Forget the Book. Bolton’s Legacy Is a Nuclear Arms Race.
Why Bolton will be one of the most negative influences on U.S. security policy for decades to come.
As soon as John Bolton left the White House, it was inevitable that U.S. President Donald Trump would distance himself from both the person and any criticism, such as what the former national security advisor has now laid bare in his tell-all book.
Many of Bolton’s ideas, however, remain the basis for the Trump administration’s foreign policy, especially in the area of nuclear security and arms control. Much like after his stint in the George W. Bush administration, where he was undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, Bolton leaves behind a wake of destruction that will undermine U.S. security for many years to come. Every nuclear challenge facing the United States today has gotten worse since Trump took office. The failure to deal with them effectively (on Iran, with North Korea, and with Russia) is in large part the result of Bolton’s ideas. And, in fact, many of the risks Trump inherited stem from actions Bolton took or championed when he served under Bush.
In just a few years—between 2001 and 2005—Bolton pushed for and enabled three calamitous decisions: the withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Moscow, the abandonment of the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea, and the invasion of Iraq over imaginary weapons of mass destruction. From these three decisions, one can draw direct lines to the ongoing arms race with Russia, North Korea’s possession of perhaps 50 nuclear weapons or more, and the ascendency of Iran in the Middle East. This legacy was the resume that Bolton presented Trump, one that Trump found compelling enough that he put Bolton in charge of an interagency process that the president has shown no interest in guiding or using to any lasting benefit. As Trump said about foreign policy and the U.S. State Department in 2017, he is “the only one that matters.”
The policy results under Trump and Bolton have been sadly predictable. Bolton was an early and persistent critic of the Iran nuclear deal, which had successfully stopped Tehran’s nuclear weapons program dead in its tracks. That’s the very same weapons program that grew when Bolton was in office under Bush, before there was a deal. As soon as Bolton was back in the White House, he helped push Trump to take the final steps to violate the deal and reimpose sanctions despite Iran’s compliance. After the United States abandoned the agreement, Bolton and his like-minded allies in the administration tried to bury the deal once and for all to prevent a future administration from being able to rebuild the international consensus embodied in the Iran deal. Today, Iran’s nuclear enrichment capabilities are growing again, as is its defiance of the international community. For Bolton, this is actually a good thing, as it may force the United States once again to pursue regime change in Tehran—because for Bolton, you don’t negotiate with bad regimes, you change them.
On North Korea, Bolton’s fingerprints may never wash off. While Trump badly overestimated his own prowess and negotiating skills, his willingness to negotiate directly with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un provided an opening for progress—a feat neither of his last two predecessors achieved. Sadly, the long odds of success were made even longer by Trump’s own lack of preparation, and then they became all but insurmountable when Bolton went rogue, citing the Libya model for disarmament as his vision for a deal with North Korea. The gruesome fate of now-dead former Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi was not lost on Kim, and whatever hope there was for progress quickly died out. One wonders if Trump even knew that it was Bolton who helped kill the 1994 nuclear agreement with North Korea under Bush, and thereby opened the door to what is now a large and growing nuclear force that is unsettling the entire region.
Bolton also has long lamented the United States’ use of negotiated, verified arms control agreements to address the nuclear balance with Russia. It was Bolton who used his new perch as U.S. national security advisor to get Trump to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and to announce the process of pulling out of the Open Skies Treaty, which regulates unarmed reconnaissance flights and has roots in the Dwight D. Eisenhower era. The move was familiar to anyone who watched Bolton play a key role in getting George W. Bush to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002. Back then, U.S. experts (and Russia) warned that the consequence of killing the ABM Treaty would be a buildup of new Russian nuclear forces. And what we see now in Russia is exactly that: the development of a range of novel systems such as new heavy land-based missiles, nuclear-powered cruise missiles, and nuclear-tipped long-range torpedoes. All of these systems are good at one thing: evading U.S. missile defense capabilities. To Bolton, however, these systems are not signs of Russia’s response to the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty but proof of Russia’s ill intent toward the United States. He sees them as new threats to be countered, not contained. Like Trump, Bolton is not strong in self-reflection or accepting of personal responsibility for past actions.
The accelerating arms race between the United States and Russia will be one of Bolton’s lasting legacies to the world. Unfortunately, part of his dangerous work may be completed long after he was fired by Trump: the slow and painful death of the last remaining cap on nuclear forces in Russia and the United States—the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START.
In their animus against this last surviving U.S.-Russian arms control agreement, Trump and Bolton were united. Negotiated by President Barack Obama’s administration in 2010, New START was therefore born of original sin in the eyes of Trump, who has never met an Obama deal he liked. Bolton, repeating the same argument that got Trump to kill the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty—that China was not a party to the bilateral U.S.-Russian pact—provided Trump with the rationale he needed to avoid extending the agreement as permitted by its terms. Despite Moscow’s repeated offers to unconditionally extend the treaty, Washington’s negotiating stance is that if Beijing does not join, then no deal. Never mind the fact that the U.S. intelligence community has confirmed Russia’s continued compliance with New START, and that there is nearly unanimous support for extending the treaty among the U.S. military and nuclear security community.
Forget that there is no way to have China join a bilateral treaty without re-approval by the U.S. Senate. Also leave aside the fact that China has only one-tenth the number of nuclear weapons of either Russia or the United States, and has consistently declined interest in joining any such treaty until U.S. and Russian numbers come down to China’s level. And forget as well the embarrassing reality that Trump declared that China must join the treaty without first informing either Britain or France, close U.S. allies with arsenals roughly the size of China’s. The collaboration between Trump and Bolton to kill deals, each for their own personal reasons, remains intact despite their public rift.
Others have addressed Bolton’s decision not to voluntarily testify during the impeachment process, deciding instead to collect a reported $2 million advance for a tell-all book. But even if he had acted with honor during Trump’s impeachment, his impact and legacy are the impairment of U.S. security and the steady growth of nuclear threats. There are reasonable debates to be had on when and how arms control can support U.S. security goals, and when to exit treaties that no longer serve those aims. In the Obama administration, we had such debates over the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces and Open Skies treaties too. Bolton’s continued role in aiding Trump’s carpet-bombing campaign against both U.S. leadership and nuclear agreements, however, will cement Bolton’s legacy as one of the most consequential and negative influences on U.S. security policy for decades to come. Regardless of how many books Bolton sells and barbs he trades with Trump, it is the United States, its allies, and global stability that will suffer the most.
Jon B. Wolfsthal is the director of the Nuclear Crisis Group and a senior advisor at Global Zero. He was U.S. President Barack Obama’s special assistant and senior director at the National Security Council for arms control and nonproliferation. He serves on the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and helps set the time of the doomsday clock. Twitter: @JBWolfsthal