating Zionism with racism, among his other reproofs. Ms. Kirkpatrick, in her turn, praised as noble the U.N.’s goal “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” and said the U.N. Charter was “planned and constructed by some hard-headed realists.”
What would Arthur Vandenberg, Thomas Dewey, John Foster Dulles, Nelson Rockefeller and Harold Stassen make of the appointment of John Bolton as their country’s representative to the world’s most important body? My guess is that they would share the view of one of today’s leading Republicans, John Whitehead, Ronald Reagan’s former Deputy Secretary of State.
Mr. Whitehead, along with 59 former diplomats who have served in both Democratic and Republicans administrations, have labeled the choice of Mr. Bolton as a profound “mistake” and have urged his rejection.
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