The Bolton Nomination: Why Personality Matters in Diplomacy

The Bolton Nomination: Why Personality Matters in Diplomacy

I have held back from blogging on the Bolton nomination in part because we learned precious little (as Julian noted here) at his confirmation hearing about what, precisely, Bush II plans to do at, with, or through the United Nations. I think there is plenty in Bolton’s prior writings and statements to demonstrate that he is a bad fit for the UN, but without knowing his marching orders from Bush or Secretary Rice, it is difficult to judge it on the merits. (For some observations on the marked absence of any substantive articulation of the direction of Bush II foreign policy, see this Washington Post op ed by Derek Chollet over at Democracy Arsenal.) At first, the allegations of Bolton’s imperious attitude and his “kiss up, kick down” approach to management struck me as pretty typical behavior of politically ambitious Washington functionaries of both parties, not necessarily grounds for disqualification of a presidential nominee, per se, and certainly not the kind of behavior your typical US Senator would recognize as problematic (uh, “glass houses” anyone?). But the latest round of allegations about Bolton’s poor personality and behavior has made even a few Republican Senators queasy and has prompted a two-week delay in the Senate vote. Whether it will ultimately doom his nomination remains to be seen, but it is starting to look like Bolton’s personality alone might make him the wrong man for the UN job.

Personality and character matter in diplomacy. Bolton wasn’t nominated to be Deputy Secretary of Agriculture; he is nominated to be the our country’s representative to the United Nations. Only the President and Secretary of State have a higher profile as the face and voice of US foreign policy around the world. Just as we worry about personal character (or at least should) in federal judges, we should worry about personal character in our high-profile diplomats.

I do not mean to suggest that blunt, aggressive behavior — or even behavior that other states perceive to be “obnoxious” — is alone a disqualifier. Indeed, recent history suggests that such traits can actual serve US interests well at the UN (see, e.g., Moynihan, Kirkpatrick, Albright, Holbrooke). My guess is that the Bush team recognized these traits in Bolton and the potential utility in deploying them to shake things up on the East River. But these current allegations go beyond blunt talk and gruff outbursts. Harassment of subordinates and opposite numbers is not only personally offensive, but also counterproductive to good policy. Alienating the internal team cuts off internal debate and discussion of policy options; alienating your counterparts limits options for cooperation. Both can lead to isolation of the principal, which leads to bad outcomes.

Consider the old adage that describes diplomacy as “the art of telling someone to go to hell in such a way that he looks forward to the trip.” Bolton seems to have mastered only the first part.

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