SURRENDER IS NOT AN OPTION: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad

By Gowan, Richard | International Journal, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

SURRENDER IS NOT AN OPTION: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad


Gowan, Richard, International Journal


SURRENDER IS NOT AN OPTION Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad John Bolton New York: Threshold Editions, 2007. 496pp, US $27.00 cloth (ISBN 1416552847)

Before we get onto what this reviewer thinks of John Bolton's memoir, it is worth pondering what Bolton would think of this reviewer. He might not be too positive, as I represent a lot of things the former American ambassador to the United Nations doesn't like. Firstly, I'm British, and he's wary of intellectually snobbish Brits (210). I'm even "the son of a British diplomat," an epithet he applies with particular disdain to one minor opponent (201). There are ideological as well as genealogical issues: I am a qualified believer in the international potential of the European Union, which must make me one of the "EUroids" (204), whose advocacy of international norms and multilateralism "profoundly threatens to diminish American autonomy and self-government, notions that to us spell 'sovereignty'" (429). Worst of all, I think that the UN also has real value (if you require page references, you're missing the point-we're talking about John Bolton).

Unsurprisingly, Surrender is Not an Option is not aimed at the likes of me. Bolton states that his audience is to be found in Middle America. He is concerned that many of his fellow nationals are too easily beguiled by multilateral institutions, and specifically the UN. For them, "the United Nations to this day remains the UN of UNICEF trick-or-treating on Halloween, and of famine-relief efforts in natural disasters, or combating diseases in developing countries" (197). A prominent critic of the UN since the 1980s and an unremittingly controversial ambassador in New York from mid-2005 to December 2006, the author now sets out to disillusion "those who still think glowingly of the UN as they had imagined it on Halloweens long ago" (198). His volume may be a first in international relations literature-a book explicitly intended to sour childhood memories.

To achieve this goal, he takes us through his tenure at the UN in extraordinary detail. Surrender is Not an Option is not entirely given over to Mr. Bolton's time in New York: the first 40-odd pages canter through the majority of his career, culminating in his involvement in the 2000 Florida recount (although he says virtually nothing of that episode). There follows a longer description of his period as "T," the assistant secretary of state for arms control during George W. Bush's first administration that included the American withdrawal from the anti-ballistic missile treaty and a range of other agreements. It is in this part of the book that we encounter the author's preferred form of prose-highly involved descriptions of diplomatic negotiations enlivened by the breaking of confidences, ad hominem attacks on most other participants, and a lot of jokes. This is the style he maintains through the main part of the book, a prolonged account of his time at the UN, which is followed by a much slighter set of thoughts on future challenges.

Curiously, the most interesting element of the entire project may be the jokes. We already know quite a lot about the humour of the Bush administration-Bob Woodward has revealed, for example, that the president finds flatulence funny. Bolton, is more interested in verbal repartee, and from time to time he is genuinely witty. Describing a visit by George Clooney to New York to discuss Darfur before the security council, he notes that the actor was swarmed by female staffers, "providing humility lessons, and therefore character-building, for the rest of us" (356). However, he is best at skewering those he dislikes with one-liners-and he knows it-returning to some victims repeatedly. Taken individually, his put-downs can be brutally effective (watching his British counterpart negotiate, he notes, "I often wondered how Britain had acquired an empire, although he proved why they had lost America") but the cumulative effect does get tedious (227). …

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