Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) received US National Security Advisor John Bolton (R), Moscow, Oct. 23, 2018
At a press briefing Tuesday afternoon in Washington, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cautioned against any rushed estimation that the exit of National Security Advisor John Bolton signalled a seismic shift in the Trump administration’s foreign policy.
Pompeo said, “I don’t think that any leader around the world should make any assumption that because some one of us departs that President Trump’s foreign policy will change in a material way.”
One can go further and say it is futile to attribute logic to President Donald Trump’s actions. Most certainly, POTUS and his NSA were birds of the same feather in their shared disdain for multilateralism, the United Nations, international law, the European Union and even the western alliance system.
Indeed, both Trump and Bolton are great believers in military force.
Where the two differ narrows down to the alchemy of their hawkishness. If Bolton is the unvarnished tough guy, Trump is a reluctant tough guy.
Trump views America as a country that just wants to be left alone. He has little interest in the Wilsonian project of spreading democracy and liberty across the globe. He’s against nation building. He couldn’t care less whether other countries are democratic. But when “animals” attack the US, Trump rejects virtually any moral limits on America’s response.
Nuclear weapons? Well, Trump won’t rule it out. Bolton, in comparison, consistently believed in the utility of military force as a tool to proactively reorder the world in America’s interest. He was a fervent advocate of the Iraq War, and today, a decade later, he still advocates the same arguments on Iran. He advocated pre-emptively bombing North Korea.
Now, Trump is no peacenik, either. He has boosted the US defence budget, torn up the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, is militarising the outer space and is unabashedly spurring an arms race. But where he differs from Bolton is that his “hawkishness” is of a different kind.
In a 2016 essay titled Donald Trump’s Jacksonian Revolt, the noted American strategic analyst Walter Russell Mead compared Trump’s foreign policy outlook with that of the 19th-century US president Andrew Jackson — in the sense that Trump believes strongly in the utility of force, but only if the US national security comes under threat, while remaining instinctively sceptical of the idea that the US needs to overthrow regimes in faraway lands in order to protect US national security.
Fundamentally, Trump’s Jacksonian instincts and Bolton’s casual willingness to deploy force to reshape the world grated against each other. Situations such as North Korea, Iran and Venezuela found them crossing each other’s path, with Trump deeply reluctant to be dragged into war.
Equally, Trump genuinely fancies diplomatic trophies (and the photo-ops) and prides himself as a master negotiator and deal maker. Despite his hawkishness, Trump instinctively wades into diplomacy in search of a masterstroke even without a compass to navigate him. Bolton irritated him often by muddying the waters.
To be fair to Trump, he prioritises his foreign policy moves with an eye on his re-election bid in 2020 but Bolton had no such political compulsions. Bolton has nothing to lose in a new Middle Eastern war whereas it would be a reckless thing to happen in Trump’s scheme of things.
Bolton was too hawkish for Trump’s calculus and the divergences over Iran and the negotiations with the Taliban probably culminated in their parting of ways.
Having said that, Bolton is also not entirely incapable of grasping nuances in diplomacy. The influential Moscow daily Kommersant has written that Bolton left mixed feelings in the Russian mind.
A senior Moscow pundit told the daily, “One thing that turned heads (during Bolton’s visits to the Russian capital) was that Bolton did not view Russia as the United States’ ‘natural’ adversary. He saw Russia as Washington’s potential partner in countering common enemies, mentioning Iran and China among them.” Doesn’t that sound almost Kissingerian?
However, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who knew Bolton rather well from his stint in New York as Russia’s permanent representative to the UN, has been quoted as saying, “Speaking on Bolton’s political views, we disagreed with him on most issues. He has a harsh style, and he relies on using heavy-handed methods, including military ones. As you know, he had put forward a number of initiatives on modern crises, such as in Venezuela, Iran and somewhere else.”
Lavrov stressed, “How will [Bolton’s dismissal] influence Russian-US relations? You know, I won’t be guessing. It is President [Donald Trump] who outlines US policy, and he has spoken many times in favour of normalising trade and economic, humanitarian and political ties between our countries and boosting cooperation on the international arena.”
“Will the US stance on some foreign policy issues change? Yesterday I heard Mike Pompeo saying at a news conference that the US foreign policy would remain unchanged. So, let’s just be guided by what really happens. And then we will understand whether there are changes or not.” (TASS)
In comparison with the Russian ambivalence, the Chinese commentators welcome Bolton’s ouster. A Global Times analyst noted, “Bolton has also never been of any good use to China. And he is clearly one of the players pushing China-US relations to a deep impasse.”
The one country that will regret Trump’s decision for sure will be Israel. Bolton was Israel’s “Trojan horse” in the White House. Israel watches uneasily as Trump lurches toward engaging Iran in negotiations.
Typically, PM Netanyahu has been quick on his feet to stake claim for a consultation prize from Trump by declaring just as Bolton’s departure was announced in Washington, that he would annex Jordan River Valley, which is about a third of the occupied West Bank.
The prospect of a meeting between Trump and Iranian president Hassan Rouhani has distinctly improved with Bolton’s ouster. Tehran has consistently differentiated the “B Team” of hardliners manipulating Trump’s Iran policies — Bolton, Netanyahu and the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Bolton’s departure from the White House will enhance the flexibility of the US foreign policy. As Senator Rand Paul put it, “the threat of war worldwide goes down exponentially.” We may expect the White House to put more emphasis on diplomacy.