When President Donald Trump arrives at the United Nations’ annual gathering in New York this week, it will be a homecoming for his national security adviser, John Bolton.
But not a particularly happy one.
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Bolton served as a U.S. ambassador to the U.N. during the George W. Bush administration, a perch he used to denounce the institution in which he kept an office. Bolton railed at the U.N. as bloated, inefficient and a potential threat to U.S. sovereignty. He infamously suggested that if the 39-story tower on Manhattan’s East River “lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”
It’s little wonder, then, that Bolton’s return to the U.N. is the subject of chatter among U.N. officials and diplomats already converging in New York. Some diplomats are wary about the mustachioed Trump adviser refreshing his U.N. broadsides, while others are looking to gauge Bolton’s influence on the president and will be listening closely for echoes of his rhetoric in Trump’s own words.
“J.B. is coming home,” quipped one Trump administration official, warning anyone who might wonder whether he’s softened his views toward the world body: “He hasn’t changed.”
Younger U.N. diplomats who weren’t around when he served as the U.S. ambassador to the institution in 2005-06 are anticipating Bolton’s arrival with some alarm and plenty of curiosity, said a former U.N. official who stays in touch with people there.
Many have only heard stories about the man who pugnaciously defended the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which was hugely unpopular among many U.N. member states. Bolton has not been shy about recounting his battles at the U.N., publishing a memoir in 2007 that included a chapter titled, “Sisyphus in the Twilight Zone: Fixing the Broken Institution, or Trying To.”
“They talk about how worried they are about the fact that he’s attacking the foundations of the multilateral system,” the former official said of the younger diplomats.
Bolton will make his presence felt on the policy front this week, too, speaking at a side event focused on Iran, a divisive subject for the General Assembly.
U.N. veterans are less ruffled than their younger colleagues. They’ve seen the Bolton show before, and they’re expecting a rerun this year. “People will anecdotally be like, ‘Oh, my God, there he is,’ but it’s not like he’s the boogeyman,” a longtime U.N. diplomat told POLITICO.
The White House declined to comment for this story.
Richard Gowan, a senior fellow at the United Nations University, a research arm of the U.N., said that in their own way, U.N. diplomats “love” Bolton.
“The fact that he is such a fierce and consistent critic of the organization is a sort of compliment,” Gowan said. “He may not like the U.N., but at least he takes it seriously.”
U.N. officials say they are less anxious about Bolton’s U.N.-bashing ways because he is not arriving at the General Assembly as secretary of state or once again the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Instead, as national security adviser, Bolton won’t be interacting directly with as many U.N. diplomats.
Several current and former U.N. officials also told POLITICO that it’s hard to tell just yet whether Bolton’s presence in the White House is making a significant difference in U.S. foreign policy, given how disdainful Trump already was toward multilateral bodies before Bolton arrived.
For instance, Bolton’s recent speech declaring that the United States will no longer engage with the International Criminal Court didn’t surprise U.N. officials. After all, Bolton, who joined the Trump administration in April, has long despised the ICC. When he served on the George W. Bush team, he helped negotiate dozens of bilateral agreements with other countries to ensure they never referred U.S. personnel to the court. (Even without Bolton advising them, U.S. presidents have generally kept a distance from the ICC.)
Although Bolton is believed to have supported the Trump administration’s decision to quit the U.N. Human Rights Council — a 47-nation body intended to investigate and call out human rights abuses — such a move likely would have happened without him. Nikki Haley, the current U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has long been unhappy with the council’s criticism of Israel and the group’s membership, which includes governments notorious for abusing their citizens.
After leaving the Bush administration, Bolton spent many years advocating hawkish views on TV and in print, advising military action against North Korea and Iran and “a retaliatory cyber campaign” targeting Russia. As Trump’s national security adviser, Bolton has tempered some of these positions publicly, going along with the president’s desire to engage Moscow and Pyongyang.
But overall, Bolton appears to share much of Trump’s worldview — one that emphasizes U.S. interests above all else.
“In terms of U.S. objectives, the administration’s policy is pretty well-established,” said Brett Schaefer of the conservative Heritage Foundation. As far as the General Assembly goes, he added: “This idea that [Bolton] will be like Godzilla going to Tokyo is nonsense.”
Multiple foreign diplomats, however, said Bolton’s return to the U.S. government appears to have had an impact on Haley’s role within the administration.
Bolton’s predecessor as national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, had no known hard-core views about the United Nations and largely left Haley to run her own show in New York. With Bolton in the mix, however, the speculation among international diplomats is that Haley must factor in his U.N.-skeptic views.
“We’re sensing that Haley is moving closer to the line that maybe John Bolton and the White House represent,” a Western European diplomat said. “Earlier, our sense was she was more of a bridge builder.”
A U.S. official dismissed that analysis. “Ambassador Haley has been consistent in pointing out what does and doesn’t work at the U.N. since the beginning of her tenure,” the official said.
The Western European diplomat said there are some questions about whether, under the direction of Bolton, America will start attacking the U.N.’s operational budget and system of membership dues.
The Trump administration official, however, insisted nothing of that sort is in the works.
Trump surprised many diplomats during last year’s General Assembly with a few kind words about the global institution, saying it was time to “Make the United Nations great” and complimenting the U.N.’s attempts at institutional reform.
Ultimately, Trump is likely to get most of the attention at this year’s General Assembly.
Bolton, Gowan said, “will not try to upstage his boss.”