You could touch John Bolton’s pain. Last week, the occasionally irascible US ambassador to the United Nations assailed that organisation’s deputy secretary-general. Some saw a crude attempt at bullying. More interesting, I thought, was the anguish behind the rage. For all Mr Bolton’s bluster, George W. Bush’s administration has acknowledged that acting effectively in the world requires legitimacy as well as power. No one hates the idea of admitting this more than its ambassador in New York.

During the past 18 months or so, American foreign policy has been stranded in an uncomfortable no-man’s land between hubris and reality. Mr Bush has abandoned the assumption of unbridled hegemony that underpinned the decision to go to war in Iraq. In its place is the reluctant pragmatism that now sees Washington ready to open negotiations with Iran. But the administration has not changed its ideological spots. It still shuns the institutional internationalism that secured US leadership during the second half of the last century.

The proximate cause of Mr Bolton’s invective was a speech given by
Mark Malloch Brown. The deputy secretary-general had the temerity to suggest that the US should face up to the deliberate ambiguities of its attitude to the UN. When it suited it, he said, Washington saw the organisation as a useful instrument to promote its interests. In between, it played to a raucous gallery of anti-UN prejudice among segments of the media and Middle America.

Mr Bolton is accustomed to plain language - as long, that is, as he is the one delivering it. The ambassador, I have heard a US official observe, is one of those people who calls a spade a spade. The downside, this official lamented, was that to Mr Bolton’s eye almost everything looks like a spade.

So a UN bureaucrat telling America how to behave was never going to elicit a friendly response. Mr Bolton’s temper has not been improved by the knowledge that the clock is ticking fast on his own career. He was sidelined by Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, in the recent decision to offer talks to Iran. A refusal by the US congress to ratify his appointment means that his term in New York expires early next year.

Given his role as an international civil servant, Mr Malloch Brown’s observations were brave. In objective terms they were essentially unremarkable. The admonition, as he explained, was aimed at successive US administrations rather than simply
Mr Bush. Though the US had created the present global architecture, its politicians rarely felt comfortable with selling the advantages to their voters.

My guess is that there are no more than a handful of officials at the US state department who would balk at this broad analysis. Fitful engagement has rarely, if ever, served US interests. But, for Mr Bolton, Mr Malloch Brown’s remarks exposed a deeper sore. The ambassador is right to say that the UN’s largest paymaster has the capacity to wreck the organisation. The threat, though, is empty. The important question is whether the US needs an effective UN. The answer the Bush administration has given, pace Mr Bolton, is yes.

Iraq has shown the limits of military might in general and of American intervention in particular. As Mr Malloch Brown suggested, it has thrown up new international coalitions intent on balancing US power. Many of the sensible and necessary reforms of the UN advocated or supported by the US are opposed by some non-aligned nations simply because they bear Washington’s stamp. Suspicion of his motives, in other words, has shackled a ball and chain to Mr Bush’s ankle.

Mr Malloch Brown might have gone further. Anti-Americanism has become the principal countervailing force to US power. That was confirmed again this week when a 15-nation opinion poll by the Pew Research Center reported a further weakening of international respect for the US. In most nations, the US presence in Iraq is seen as a greater threat to world peace than Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

All this is anathema to Mr Bolton. As an official in the state department, he epitomised the assertive nationalism that drove US foreign policy during Mr Bush’s first term. Scornful of international institutions and law, he openly celebrated America’s muscular unilateralism.

The administration has travelled halfway back from this position. It has accepted, albeit grudgingly, the value of legitimacy in the exercise of power. It still instinctively favours coalitions of the willing over rules-based multilateralism but has at least begun to make the effort.

The big test now is Iran. The suspicion of US motives to which Mr Malloch Brown alluded has weakened the impact of Washington’s offer to join negotiations with Tehran. Many non-aligned nations are asking themselves whether the d?marche is a genuine effort to secure a negotiated end to the stand-off over Iran?s nuclear ambitions or simply a tactical manoeuvre to bind the UN into supporting punitive sanctions.

My guess is that it is a bit of both. Circumstance - a vast army pinned down in Iraq, the threat of violent confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians and evidence that the UN security council was close to fracture - forced a volte-face in Washington. But the success or otherwise of the new diplomatic effort will rest to a significant degree on the judgment of others on Mr Bush’s motives.

Iran, of course, also provides a challenge for others. China insists on the exclusive legitimacy of the UN in the ordering of international relations. Its willingness or otherwise to allow the security council to act if Iran persists in the quest for a nuclear weapons capability will say much about whether China intends to become a responsible global actor.

For Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the choice will be between the vanity of wielding a veto and real authority in the security council. The European troika of France, Britain and Germany must show that, when the going is tough, they are ready to give multilateralism a hard edge.

The big choice, though, is for the US. If the wilder ambitions of Mr Bolton have been decisively checked by Iraq, America remains the indispensable power. How it exercises that power determines the shape and stability of the global system. We can probably expect no more of this administration than its reluctant conversion to pragmatism. But one of these days an American president needs to explain that Roosevelt and Truman were not altruists. They built the UN because, for all its inevitable flaws, it serves American interests.

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