The Reckoning

PBS Premiere: July 14, 2009Check the broadcast schedule »

Interview with John Bolton

In this additional video from The Reckoning, John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, explains why he was against the formation of the International Criminal Court (ICC), why he thinks there is great potential for abuse of power by the court prosecutor and why he believes the court could be a threat to American national security interests.


Ambassador Bolton, how would you define yourself politically?

John Bolton: I'm a conservative Republican. I have been since I was 15 years old and participated in the 'Goldwater for President' campaign in 1964.

Where would you place yourself on the spectrum of American politics?

Bolton:Well, I'm a libertarian conservative, so I believe in limited government/maximum individual freedom. And I think that places me squarely on the right side.

Can you try to think back to the day when you first heard about the formation of the International Criminal Court?

Bolton:Well, I thought it was a terrible idea, even at the inception, because I think that vesting the authority that such a court would have in an international institution with no democratic accountability was inherently a bad idea. And I had some experience with this problem of unaccountable power. You know, although we refer to the International Criminal Court, the real problem is the prosecutor, because it's the prosecutor who decides who to investigate and what cases to bring. This court fundamentally embodied a potential for abuse of governmental power that I felt was inconsistent with being a free person — and [it was] inconsistent for a free country like the United States to subscribe to it. By creating a prosecutor who is overseen over by a court, they are melding executive and judicial power in a way that can lead to terrible abuses — as the founders of our country understood full well. It's why they created a system of separated powers — to set up a constitutional mechanism that would enhance freedom, by making sure that no one's accumulation of power could predominate over [that of] others.

The entire structure of the International Criminal Court and the prosecutor violates that concept, and violates the practical reality that is intended to protect individual liberty.

What about countries that have asked the Court to intervene?

Bolton:The International Criminal Court uses a prosecution-only approach. And by putting their fate in the hands of outsiders, countries are really dodging responsibility for actions taken in the name of that country, in the name of the people in that country, by the people of that country themselves. That is, I think, fundamentally the wrong direction to go in.

You feel the International Criminal Court could be a threat to American national security interests?

Bolton:I think the International Criminal Court could be a threat to American security interests, because the prosecutor of the court has enormous discretion in going after war crimes. And the way the Statute of Rome is written, responsibility for war crimes can be taken all the way up the chain of command. This is the sort of investigation that some people who live in Fairyland might like to undertake, but which bears no relationship at all to conditions in the real world.

And yet, the threat of prosecution — the threat of being accused of being a war criminal — can have an inhibiting effect. And since there's no accountability for these institutions, it could pose a threat to the United States — or to the will of American friends and allies — [taking] actions that they should undertake for their own self defense.

If a prosecutor in The Hague decides that the U.S. has not followed through effectively on an investigation — is unwilling or unable to carry it through — then that person, that prosecutor, in an unreviewable fashion gets to second-guess the United States? That is unacceptable. That is an assertion of authority over and above the U.S. Constitution.

I think even Democrats who are for the International Criminal Court realize it would be a very long time before the treaty [would be] ratified.

Bolton:I don't think it'll be ratified in the lifetime of anybody watching this television program.

That's provocative.

Bolton:Not as long as I'm alive. I will certainly work on it. I can tell you that.

This additional video exclusive to the POV website is courtesy of Skylight Pictures.