How John Bolton Views US Allies and Adversaries

Then-United Nations Ambassador John Bolton speaks at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Oklahoma City on May 22, 2015.

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Then-United Nations Ambassador John Bolton speaks at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Oklahoma City on May 22, 2015.

His 2007 memoir lays out the incoming national-security adviser’s worldview.

For someone who has spent the better part of three decades in Washington, John Bolton remains remarkably unchanged since his days in the Reagan administration. He is as strident about much of the world and its intentions as he was in the 1980s. He still rails against multilateral institutions, global treaties, and diplomacy, which, in his view does not serve U.S. interests. It is these very qualities and views, which he shares regularly on Fox News, that made Bolton an obvious choice for the Trump administration. This week, despite advice against such a move from Republican foreign-policy experts, Trump named Bolton his third national-security adviser.

I read Bolton’s 2007 memoir, Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations, which chronicles his time in government and his battles against what he views as unwieldy U.S. and global bureaucracies. Many of the issues he worked on in the first and second Bush administrations—especially North Korea, Russia, and Iran—are yet again dominating the news, and Trump’s foreign-policy agenda. In his book, Bolton consistently advocated for policies that he believed were in the best interests of the United States—and his opposition to positions staked out by U.S. allies such as Britain, the European Union, and South Korea, could presage some of the positions he could stake out as Trump’s national security adviser. Here is some of what Bolton said about these issues.

North Korea: “The Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) will never give up nuclear weapons voluntarily.”

Context: Bolton was part of the Bush administration when the Agreed Framework, the Clinton-era agreement with North Korea on its nuclear program, fell apart. Bolton is proud of his role in the deal’s collapse because he maintains North Korea cheated on its obligations—and will continue to cheat. (Supporters of the deal maintain that without the agreement North Korea would be further along in its nuclear program than it is at present.) Trump is to meet Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, in May. Bolton’s advice to the president will be key during this period.

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Iran: “Throughout George W. Bush’s presidency, Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions were a constant problem. Iran’s goals never changed, but the administration’s goals were too often in flux, and not pursued as consistently or as relentlessly as they might have been.”

Context: Bolton blames the EU, specifically, as well as U.S. diplomats and the Bush administration, for not taking a firm line on Iran’s nuclear program. Criticism of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, he said, may have persuaded Bush to adopt a softer tone with Tehran. This view is important because Trump must decide in May whether to withdraw from the agreement that the United States and other world powers signed with Iran on its nuclear program. Bolton, like Trump, is a harsh critic of that Obama-era deal, and signs suggest the United States may end up withdrawing.     

Russia: Of Russia under Putin, he writes: The Bush administration has lost whatever illusions it had about the direction of Putin’s Russia, and it is certainly hard now to find much that is encouraging in the direction of either Russia’s domestic or its international policies.”

Context: Bolton worked closely with the Russians on a host of issues, including the end of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. At the time, he noted in his memoir, Bush was sympathetic to Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader, who at the time was seen as a reformer fighting the “troglodytes” of the Russian military. The world is, of course, much different now. Russia under Putin has become a foreign-policy adversary of the United States in many places, including in Syria and Eastern Europe. U.S. intelligence agencies say Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, though, they add, there is nothing to suggest Moscow’s efforts were successful. Bolton remains a critic of Russia—his ability to persuade Trump, who has declined to criticize Russian action or Putin, to be stronger on Moscow will be closely watched.

South Korea: This U.S. ally receives special criticism from Bolton for pursuing a “sunshine policy” with North Korea. He criticized Kim Dae Jung, the South Korean president who was the architect of that policy, and several South Korean officials and diplomats as “apologists” for the North.

Context: South Korean President Moon Jae In was elected on a platform of closer ties with North Korea. He has praised Trump’s strong rhetoric while moving toward dialogue with Pyongyang. Moon is, in many ways, continuing Kim Dae Jung’s “sunshine policy.” But with Bolton opposed to any such diplomacy, it’s unclear what the United States will do next.

The UN: Bolton views the UN as “a sounding board for anti-Western and specifically anti-American criticism” and said it is “viewed in America as ineffective at best, and adverse to U.S. interests and deeply corrupt at worst.”

Context: Bolton, who served as U.S. ambassador to the UN under Bush, is not exactly wrong. He and others have called for the UN to be reformed because it is a bloated bureaucracy. But his criticism is also rooted in the fact that he views multilateral institutions and treaties as diminishing U.S. strength worldwide. In a world where the U.S. can no longer financially afford to go it alone, that view has critics.

The EU: One of the few entities Bolton appears to dislike more than the UN and the multilateral institutions it spawned is the European Union.  “[W]e cannot ignore the EU’s proclivity to avoid confronting and actually resolving problems, preferring instead the endless process of diplomatic mastication. In certain circumstances, this approach may have its uses, but for the EU, it is essentially now their solution to everything,” he wrote in his book. Bolton believes that the EU engages in a “High Minded” (his capitalization and quotation marks) advocacy for “norms.” He refers to EU diplomats as “EUroids,” and has said they and the U.S. State Department’s “permanent bureaucracy,” another frequent target in the book, share “a disease of the sophisticated”—moral equivalency.  

Context: The EU, despite its many weaknesses, is now far more developed as a global foreign-policy heavyweight than it was a decade ago. Because EU member states speak with one voice on issues such as Iran, where they have a strong stake after initiating the negotiations that led to the nuclear agreement, the bloc as a whole—and its proclivity for consensus-based diplomacy—is something Bolton will repeatedly run into while serving in his new position. Luckily for him, Trump shares his view of the bloc.

Surrender is not an Option is a clearly written book that spells out Bolton’s worldview. Even his critics have said that Bolton is a smart man—and that intelligence is on display in several parts of his memoir, when he keenly dissects bureaucratic infighting as well global rivalries. He makes clear what he thinks U.S. priorities are and should be and how the United States should execute those priorities. The trouble is, the president’s new national-security adviser seems to expect the rest of the world to act on those priorities as well.

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