The testy exchange in early June between Mark Malloch Brown, deputy secretary general of the United Nations, and John Bolton, US ambassador to the UN, is a reminder of what a dangerous game the Bush Administration is playing with the world body. Known within the UN as a pro-US Briton, Malloch Brown broke with diplomatic tradition and took his growing frustrations public–an action that likely reflects an awareness that Washington needs the UN more than the other way around right now, and the fact that his tenure will probably end when Secretary General Kofi Annan’s term expires in December.

Malloch Brown criticized Washington’s hypocritical approach as opportunistically using the UN to advance American interests while failing to stand up for it against its US critics. (He described the Administration as having largely abandoned the public discourse that reaches the American heartland to the UN’s “loudest detractors, such as Rush Limbaugh and Fox News.”) He also pointed to the impending crisis over UN reform that Bolton’s heavy-handed, ideologically driven diplomacy has created.

The crisis stems from White House threats to withhold payment of its UN dues if the body does not adopt its agenda of administrative and managerial reforms. Yet Bolton’s diplomacy at the UN has been so hamfisted that he has alienated even many of America’s closest allies. According to Malloch Brown, rather than isolating the extremists who oppose reform and building a broad coalition of reform-minded nations, Bolton has reinforced “the widely held perception, even among many US allies, that the US tends to hold on to maximalist positions when it could be finding middle ground.” He has thus given the impression that the United States would rather have no reform at all than permit the slightest dilution of its position.

Bolton’s reaction to Malloch Brown’s speech, which had Annan’s support, revealed again how unfit Bolton is for his job. Rather than brushing aside the speech, or seeing it as an effort to gain some credibility with other nations at the UN, Bolton took it as an opportunity to whip up more UN phobia. His first response was to call it “a very, very grave mistake” to “criticize the United States in such a manner” and warned that it would come back to hurt the UN, a statement he later repeated.

This is a childish but empty threat, given how much the United States needs the UN on a range of global issues. As Malloch Brown pointed out, the UN is conducting eighteen peacekeeping operations at lower cost and higher effectiveness than “comparable US operations” in places that affect US interests. Moreover, the UN is critical to the management of Iran’s nuclear program and is the first line of US defense on peacekeeping and other issues, including climate change, international terrorism and the spread of infectious diseases like AIDS. And the United States is immersed in widening sectarian violence in Iraq, where it will need the UN’s help. Given all that’s at stake, the Bush Administration, rather than engaging in reckless UN-bashing, ought to be working to shore up Congressional support for the world body.

Liberal Congress members should make the latest Bolton outburst a test of the Administration’s purportedly more pragmatic internationalist approach. If the White House is serious about UN reform, it should replace Bolton, a recess appointee, and announce that it opposes linking payment of UN dues to reform measures. It should do so not only because we’re obligated under international and domestic law to pay our dues but also because we can’t afford to disrupt the UN’s work at this critical time.