John Bolton, funny ha ha

I’ve spent some of my President’s Day holiday hammering out a review of Surrender is Not an Option, John Bolton’s scaborous memoir of his tenure at the UN. This will eventually come out in the International Journal, based in Canada, but as (i) the wheels of academic publishing move slowly and (ii) the IJ doesn’t put its reviews online, I thought I’d extract a few paragraphs here. These deal with what strikes me as the most interesting and least discussed element of the (generally badly reviewed) book: Bolton’s obsession with the political uses of jokes…

Mr. 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 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.” Bolton now sets out to disillusion “those who still think glowingly of the UN as they had imagined it on Halloweens long ago.” His volume may be a first in international relations literature: a book explicitly intended to sour childhood memories.

To achieve this he hauls us through some highly involved descriptions of diplomatic negotiations enlivened by the breaking of confidences, ad hominem attacks on most other participants, and a lot of jokes. Curiously, the most interesting element of the entire project may be the jokes. We already know quite a lot about the humor of the Bush administration – Bob Woodward has revealed, for example, that the president finds flatulence funny. Mr. 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.” However, he is best at skewering those he dislikes with harsh humor, and he knows it, often returning to the same victims (such as his British and Swedish counterparts at the UN) again and again.

This fascination with comedy is clearly essential to his understanding of how diplomacy works. Mr. Bolton has often been presented as a devotee of power politics, seeing little beyond interest, influence and advantage. This book does not dispel that view. But humor seems to act as a guide to how these forces work. He explains how he gained advantage over a senior German official in a meeting on Iran by noting that he inspired “general merriment”, while his adversary only “joked lamely” and then responded “dourly” to Bolton’s comedic success.

Contrary to his stated intentions, Mr. Bolton has not produced a book that will appeal to those suffering belated qualms about whether their trick-or-treating was misguided – it would be utterly ludicrous to believe that anyone without a sad obsession with multilateral diplomacy is going to care one iota whether Mr. Bolton bested largely unheard-of diplomatic rivals in the humor stakes. But for those of us who are burdened with that unfortunate obsession, this is a treasure-trove.

And if that doesn’t make you want to buy it, what will?