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John Bolton Is Living the Dream—for Now

After being snubbed his entire career, the national security advisor’s fierce unilateralism has at last become U.S. policy. But even he can’t stop Trump from making deals.

U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton speaks at the United Against Nuclear Iran Summit in New York on Sept. 25. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton speaks at the United Against Nuclear Iran Summit in New York on Sept. 25. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

After staying fairly quiet for months, National Security Advisor John Bolton stepped out of the shadows in a big way in New York this week, outdoing even his boss, U.S. President Donald Trump, with fire-and-brimstone rhetoric against Iran and blindsiding Defense Secretary James Mattis over the mission of U.S. troops in Syria.

Behind the scenes, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Trump’s third national security advisor is making his presence felt in more subtle ways, working to tear down or emasculate the international institutions he has spent his three-decade-old government career opposing. While Trump has long favored unilateralism, Bolton has helped to justify and give concrete shape to the U.S. president’s “America First” views, so that Trump is now on record rejecting virtually every multilateral effort previously joined by the United States, including the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate accord, and, most recently, the United Nations Global Compact for Migration. With Bolton standing proudly by his side, Trump has also made clear he has little use for the G-7 and NATO.

The United States chiefly fathered the major institutions of the global system after World War II. Under Trump and Bolton, Washington has effectively orphaned them.

Trump’s U.N. General Assembly speech on Tuesday was said to have been drafted mainly by policy aide Stephen Miller, an uncompromising economic nationalist, but some of the phrases the president used could have been lifted directly from Bolton’s many writings and remarks over the years.

When Trump declared, “We will never surrender America’s sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable global bureaucracy,” he was not only following up on Bolton’s diatribe against the International Criminal Court earlier in September, he was also echoing Bolton’s words from more than a decade ago. As undersecretary of state in the George W. Bush administration and later as a combative U.N. ambassador, Bolton rejected the legitimacy of unelected “globalist” elites at international organizations such as the U.N. and ICC. He said they should have no influence whatsoever on America’s freedom of action, because the U.S. Constitution gives them no role. Trump apparently agrees.

And when Trump said, “We reject the ideology of globalism and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism,” he was also channeling Bolton, who back in 2000 wrote that globalism “represents a kind of worldwide cartelization of governments and interest groups,” leading inevitably to “global government.”

Bit by bit, Bolton has also been tirelessly divorcing the United States from international bodies and conventions, often operating away from the headlines. Indeed, critics say that is where Bolton is most effective, working as a kind of agent provocateur from the inside. Most recently, such efforts precipitated America’s abrupt withdrawal from the U.N. Human Rights Council, completing a project Bolton has been hammering away at since he was U.N. ambassador under Bush in 2005.

“In pursuing his clear principles, John is wily and crafty, and that craftiness sometimes takes the form of sub rosa machinations,” said Mark Lagon, a Georgetown University scholar who worked with Bolton as deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations and a policy-planning staffer.

Case in point: Thirteen years ago, Bolton aligned himself with ambassadors of some of the less democratic states, such as Pakistan, to derail the then-new Human Rights Council.

That didn’t pan out, but under Trump he worked with Nikki Haley, his latest successor as U.N. ambassador, to withdraw from the council in the middle of the U.S. term as a member in June. As a result, the United States is not expected to take part in annual U.N. human-rights reviews any longer.

“Bolton can be abrasive, but he’s actually quite effective,” said one former U.S. official who dealt with U.N. issues. He wanted to delegitimize “anything that’s vaguely associated with the Human Rights Council.”

Bolton has been snubbed for high office over most of his career. Though previous administrations, both Republican and Democratic, have often also been leery of working through the U.N. and recognizing institutions such as the ICC, none has come close to Trump’s and Bolton’s extreme stance. In George W. Bush’s first term, Secretary of State Colin Powell sought to get rid of Bolton, who once said he felt himself surrounded by “enemies” at Foggy Bottom. Powell’s successor, Condoleezza Rice, rejected him as deputy secretary of state and told aides she was happy that Bush was sending Bolton to New York as U.N. ambassador, since that meant he would do less damage in Washington, according to several sources inside the Bush administration at the time.

Now, at last, John Bolton is living his dream. His worldview has apparently become official U.S. policy. He is clearly more comfortable speaking out, having purged the National Security Council of career holdovers from the Obama administration and officials who worked for his predecessor, H.R. McMaster, who was far more of a globalist than Trump was. (McMaster, along with ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, had sought unsuccessfully to persuade Trump to stay in the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by Obama; Bolton, by contrast, called the pact “the worst diplomatic debacle in American history” in his speech in New York on Tuesday. )

Most deliciously of all for Bolton, all this happened in a place he considers hostile territory—Turtle Bay, home of the United Nations, the institution he once infamously wanted to trim by 10 floors.

Often mistaken for a neoconservative—a label he rejects—because of his fervent support for the Iraq War, Bolton prefers to think of himself as a militant libertarian. In Bolton’s view, the American “left” has tied down U.S. power with Gulliver-like restraints for decades. As Bolton put it to me in an interview in 2002: “The question is not whether you’re an internationalist versus not an internationalist. It’s whether you like government. And if you like big government at home, you’ll like big government internationally even more.”

As a Yale University-trained expert in international law who has worked for Republican administrations since Reagan, he has used his formidable abilities to take on one multilateral convention after another, among them the Kyoto Protocol on global warming and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. In the past he has engaged the National Rifle Association to testify against an international treaty banning small arms, and he also has opposed the Biological Weapons Convention and the World Trade Organization. Bolton has been an enthusiastic cheerleader for the bilateral trade wars Trump has launched in recent months, because they bypass the multilateral WTO.

Still, there could soon be trouble in Bolton’s ideological paradise. He and Trump may agree for the moment, but the two also differ in serious ways that go far beyond Trump’s stated distaste for Bolton’s walrus mustache. This clash of views caused trouble for the national security advisor once before and could do so again.

Bolton’s unilateralism is purely ideological; Trump’s is more transactional. While Bolton’s hawkishness has led him to reject any compromise with rogue states deemed dangerous to U.S. national interests, Trump’s unilateralism springs more from his belief that the United States should use its economic and military dominance to secure better deals from recalcitrant countries. While Trump believes, as Bolton does, that multilateral institutions such as NATO and the G-7 only curtail U.S. power, the president is more willing to work with them if they take up more of the burden of international security. Trump also has shown himself far more willing than Bolton to negotiate with hostile governments, including Russia.

Bolton found this out ahead of the talks with North Korea earlier this year. After he aggressively invoked the “Libya model” as a blueprint for North Korea—which would have involved giving Kim Jong Un effectively nothing in return for denuclearization up front—Trump sidelined his national security advisor and negotiated directly with Kim. Not only would Kim get something in return and survive (unlike the eventual fate of Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi), but Trump promised that Kim’s North Korea “would be rich” as a result of the deal.

It was hardly the first time Bolton overstepped a president by refusing to compromise. In 2003, the Bush administration was seeking to get Libya to abandon its development of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. Qaddafi demanded that Washington drop its goal of regime change in exchange for giving up his weapons. According to U.S. and British officials, Bolton nearly sabotaged the talks by refusing to concede that point. After the British insisted that Bolton be kept out of the loop, the Bush White House finally agreed. It was only after Bolton was benched as a negotiator that Qaddafi agreed to surrender his covert WMD program.

Trump clearly relishes his image as a supreme deal-maker—the idea that, as in his days as a real estate mogul, he can make big things happen one-on-one. And it is when he goes off script that he sounds least like Bolton. For example, before his fiery anti-Iran speech this week, Trump sent out an olive-branch tweet, saying of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, “I am sure he is an absolutely lovely man!” The next day, Trump praised the U.N. for its fight against drug trafficking and, in unscripted remarks, declared that the international body has “tremendous potential.”

Bolton, in all his years in office, never said anything so conciliatory about the United Nations.  

Thus, it’s entirely possible that despite promising much harsher sanctions against Iran this week—which Rouhani called nothing less than an attempt at regime change—Trump would happily deploy that leverage to orchestrate a Singapore-style bilateral summit with the Iranian leader. (In July, the U.S. president said he would meet Iran’s leaders “anytime they want,” and without preconditions.) Though Tehran is currently rejecting this option, insisting that Washington return to the multilateral nuclear deal negotiated in 2015, such a development would frustrate the agenda that Bolton laid out in his speech in New York this week, when the national security advisor suggested, as he has in the past, that the United States might attack Iran. “We are watching, and we will come after you,” Bolton told Tehran.

And as far as taking on Mattis, who insists that U.S. troops are only in Syria to defeat the Islamic State—while Bolton said they should remain to deter Iran—that policy could also fail if Trump abruptly changes course with Tehran as he did with Pyongyang.

As one long-serving former U.S. diplomat put it: “Bolton provides an intellectual structure for the gut impulses of the president, but Trump’s erratic qualities are going to disappoint him.”

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy@michaelphirsh

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