John Bolton: UN Reform Remains Vital But Unlikely

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton faced several uphill battles in his efforts to reform the UN into a fiscally accountable organization that responds fairly to American concerns. He had to fight a crusade against his first nomination, waged by liberal Democratic Senators Joe Biden (Del.) and Chris Dodd (Conn.) and abetted by renegade Ohio Republican Sen. George Voinovich, who blind-sided Bolton and the Bush White House with his opposition to the nomination in the Foreign Relations Committee hearing in 2005.

President Bush then recess-appointed Bolton to the UN post. During his months in New York, Bolton actively pushed for significant reforms at the scandal-plagued organization, all of which were opposed by the international bureaucracy.

Bolton’s appointment was due to expire at the end of 2006 and could not be renewed. When the President renominated him to the ambassadorship before the 2006 election, liberal Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R.I.) announced he would oppose Bolton’s nomination in the Foreign Relations Committee, despite all the financial help the White House directed to his campaign. Even after he lost his Senate seat in the midterm elections, an ungrateful Chafee continued to oppose the Bolton nomination.

The White House considered several different routes to recess-appoint Bolton to another position and make him an “acting permanent representative,” but Bolton believed it was better to let the appointment end than continue to go through various gyrations.

Last week, Ambassador Bolton sat with the editors of HUMAN EVENTS for an exclusive interview about UN reform, the need for regime change in North Korea and Iran, and concerns about Latin America. What follows are excerpts from that interview (the entire interview is available at

Ambassador, what do think was your greatest achievement at the United Nations? What are you most proud of during your service there?

I think that there were a number of things that were accomplished in the Security Council that are going to turn out to be important to American national security over the long term. I think our reaction to North Korea’s nuclear tests and its ballistic missile tests this past summer showed that it’s possible to lead diplomatically in the UN and put together a strong coalition in response to those provocations.

I think we also achieved near unanimity in the Security Council in opposition to Iran’s nuclear weapons program. The most recent sanctions resolution on Iran is disappointing, but, nonetheless, I think we have demonstrated the strength of our view that Iran’s nuclear weapons program is impermissible. And I think we had a number of successes in the Middle East: two vetoes—that I’m quite proud of—of resolutions in the Security Council that were highly critical, and unfairly so, of Israel, and the adoption of Resolution 1701, bringing a halt to the Hezbollah-Israel war this past summer, after having given Israel over a month of non-interference by the Security Council for Israel to try and achieve its strategic objectives.

There are a range of other things that I think were successful.

I think on the down side, it’s clear that our effort at UN reform did not succeed—and did not succeed for a number of reasons. The conclusion that I draw from it is that efforts at marginal, incremental reform, focusing on management aspects, are not likely to be successful. This particular effort by the Bush Administration was one of many, many over the years, and I think the failure to achieve even the modest goals that we hoped for shows that true reform at the UN is going to have to be much more systematic.

Why? Is it poorly organized? Explain a little bit about the kinds of reforms that you’re talking about.

What we wanted was to make the UN more effective in what it does, more responsive to U.S. interests, to strip away the layers of management and waste in the budget and, basically, to make it fulfill the promise that the UN purports to hold out to people of being effective at solving international problems.

The experience we had, though, was that the entrenched interests at the UN like the system pretty much the way it functions, and, therefore, even modest efforts at change that we made turned out to be unsuccessful or achieving very modest results.

For example, one thing that was agreed in September 2005 was that the members of the UN would review all of the mandates given to the Secretariat over the course of the UN’s history, so that we could examine from square one what the Secretariat was doing and make an evaluation whether these mandates were outmoded, whether they could be eliminated, consolidated, reformed in some way to make the organization more efficient.

When we reached agreement that we would undertake this review, we thought that was potentially very significant. Because over the course of the UN’s 60-year history, it had never had that kind of review. If you look at the analogy of a corporation, it reviews its products and its efforts every year, and it has, probably, more systematic reviews over a longer period of time, but it’s constantly saying, “Are we devoting our resources to the most profitable areas for the business?” In the UN, we wanted to do something analogously: Are we being as effective as we can be? What’s the comparative advantage for the UN?

So we started this project of what are called “mandate review,” because that’s what the General Assembly gives to the Secretariat to do what the Security Council gives to the Secretariat to do.

The first thing we found out was the UN was operating under more than 9,000 existing mandates. So the first thing that you conclude is anybody who has 9,000 priorities has no priorities. But then we said we’re determined to do this very rigorously—we’re going to examine all 9,000 mandates. At the end of slightly over a year, by the end of December 2006, we had examined only several hundred of the 9,000 mandates. And over that entire period of time, we had eliminated none, we had combined none, we had modified none. So I conclude from that that mandate review is not going to work. Therefore, the larger conclusion you draw is that the UN’s not — in its current form — not capable of that kind of introspection that any other large body needs. Now, that doesn’t, necessarily, make it different from other organs of government, like our federal government. That’s not exactly a selling point for it—to say it’s no worse than the member governments.

I think the biggest problem in the UN that the U.S. faces is that there is a disjunction between the voting power that the United States has and its contribution level. And this is not voting in the Security Council, this is voting in the General Assembly, where budgets and programs for the organization are approved. We’re one of 192 countries, that means we have one-half of 1% (0.5%) of the voting power of the UN. Yet because of the system of assessed contributions at the UN, we contribute 22% of the budget—or 27%, in the case of peacekeeping. So quick math will tell you that our contributions are 44 times greater than our voting power.

Looked at another way, with 192 countries in the UN, 97 constitute a majority. If you add the assessed contributions of the lowest 97 members—that is to say that could constitute a majority if you did a vote—we pay 22%, Japan pays 19%, and then it goes down, in percentage shares, to the lowest contributor of the regular budget contributes 0.001%.

Who’s that?

There are about 20 of them. If you start with the lowest, and build up until you finally get to 97, the aggregate assessed contribution of the lowest 97, is 0.289%. Which means we pay roughly 66 times more than a majority of the General Assembly—and I can do all kinds of calculations like that. But what it says is: it’s fun to spend other people’s money. It’s especially fun to spend our money. And we simply don’t have the sway within the organization that you would expect from a country that contributes 22%.

I thought that Jesse Helms’ reforms were supposed to solve some of these problems.

It’s called the Helms-Biden bill. And what it did was in exchange for reducing our assessed contribution level from 25%, which is what it had been, to 22%, the U.S. repaid all of the arrearages that were built up during the 1990s when we were withholding money.

But weren’t there also to be reforms?

There were. And there haven’t been. Now, the only way I know to solve this problem of the disjunction between voting power and influence and contributions is to shift away from the system of assessed contributions toward a system of voluntary contributions. That is to say each year we decide how much we’re going to contribute.

If you look at the UN system now, there are agencies that are funded primarily by voluntary contributions, and they tend to be the most effective, most efficient, most responsive. For example, UNICEF is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions. World Food Program, funded by voluntary contributions. We give 50% of the food to the World Food Program—we more than double our 22%. The UN High Commissioner for refugees is funded by voluntary contributions. And I don’t think it’s hard to understand why. If you depend on performance in order to attract contributions, you’ve got to work, you’ve got to be effective. If you have an entitlement to 22% of your budget coming from the United States, what incentive do you have to be more efficient?

This would be a huge change. It would be extraordinarily controversial, but I think—that’s why I said before—the failure of our reform efforts shows that marginal, incremental change will not work, and you need a much more fundamental root-and-branch change in the UN, that I think would be accomplished by a shift from assessed to voluntary contributions.

You seemed like you were on a path, after Sen. [George] Voinovich [R.-Ohio] came out and supported you and the two of you had been working together, then all of the sudden we find that Sen. [Lincoln] Chafee [R.-R.I.] is opposing you. Did you talk to him after that to try to work out the differences he had with the secretary?

We tried to. We actually missed calls, Sen. Chafee and I, but the White House talked to him at length. They were quite surprised that he changed his mind. He supported me back in 2005, in the committee, and I had had some very good conversations with him then. But they were amazed in September—the White House was quite surprised—that he was reluctant to vote for me. People were looking then at his Republican primary in September and then the general election, but they were surprised again two days after the general election when he announced he wasn’t going to support me.

After they had made all of these donations.

Right. That was unexpected to say the least. In my judgment, at that point, the votes were not going to be there to get out of the committee, even in the prior Congress, and obviously, with the result of the election, would not be there in the current Congress either. So the White House had been working on a number of steps they could have taken to recess appoint me to another position and make me an acting permanent representative, and there were a variety of different routes that they were taking. I considered this, and it was a very hard decision for me, but I thought it was better, at that point, to let the recess appointment end and leave rather than go through a kind of jury-rigged approach to the position. It was not an easy decision, but I felt it was the right thing to do.

In terms of sanctions against Iran and North Korea, we did get something passed, but it seems that China has been the key to all of this. Do you feel that in some way China is doing something that is positive?

I think since the North Korean nuclear test, that the Chinese have been much more active in several respects. And I think it’s because they were humiliated by North Korea’s conducting that test. They had been saying for two or three years, “We’ll work on the North Koreans. We’ll get this taken care of. The six-party talks will prove out.” But, in fact, North Korea disregarded them—both in terms of the ballistic missile test and in terms of the nuclear test. So this is the moment to make the problem of North Korea a much higher-profile issue in the U.S.-China bilateral relationship. China does have the influence to change not only North Korean policy but to change the North Korean regime. Their interest and ours in preventing North Korea from advancing its nuclear weapons program, I think, are the same. Where we disagree, is that China fears that if it brings down Kim Jong Il’s regime, there’s no replacement, there will be waves of refugees, but even worse, from their point of view, the entire North Korean regime will collapse, the Korean peninsula will be reunified, and American troops will be on the Yalu River.

Now, they’ve been through that before, and they fear the consequences.

In other words, they fear us.

Well, they like a divided Korea. And by the way, so do most of Korea’s neighbors, including South Korea. The South Koreans, much like the West Germans, fear the cost of reunification. The government that wants reunification more than anybody else is the government of the Unites States, which has been our policy since 1945. Whether a reunited Korea would want American troops anywhere on the Korean peninsula is an open question at this point. But the only way to solve the North Korean nuclear problem, I think, is the peaceful reunification—under a democratic government—of the peninsula. And that, China is obviously not willing to accept.

Is there any way that that can come about? South Korea, obviously, is totally accommodating to North Korea.

Remember, President Noh’s opinion polls now have him in single digits and there is an election coming up. There’s a division within South Korea, and we’ll have to see what they decide. But I think you could put increased pressure on North Korea in a way that could move you closer to a collapse of the regime. That’s why I hope the administration does not give up the financial pressure that we’ve been applying through the Banco Delta Asia, the Macau Bank investigation we’ve been pursuing, and other things that can further isolate North Korea and make it impossible for the regime to engage in the kind of economic transactions that it needs to acquire hard currency, to support the regime, and to pursue the nuclear program.

If Madame Park, Park Chung Hee’s daughter, is elected after President Noh, that would be almost a 180-degree reversal of policy because she would be a hard-liner with the North?

In many respects, commentators have said South Korea is a 50-50 country like the United States so that even a narrow win in the election could dramatically change their policy. I think the one thing that’s happening, the dynamic in both South Korea and this country, which I think is potentially important, is that finally the grotesque human rights abuses of the North Korean regime are beginning to get attention. I gave a speech in Seoul in 2002 or 2003 where I attacked Kim Jung Il and the North Korean regime, and that got all kinds of criticism. One of the points that I made that didn’t get much attention was to the South Koreans themselves, to say, “How can you abide by the conditions that your fellow Koreans are living in in North Korea? Your family members, after decades of separation to be sure, but they’re up there living in a large prison camp, in effect, and your government doesn’t make North Korean human rights abuses a major element of their policy. How can that be?”

Today, because of refugees coming out of North Korea and a number of other reasons, this question of the mistreatment of the North Korean people is finally beginning to get some political traction in South Korea. And in this country, Korean-Americans who have not been as politically active as many other heritage groups are focusing more on the North Korean human rights situation. And we’ve got Congress’ having passed the provision that created the job [special envoy on Human Rights in North Korea] that Jay Lefkowitz now has on North Korean human rights. So there’s evidence that Congress sees the problem in North Korea. Remember, during the entire Cold War, the strength of the anti-Communist movement in the United States rested both on the strategic threat that communism posed to the United States and on the oppression of the captive nations. That dynamic has never developed with respect to North Korea. There are signs now that it is beginning to develop, which could have an impact for us and, combined with what’s happening in South Korea, could represent a real change.

Do you like Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe’s hard line with North Korea? He sounds like you in many ways.

Actually, I met him back in 2001 when he was assistant chief cabinet secretary at the time, and have followed his career, and he has made into an issue in Japan the North Korean abduction of Japanese citizens, and the abductees’ families are now a major force in Japan. And as Japan has tried to become, as they describe it, a “more normal nation”—as they have concluded that a “normal” nation should be partially responsible for its own defense—they have grown closer to the United States than at any point in our long, bilateral relationship. We’re now working with them missile defense, because they’re a lot closer to North Korea than we are. And in all those decades, in the 70s and 80s, when trade disputes used to divide Japan and the United States—we still obviously have trade issues with them—we’re now much closer, politically and militarily, than we have ever been, in large part because of the North Korean threat.

What about Iran?

I think we need to do a lot more. Iran has been pursuing nuclear weapons in a clandestine manner for close to 20 years. We have, over the past several years, deferred to the European Union’s efforts to negotiate with Iran. Those efforts, I think, have clearly failed.

The Iranians are determined nuclear weapons capability. They’re not going to take the step we and, in fact, the entire Security Council have called on them to take, which is to abandon their uranium enrichment efforts. Uranium enrichment is a critical element of obtaining a completely indigenous capacity to produce nuclear weapons, and if the Iranians won’t give it up, as they’ve said they’re not going to, it’s clear that they’re going to continue their efforts until they succeed in having a weapons capability. With that, I think we need to press the Europeans harder, to endorse stronger sanctions and greater economic isolation of Iran. Stronger steps than that might be needed, but I think the Treasury Department has done an outstanding job in closing off American financial markets to Iranian institutions and by getting European financial institutions to make up their minds whether they would rather participate in the American market or the Iranian market.

Who was key to that?

Well, I think Bob Kimmitt, the deputy secretary, and Stuart Levy, who’s under secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, have both done a great job.

I read somewhere that we are trying to help in terms of these people who are being oppressed.

I think over the long term the only way to prevent the Iranians from achieving nuclear weapons capability is regime change. There are substantial elements within Iranian society that don’t like rule by this theocratic, authoritarian government. It won’t happen over night, but we should be doing more to promote elements that want a different kind of regime in Iran.

One asset that we have not tapped effectively is the very strong Iranian-American community that knows what family members and other relatives back in Iran feel about the regime. In the Cold War, the captive nations’ relationship was very important to us—when you look at Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty and all of the activity we conducted, particularly in the Eastern and Central European countries. I mentioned the Korean-American community a minute ago, the same is true with the Iranian-American community—these are people who want a better life and more freedom for their people back in Iran, and yet I don’t think we use them nearly as much as we could.

Reza Pahlavi, son of the former Shah of Iran, told us that they were working on getting some sort of groundswell among the people who oppose [Iranian President] Ahmadinejad and oppose the whole regime in Iran. Do you hear anything about those movements at all?

Yes. I think that potential exists. It’s hard to judge how soon it might have an impact. Unquestionably, the fall in the price of oil has limited the ability of Ahmadinejad and the regime to use the oil revenue to placate the people. That’s a very good thing.

I disagree with the conclusions of a study that came out a while back that said the fall in the price of oil actually justifies their pursuit of peaceful nuclear power. That’s ridiculous. It’s still $55 dollars a barrel, it’s not $70, but it’s still higher than it was two or three years ago.

We should not underestimate Ahmadinejad. He’s a skillful politician. He’s a populist, really, in the Iranian context. He leads a relatively simple life—the people know it, and that’s one reason he was a very popular mayor of Tehran. They resent the luxury that the mullahs live in. And Ahmadinejad, although these last elections didn’t go his way, nobody should underestimate his capabilities as a politician and ability to rally the Iranian people against us and others. He’s a very savvy and shrewd man, and it’s one reason why the work with dissident elements in Iran is not something you can count on producing a quick result.

Do we have friends in the UN who are going to be helpful with dealing with Iran in the way that you’re talking about?

Not that many. The Iranians have also been very skillful in using their oil capability. Take China, which has a huge and growing energy demand, they need Iranian oil. And this is something, by the way, that is influential in Chinese behavior around the world. Why are the Chinese so active in East Africa? Why do the Chinese come to the defense of the government of Sudan against the people of Darfur? Because they have oil interests in Sudan and other African countries.

Now, the Japanese, by contrast, recently extricated themselves from a massive capital investment in an Iranian oil field called Azedegan, where they lowered their share from 75% to 10%, because they didn’t want to be subject to that kind of pressure from Iran on the oil front. They’ll get their supply somewhere else. But that’s one reason why in the Middle East as a whole the oil weapon remains a very strong and important weapon.

And, personally, one reason why I favor greater use of nuclear power in this country.

Yesterday, both Hugo Chavez and Daniel Ortega were sworn in in South America. What do you see as the long-term impact of both of their presidencies and the leftist tilt that South America is taking?

Those pictures certainly brought back bad memories. Chavez is, in some senses, even more of a threat than Castro, although he’s not as bright as Castro and he doesn’t have the same coherent ideology. The oil revenues that Venezuela earns are actually greater than the subsidy that the Soviet Union, during the Cold War, provided Cuba for its mischief in Latin America, Africa and elsewhere. Given that wealth behind Chavez, potentially he’s even more dangerous, and he has already been active in countries such as Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru and even Mexico after the recent close elections.

The one thing I can say is that Democratic forces in Latin America, including the Democratic left, realize that Chavez is a problem. They spent decades worrying about the Yankees’ interfering in their internal affairs. There is a phenomenon of even leftist elements in Latin America realizing Chavez is a destabilizing force. There’s, in effect, a race between whether people can be attuned to the risk that Chavez poses more quickly than he’s able to spread his influence. His interference in Mexico was very counterproductive from his point of view, very positive from our point of view that in Mexico that they saw the danger their democracy faced by having that kind of outside interference.

Successive American governments have said we need to pay more attention to Latin America. Almost every incoming government says it. And every four years you look back and say, “You know, we need to pay more attention to Latin America.” Now, maybe at one point we will actually learn the lesson.

Chavez represents a threat to our interests in the hemisphere and around the world. As you can see from his arms purchases from Russia and his various other activities, visiting with the Iranians and so on, this is something we definitely should pay more attention to.

Is Ahmadinejad’s love for Chavez based mostly on Chavez’s anti-Americanism or is it based on his ability to help keep the world market price of oil higher?

I think it’s a combination of the two, and we have been dependent on external sources of oil for so long that we forget things like the original OPEC oil shock of the early 1970s. But what is says is that diversifying our sources of energy, tapping domestic resources we have, looking at non-petroleum sources of energy is very important. I think nuclear energy is actually better environmentally—for those who place a priority on that.

Look at what the Europeans are now saying in the wake of Russia’s refusal to ship oil to Belarus, and therefore to ship oil through Belarus into Western Europe. Sweden and Germany, which had both said that they were going to move away from nuclear power because of the influence of the Green Parties in those countries, are now reconsidering. It doesn’t affect us directly, but it’s a graphic demonstration why we should see the implications of that and have an effect on our own energy policy here.

We’ve heard lots of reports about the scandals and corruption in the UN, but we’ve not seen too many people suffer consequences. Do you see any more fallout coming from any additional investigations?

There are still criminal investigations going on in the Southern District of New York. I think a big impact of the change in control of both houses of Congress is whether the ongoing congressional investigations of the Oil-for-Food scandal will continue. The UN has not done anything nearly enough to respond to the Oil-for-Food scandal—even the recommendations of the Volker Commission have not been adopted and are not likely to be adopted.

Whether Ban Ki-moon, the new secretary-general, will make that reform a priority, we don’t know yet. The central conclusion of the Volker Commission—and here’s a man who’s a pillar of the American establishment, picked by Kofi Annan in part because he hoped he would not be critical of what had happened—after his investigation came very forthrightly to the conclusion that the problems of the Oil-for-Food scandal emanated from the UN itself, that the procedures, the processes, the culture that led to the problems in Oil-for-Food all derived from the UN Secretariat. He was asked at a hearing by Sen. [Norm] Coleman [R.-Minn.], “Do you think there’s a culture of corruption at the UN?” And Volker said, “No, I don’t think there’s a culture of corruption. I think there’s a culture of inaction.” And that’s exactly right—that’s why the Oil-for-Food scandal’s not been responded to and it’s one reason why our reform efforts didn’t meet with greater success.

You’ve talked about reform at the UN, and everybody talks about it. We want to make the UN effective. What is an “effective” UN?

One that’s responsive to American interests. I didn’t go into this job with an idea of making a platonically better UN. I wanted a more effective utilization of American influence, because the UN can be a tool to implement American foreign policy—it has been in a number of respects. The difference between me and some others is that I don’t think it’s the only tool of American foreign policy. I think the UN is a potential asset for solving international problems. If it doesn’t work, you can look to say, “Can we fix it?” And if we can’t fix it, then you should say, “What else is there?”