Bolton’s Book Is a Terrifying Warning About What Trump Could Still Do
Geopolitical ignorance is no longer funny when it impacts U.S. national security.
Americans’ notorious lack of geographic knowledge has given rise to a staple of television comedy: the person-in-the-street ambush interview, where the hapless victim is often asked to point out countries or U.S. states on a map. Hilarity ensues. Former National Security Advisor John Bolton’s book, The Room Where it Happened, features another hapless American wrestling with geographic questions, such as whether Finland is part of Russia. The problem with this comic setup, of course, is that the scene is playing in the White House, and the not-so-hapless victim is the president of the United States.
Geopolitical ignorance ceases to be funny when pratfalls impact U.S. national security. Trump’s ignorance about the role allies and NATO play in U.S. national security has led him to say and do things in Europe that have led allies’ trust in the United States to plummet. His earliest interaction with NATO in 2017 had him question the U.S. commitment to the alliance’s mutual defense guarantee—Article 5, its very reason for existence—and it got worse from there. His ignorance of how NATO is funded and of where allies are in fact deficient has led him to charge that allies are taking advantage of the United States.
One of the more chilling accounts of Trump’s ignorance was the August 2019 videoconference about U.S. assistance to Ukraine. Bolton quotes Trump saying, “I don’t give a shit about NATO,” before ordering Vice President Mike Pence to call NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg to tell him that NATO should pay Ukraine $250 million in assistance. Not only is this not how NATO’s finances work, but the reason for the request, Bolton relates, was that Trump didn’t want to negatively impact relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin by giving direct U.S. support for Ukraine.
Bolton claims he was the one to talk Trump down from the tree when he was going to pull the United States out of NATO at the alliance’s 2018 summit, which would have handed (and could still hand) Putin the greatest strategic gift at U.S. expense that any leader could dream of. While that calamity was avoided this time, Bolton is no longer there to install guardrails to keep the NATO pullout from actually happening. The world got a little foretaste with Trump’s unwise decision this month to withdraw 9,500 troops from U.S. bases in Germany, blindsiding the Pentagon, NATO, and Germany. It was the latest example of Trump’s ignorance—and, in the case of Germany, vindictiveness to the point of obsession, as Bolton shows in his book. Like a NATO pullout would, the troop decision undermines U.S. national security in Europe and the world. (It bears endless repeating: Those troops aren’t there on Germany’s behalf, but because they are at the core of global U.S. force projection, defense logistics, and medical operations.)
But John Bolton should be fair: What other New York real estate mogul and reality show personality knows such things as whether Britain has nuclear weapons, or how NATO is funded? And Trump is not the first president to arrive at the White House with an inadequate understanding of his foreign-policy portfolio. Harry S. Truman famously didn’t know about work on the atomic bomb, Ronald Reagan was often criticized for not knowing the substance of his own foreign policy, and George W. Bush was confused about whether there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Like most newly elected presidents, Bill Clinton arrived focused on domestic issues, led by his campaign’s famous dictum, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Balkan geography soon changed that perspective.
But what those presidents did bring to the office was enough awareness of their own limitations and enough self-confidence to admit that they didn’t know everything, and to surround themselves with aides who knew more than they did. That didn’t mean these presidents couldn’t think for themselves or were hostage to their advisors. What those presidents did was learn from their advisors, listen to their advice, and then make their own decisions. Much to his chagrin, John Bolton found that was not happening in the White House.
Instead, the so-called adults in the room have departed, replaced with sycophants or loyalist junior staffers whom other administrations would never have entrusted with a senior role. While usually at the center of controversy, Bolton remains respected enough in Washington to have been considered the last adult to have remained in the White House before Trump announced his departure with a tweet last September. Not that it mattered much, because this president doesn’t listen to staff anyway, unless they are related to him. A gut player, the president likely didn’t read Bolton’s memos or listen to his briefs anyway. Trump decides by instinct, one that has been honed in the dog-eat-dog world of Queens and Manhattan real estate, not in geopolitics. One suspects that Bolton wrote his book not out of concern about where the nation was headed under Trump but out of peevishness that his advice was being ignored.
If one considers Bolton’s book a warning and a wake-up call about how Americans elect their presidents, how can voters determine if presidential candidates have foreign-policy chops? Primary debates could focus more on foreign policy than they do. Candidates could do more than just publish a ghost-written article in Foreign Policy and actually talk geopolitics on the campaign trail. But the public (and the U.S. media) has an important role to play, too, by taking more than a passing interest in foreign policy. For too long, there has not been enough interest in foreign policy beyond barroom talk and a few platitudes about China. If the American people want a president who considers foreign policy to be more than just a source for a slogan or two to help them get reelected, then they must demand one and show they have the chops to know a foreign-policy faker when they see one. They shouldn’t need a book by Bolton to warn about the disasters that can come from electing a president with no depth in policy at all.
But, frankly, the only way to ensure the next president can handle a portfolio of which they have a limited grasp is to elect presidents with the self-confidence and the wisdom to hire advisors smarter than they are. Bolton assumed that would be his role. He was wrong: He was serving a president who, on absolutely any issue from military strategy to the medical treatment of COVID-19, believes he is the smartest one in the room. A president doesn’t always have to take the advice of advisors, but after reading background papers and listening to advisors like Bolton, that president will likely know that Finland is not part of Russia.