From James Bone in New York and Richard Beeston
AMERICA’S bitter dispute with the United Nations escalated last night when John Bolton, the US envoy to the UN, threatened to withhold funding to the organisation unless it apologised for the remarks of a senior British official.
Speaking at the Centre for Policy Studies in London, Mr Bolton assailed Mark Malloch Brown, the British Deputy UN Secretary-General, for the disparaging remarks he made about the American public this week. “Mark Malloch Brown has a sentence in his speech where he says the role of the UN is a mystery in Middle America,” he said.
“Maybe it is fashionable in some circles to look down on Middle America, to say they don’t get the complexities of the world and they don’t have the benefit of continental education and they are deficient in so many ways,” Mr Bolton added. “It is illegitimate for an international civil servant to criticise what he thinks are the inadequacies of citizens of a member government.”
The tough-talking US envoy reiterated that the dispute could harm important reforms to the international body. He also hinted that the US Congress, which controls American government spending, might reconsider US funding to the UN, which accounts for 22 per cent of the organisation’s annual budget. “Congress has the power of the purse and they feel quite strongly on a bipartisan basis that America has a right to know how their tax dollars are being spent, even people from Middle America,” he said, with a note of sarcasm. “I don’t think we have seen the end of it.” Before Mr Bolton arrived in London, Kofi Annan, the UN chief, tried to play down the controversy. “I think the message that was intended is that the US needs the UN, and the UN needs the US, and we need to support each other,” Mr Annan said. “I think the speech by my deputy should be read in the right spirit and let’s put it behind us and move on.”
The public spat between Mr Malloch Brown and Mr Bolton represents more than just a clash of outsized personalities. It reflects the long-running battle of ideas over the role of international institutions. Mr Bolton, a Republican right-winger, has been a leading conservative critic of the UN since serving as the Assistant Secretary of State for International Organisations in the Administration of the first President Bush.
Mr Malloch Brown, a former journalist who founded The Economist Development Report and went on to work at a political consultancy before joining the UN system, is a member of a powerful network of internationalists. Their clash threatens to undermine congressional support for the world body as it confronts a looming budget crisis, caused by Washington’s insistence that management reforms be put in place.
The row was sparked by a speech by Mr Malloch Brown on Tuesday. Addressing prominent Democrats in New York, he criticised Washington for allowing “too much unchecked UN-bashing and stereotyping”. He singled out the conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh and the Fox News cable channel, owned by News Corp, the parent company of The Times.
“The prevailing practice of seeking to use the UN almost by stealth as a diplomatic tool while failing to stand up for it against its domestic critics is simply not sustainable,” Mr Malloch Brown said. “You will lose the UN one way or another,” he added.
America has a long tradition of isolationism, dating back to even before the US refused to join the League of Nations. The UN has been portrayed by far-right groups as a godless, communist and corrupt “nest of spies” ready to invade America.
Relations began to improve during the presidency of the elder George Bush, a former American Ambassador to the UN. The current crisis stems from the split over the war in Iraq, when the 15-nation UN Security Council refused to give explicit approval for the military action, and Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, dubbed the invasion “illegal”. The invasion yielded evidence that UN officials or their families had benefited from the Oil-for-Food programme, which was designed to feed Iraqis during UN sanctions.
Mr Annan, under fire from Republicans, began a UN reform drive and sought advice from his American friends, predominantly Democrats. After a secret meeting at the home of the Clinton Administration’s UN Ambassador, Richard Holbrooke, Mr Annan named Mr Malloch Brown as his chief of staff in January last year.
The appointment raised eyebrows when it was reported that Mr Malloch Brown was renting a house on George Soros’s estate for $2,500 a month less than the previous occupant. Even before Mr Bolton was named US Ambassador, he seemed destined to clash with Mr Malloch Brown. Mr Soros, Mr Malloch Brown’s landlord and old friend, helped to fund the Stop Bolton campaign, aimed at stopping him from getting the post.
Mr Malloch Brown has been criticised by dissident UN staff for aligning the world body too closely with Democrats in US domestic politics. They accuse him of allowing a UN staffer, Justin Leites, to play a leading role in the 2004 presidential campaign of John Kerry, violating staff rules. It is a charge that he denies. “I don’t consider myself aligned with any American political establishment,” he said. “I am British. I have worked in the UN and in international jobs all of my life.”
Ed Luck, a Columbia University professor and author of Mixed Messages: American Politics and International Organization: 1919-1999, said it was rare for a top UN official to criticise the US so explicitly, but not unprecedented.
“I don’t do carrots.”
ON THE UN
“It’s a target-rich environment.”
ON REVAMPING THE UN
“Reform is not a one-night stand.”
ON UN HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL
“We want a butterfly. We’re not going to put lipstick on a caterpillar and declare it a success.”
ON THE NEXT UN SECRETARY-GENERAL
ON THE WORLD ORGANISATION
“There is no such thing as the United Nations.”
ON THE UN BUREAUCRACY
“If the UN Secretariat building in New York lost ten storeys, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”