Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

John Bolton’s Obsession With the International Criminal Court Is Outdated

If Trump’s advisors are all off giving irrelevant speeches on old preoccupations, who is minding the president?

U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton addresses the Federalist Society in Washington on Sept. 10. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton addresses the Federalist Society in Washington on Sept. 10. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton addresses the Federalist Society in Washington on Sept. 10. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

The world seems a dangerous place these days. Wars are raging across the Middle East. China is flexing its muscles in Asia, and Russia is assassinating people all over the place. Add climate change, terrorism, and election hacking to the mix, and there would seem to be plenty to keep U.S. national security officials toiling away until the wee hours of the night. So among the many global ills that trouble the United States, what does John Bolton, President Donald Trump’s national security advisor, choose as the topic of his only speech so far as a member of the administration? The International Criminal Court.

If you have never heard of the ICC, your education is not necessarily incomplete. It is an obscure international institution, set up in The Hague, the Netherlands, in 2002, when many in Europe and even the United States still believed in the utopian ideals of global governance and international justice. Bolton has long seen the struggle against the ICC and global governance generally as a continuing and sacred mission to preserve U.S. sovereignty. The creation of the ICC marked a brief moment when it seemed that such institutions might indeed threaten U.S. freedom of action, if it gained the universal jurisdiction supporters initially sought. So, while serving in the George W. Bush administration, Bolton led a fierce charge to convince and coerce nations around the world to agree to never use the ICC against U.S. citizens.

But since then, for better or for worse, nationalism and geopolitical competition have returned with a vengeance, and the prospect of global governance has faded away. The United States and many other powerful countries never joined the ICC. In part as a result, the court has struggled since the beginning to demonstrate its relevance. It has never indicted anyone outside of Africa and only managed to convict a handful people in 16 years despite an abundance of war crimes in the world. Africa is revolting against the court, Europe has lost faith in it, and the United States, Russia, and China have never paid much attention to it.

The world seems a dangerous place these days. Wars are raging across the Middle East. China is flexing its muscles in Asia, and Russia is assassinating people all over the place. Add climate change, terrorism, and election hacking to the mix, and there would seem to be plenty to keep U.S. national security officials toiling away until the wee hours of the night. So among the many global ills that trouble the United States, what does John Bolton, President Donald Trump’s national security advisor, choose as the topic of his only speech so far as a member of the administration? The International Criminal Court.

If you have never heard of the ICC, your education is not necessarily incomplete. It is an obscure international institution, set up in The Hague, the Netherlands, in 2002, when many in Europe and even the United States still believed in the utopian ideals of global governance and international justice. Bolton has long seen the struggle against the ICC and global governance generally as a continuing and sacred mission to preserve U.S. sovereignty. The creation of the ICC marked a brief moment when it seemed that such institutions might indeed threaten U.S. freedom of action, if it gained the universal jurisdiction supporters initially sought. So, while serving in the George W. Bush administration, Bolton led a fierce charge to convince and coerce nations around the world to agree to never use the ICC against U.S. citizens.

But since then, for better or for worse, nationalism and geopolitical competition have returned with a vengeance, and the prospect of global governance has faded away. The United States and many other powerful countries never joined the ICC. In part as a result, the court has struggled since the beginning to demonstrate its relevance. It has never indicted anyone outside of Africa and only managed to convict a handful people in 16 years despite an abundance of war crimes in the world. Africa is revolting against the court, Europe has lost faith in it, and the United States, Russia, and China have never paid much attention to it.

Global governance has retreated to its redoubts in Brussels and The Hague, where it is bogged down in arcane procedures and under threat of being completely crushed by great powers. To be fair, there is much more to say about the court, which really is quite interesting from an academic and legal standpoint, but trust me when I tell you that you have bigger issues to worry about.

One of these issues is Bolton and the question of why he is spending his time on this non-problem for the United States. In his speech, he claimed to be worried that the ICC will indict U.S. soldiers who served in Afghanistan. Anything is possible, but the ICC has never shown much stomach to challenge great powers, as its focus on Africa demonstrates. Forget the legalities: ICC judges know that the institution hangs by a political thread. An indictment against U.S. troops would be the last thing the court ever did.

U.S. soldiers have significantly more than the ICC to fear when it comes to Afghanistan. The court has arrested a total of zero U.S. soldiers. Over 2,300 of them have died in Afghanistan in a war that seems to have lost all sense of purpose. That conflict, or any of the other military struggles in which the United States is currently engaged, would seem to be a better topic for a speech by the U.S. national security advisor.

Despite the irrelevance of the issue, Bolton’s continuing obsession with the ICC does tell us something about the nature of the Trump administration. As Bob Woodward’s new book and last week’s anonymous op-ed in the New York Times remind us, the United States is now reliant on the so-called adults in the room to keep the country safe from a mercurial and petty president. Bolton is supposedly one of those adults.

Alas, Bolton’s bizarre ICC outburst shows that, less than two years into his presidency, Trump is already scraping the bottom of the barrel to find advisors willing to stay in the room with him. Bolton is the administration’s third national security advisor, and many others reportedly turned down the job. Instead of restraining a dangerous president at difficult moment, Bolton is focused on refighting the ideological struggles of a bygone era. This behavior highlights that, as Trump moves with record speed to his D team of national security officials, we should expect them to grow increasingly odd. At some point we will have to wonder, if the adults are all off giving irrelevant speeches on old obsessions, who is minding the president?

Jeremy Shapiro is research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Twitter: @jyshapiro

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