President Donald Trump’s decision in March to remove National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and replace him with John Bolton, a well-known neoconservative war hawk, sent ripples throughout the US international relations community. Bolton has a lengthy history of radicalism, from his fierce advocacy for the Iraq War before 2003 to his furious criticism of the Iran nuclear deal to his calls for a preventive strike against North Korea. In fact, Trump and Bolton have diverging public views on almost every national security issue. Considering their differences, Trump’s choice of Bolton to be his third national security advisor is a head-scratcher.
Bolton’s appointment has left many in Washington fearful that the possibility of war has risen amid the consolidation of like-minded radical viewpoints in the White House, but those fears might be overstated. With Bolton’s appointment, the Trump administration has completed its shift away from traditional foreign policy visions towards a more unorthodox approach that reflects Trump’s personality and the way he wants to approach geopolitical crises. Trump wants the appearance of being a tough hardline negotiator and deal-maker without actually having to brace for the consequences of his actions, and Bolton will help give him that perception outside the United States.
It is important to realize that it was only a matter of time before Trump’s foreign policy team underwent a dramatic reorganization. When he first assumed office, Trump’s team was mostly composed of more-or-less establishment foreign policy figures. Trump often disagreed widely with McMaster and recently replaced Secretary of State Rex Tillerson; that divide has been amplified even further by the president’s incessant tweeting, which constantly put his private disagreements with his cabinet members into the public eye.
After a year as president—and with significant decisions on matters such as the Iran deal and North Korea looming—Trump has initiated a change in his national security team to surround himself with viewpoints that are more seamlessly integrated with his own brash persona. Critics immediately pointed to the dangers of a White House without any dissenters to the president’s preconceptions. That criticism is accurate, and it has troubling implications for Trump’s ability to safeguard American national security, but it does nothing to explain the logic behind the president’s decision to include Bolton in his cabinet, given their philosophical differences.
One could solve this puzzle by saying that Trump has no real opinion about foreign policy and hired Bolton based on his Fox News repertoire. That interpretation is probably true, but it assumes that Trump’s decisions are basically irrational—which is fair, given Trump’s history, but not entirely satisfactory as a singular explanation for why Bolton is now in the White House. It is far too easy to dismiss everything noteworthy Trump does or says on the basis of his chaotic and disruptive character. If we accept that explanation, then there is little to no point in analyzing these events anymore—and also little reason to care about them, which is not true at all. There has to be some identifiable reasoning behind Bolton’s entrance that goes beyond Trump’s fickle TV preferences and directly concerns Trump’s approach to American national security.
The only plausible way to rationalize Trump’s decision to bring Bolton into the fold is that the events of the last year have moved Trump to believe that a shift in approach towards American national security issues—mostly the Iran Deal and North Korea—is required, and that he needs to surround himself with people who accept the vision he has decided on. Trump entered the presidency with no foreign policy experience and thus likely had little idea what kind of foreign policy he would actually pursue. Assembling a cabinet with traditional views on American national security probably seemed like a good idea at the time. With a year as president under his belt, though, Trump seems to have become fixated on developing a foreign policy outlook that better reflects his own tendencies.
Bolton is and always has been outlandish in his America-centric worldview, which has earned him both critics and admirers over the years. The common understanding of John Bolton is that he is obsessed with American military intervention as the sole solution to America’s eventual security threats: thus, the war hawk label. While I personally think that some of his foreign policy positions have more merit than his reputation would indicate, people in Washington and elsewhere are right to raise an eyebrow at Trump giving him such an important role. The national security advisor always has the ear (and usually both ears) of the president. Though their past remarks might be at odds with one another, Bolton’s America-centric worldview concurs with Trump’s nationalist agenda. More importantly, Trump’s choice of Bolton explains what he wants his administration’s foreign policy outlook to be in the immediate future.
Trump ran as an anti-war candidate, but his remarks and actions towards tenuous geopolitical situations to the United States have been very hawkish—especially when he threatened “fire and fury” against North Korea. As the Iran deal continues on its slow death march and the possibility of diplomatic talks with Kim Jong-un looms, Trump, now more than ever, has to embrace the “tough-guy” deal-making international persona that he has claimed to have. At this point, he cannot easily revert back to the “diplomacy-as-usual” approach of past presidents. If Trump appears phony, his leverage with American enemies will be compromised (assuming it has not been already) and America’s national security will not improve. The best way for Trump to appear genuine is to convince US adversaries (again, mainly North Korea) that his threats of military action are legitimate.
Bolton’s influence in the White House will accomplish just that. It is doubtful that Trump is seriously considering adopting Bolton’s warmongering as a serious tenet of US foreign policy towards North Korea or Iran in the future. Rather, Trump is working to fully realize the international image we all suspected that he would when he first assumed office: brash, confrontational, and unconventional. But he wants to project that image without plunging the United States into a disastrous overseas conflict that could claim millions of lives. Whether or not this type of strategy can actually ease tensions with countries like Iran or North Korea remains to be seen, but Trump seems intent on moving forward with it.
Of course, for Trump’s foreign policy reshaping to work, Bolton will have to buy in. As The Atlantic’s Reihan Salam has written, “Bolton will have to play a double game: He needs to convince his adversaries abroad that he is exactly as dangerous as his Fox News appearances and Wall Street Journal op-eds would imply, yet he also needs to be more patient and cunning behind closed doors than his domestic critics have come to expect.” Bolton does have a Trumpian element to him that has led him to this point. The odds are good that he does buy into this strategy if the president is really pursuing it.
Trump has dramatically changed the landscape of America’s national security in one year. A year ago, a meeting between Trump and Kim Jong-un was a more preposterous idea than Bolton’s entire career in diplomacy. But Trump felt like he could not accomplish the foreign policy vision he has decided on with the cast he had initially surrounded himself with. The president thinks John Bolton is now the right fit for the job. Developments over the coming months will show us whether or not Trump’s judgment was correct.
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