The Cable

Should the World Get Ready for Secretary of State Bolton?

What would be the state of the State Department under the Bush-era ambassador?


Who will be America’s next secretary of state?

Several names keep popping up on the list to become the top U.S. diplomat in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory Tuesday. They include Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House and European history buff; Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former State Department official in the George W. Bush administration; and John Bolton, U.N. ambassador under Bush.

Obviously, any one of these men — all veterans of the D.C. swamp Trump said he would drain — could be tapped. Corker, one Hill staffer says, was called out of a staff meeting to speak with Trump during the president-elect’s visit to the Capitol on Wednesday; Haass briefed Trump on foreign policy last summer, though a source familiar with the Trump team says, “Haass may be angling for the job, but it’s not entirely clear.”

And whoever ends up at Foggy Bottom will play an outsized role in shaping and carrying out Trump’s foreign policy, an ill-defined slurry of isolationism, anti-Islamic aggression, and Russophilia. It’s hardly a mix that would have sat well with the pre-Trump Republican party.

But John Bolton seems eager to give it a whirl.

Currently a senior fellow at American Enterprise Institute and founder of the John Bolton PAC, Bolton has said he would be honored to serve the country again. He tweeted on Thursday, “America electing #Trump was a clear repudiation of #Obama’s failed foreign policy. Voters want to restore American leadership in the world.”

So, too, did he tweet on Wednesday, “Congratulations to President-Elect @realDonaldTrump on his hard-fought victory. I know he’ll work hard to restore American leadership” and “Trump will rebuild the military that has suffered under #Obama, which is perfect opportunity to work w/ GOP Congress to reverse that trend.”

The tweets are revealing, and not just because they show Bolton uses hashtags like it’s 2011. During the Bush era, Bolton was often the face of America’s unilateralist, interventionist policies, the torch-bearer of American exceptionalism, resolute in his belief that to manifest America’s destiny was to lead the wider world wherever America said it was to be led, by any means necessary.

In his memoir, Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad, he writes of his dissatisfaction with the second-term shift in the Bush administration toward increased communication and cooperation, and said he sees “treaties as essentially only political documents.”

He deeply dislikes international organizations, whether the U.N., the International Criminal Court, or the architecture underpinning nuclear test bans. In a Boston Globe essay last year, he wrote, “Washington should announce that, henceforth, all US financial support would be treated as voluntary rather than assessed … When international organizations — like businesses or private charities — have to demonstrate competence, efficiency, and effectiveness, they either perform or disappear. This would be an extraordinarily valuable lesson for the entire UN to learn. The United States should also never forget that withdrawal from certain UN agencies is an available option, as Ronald Reagan proved by leaving UNESCO.”

But if he were picked — and got confirmed in the Senate — a Secretary of State Bolton would be heading toward a frontal collision with much of the foreign policy sketched out by the president-elect on the campaign trail. America may still, to use Trump’s parlance, “bomb the hell out of ISIS,” but Trump has insisted that America retreat from its global obligations, shun allies, and abandon the postwar international order that Washington built.

Getting Secretary Bolton to help foster more cooperation with Russia might be even trickier — Bolton just three years ago urged the United States to “to do things that cause him [Putin] pain as well” such that America might “focus Putin’s thinking.” Last month, Bolton gave an interview with the Boston Herald to say, bizarrely, that the last thing that Russia wants is a Trump presidency.

But then, some in Russia aren’t celebrating anyway. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said, “We’re not experiencing any euphoria.” Pavel Sharikov of the Russian Academy of Science said, “Trump probably isn’t going to be able to lift sanctions.” Andrei Kolesnikov, senior associate at Moscow Carnegie Center told Foreign Policy, “I don’t believe in [another] reset. President Trump is not the same thing as Trump the candidate.” On Wednesday, anti-Putin activist Alexei Navalny tweeted out a podcast exploring “whether it’s true that Trump is very good for Russia (spoiler: no).”

If Bolton is indeed running the State Dept., Russia might do well to heed that spoiler.

John Hudson and Reid Standish contributed to this post.

Photo credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Correction, Nov. 11, 2016: Richard Haass is the president of the Council on Foreign Relations. A previous version of this article misspelled his last name. 

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

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