Trump pick Bolton puts UN in line of fire


United Nations (United States) (AFP)

President Donald Trump's pick of the hawkish John Bolton as national security advisor is seen as the latest sign the United States is ready to slam the door on multilateralism, UN diplomats and experts say.

UN diplomats were shaken by the news of Bolton's rise to the key White House post, which came with the world body under pragmatist Secretary-General Antonio Guterres still struggling to put relations with the Trump administration on a steady keel.

Since Trump took office, the United States has made major cuts to UN funding, announced its exit from the UN-backed Paris climate agreement and quit the UN cultural agency UNESCO.

Bolton, who served as UN ambassador under George W. Bush in 2005 and 2006, has advocated military action against North Korea and Iran -- at odds with the UN's diplomacy-first view.

The mustachioed rightwinger has laid bare his contempt for the United Nations, once remarking that the UN headquarters in New York had 38 stories but "if it lost ten stories, it wouldn't make a bit of difference."

"Few people have less faith in the idea of an international community than Bolton," said Richard Gowan, an expert on the United Nations at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

"There has been a false sense of relief that Trump did not attack the multilateral system quite as fiercely as he could have last year. Now he's going on a delayed offensive," he said.

After Bolton's name was floated as US ambassador to the United Nations last year, diplomats breathed a sigh of relief when Nikki Haley was picked instead.

While less experienced, Haley has been credited with keeping the US administration engaged, in particular on North Korea, where Security Council sanctions have been key to the US push to confront Pyongyang.

- Iran test -

Bolton's arrival along with that of another hardliner, Mike Pompeo to replace Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, is raising questions about whether Haley will be reeled in.

Bolton could "push Haley to start dismantling elements of the UN system" because he has a solid grasp of how it works, said Gowan.

A first big test on the horizon is the Iran nuclear agreement and whether Bolton, Pompeo and Haley -- all hawks on Iran -- will band together to bring down the historic deal.

The 2015 agreement on curbing Iran's nuclear program is enshrined in a Security Council resolution and strongly defended by permanent council members France, Britain, Russia and China, who signed the deal along with Germany.

Bolton's moves will be watched closely by Russia and China, which see the US retreat as an opportunity to step in while Europe debates how to fill the vacuum.

"Bolton is among the most radical in the administration. He is viscerally anti-UN," said a Security Council diplomat, who asked not to be named.

The appointment "should encourage Europeans to mobilize," he said.

At the UN helm, Guterres mourned the departure of HR McMaster from the White House and took a clear-eyed approach to the arrival of Bolton.

"The secretary-general developed a very constructive and positive relationship with US national security advisor HR McMaster and he looks forward to continuing that relationship with John Bolton," said UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric.

The United States remains the UN's biggest financial contributor, providing 28 percent of the peacekeeping budget as well as big voluntary contributions to key agencies.