Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

John Bolton’s Contribution to ‘America First’

As Bolton's blockbuster book blasts Trump, he may want to consider how he contributed to the president's populist assault on the U.S.-led international system.
June 27, 2020
John Bolton’s Contribution to ‘America First’
This illustration photo taken on June 23, 2020 in Glendale, California, shows a woman reading John Bolton's book "The Room Where it Happened" on the day of it's release in Los Angeles. - The Trump administration tried unsuccessfully to block publication of Bolton's book claiming it contained classified national security information.Former US national security advisor John Bolton said Sunday he thinks North Korean leader Kim Jong Un "gets a huge laugh" over US counterpart Donald Trump's perception of their relationship. Bolton spoke to ABC News for his first interview ahead of the Tuesday release of his tell-all book, which contains many damning allegations against Trump. (Photo by Chris DELMAS / AFP) (Photo by CHRIS DELMAS/AFP via Getty Images)

“A disgruntled boring fool who only wanted to go to war.” This is how President Trump recently described former National Security Advisor John Bolton, whose book The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir has managed to snatch headlines amid the worst civil unrest in the United States in decades, a pandemic that has left more than 120,000 Americans dead, and an economic crisis worse than anything since the Great Depression.

And no wonder: Even after years of desensitization to Trump, the book contains a series of claims that still manage to shock and horrify: Trump promised to “take care” of an investigation into a Turkish state-owned bank that was suspected of evading sanctions on Iran. He made a similar promise to the Chinese telecom firm ZTE, and pleaded with Chinese president Xi Jinping to buy American agricultural products in a quest to help him win reelection. He told Xi that the two-term presidential limit should be lifted for him (Trump, not Xi), and expressed his approval for the concentration camps in which more than a million Uighurs are being detained and “re-educated.”

But as Trump launches his predictable volley of insults and accusations at Bolton (his M.O. for any former administration official who speaks out against him), it’s important to take a look at how he’s going after a man he hand-picked to advise him on national security. Trump’s most aggressive criticism of Bolton has focused on his hawkishness: Beyond arguing that Bolton “only wanted to go to war,” Trump lambasted him for suggesting that the United States should consider a military response to North Korea. “When Wacko John Bolton went on Deface the Nation and so stupidly said that he looked at the ‘Libyan Model’ for North Korea,” Trump taunted, “all hell broke out.” This concern about bellicose language is extraordinary coming from a president who threatened North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” but it raises a question: Why did Trump hire Bolton in the first place?

Bolton’s hawkishness couldn’t have come as a surprise to Trump. As Dexter Filkins notes in a May 2019 profile of Bolton for the New Yorker, “Trump admired Bolton’s Fox appearances ‒ he has praised him as a ‘tough cookie.’” When Filkins asked about the potential for disagreement with Trump, Bolton assured him, “The President knows where I stand on all the issues, because he watched me on Fox News.” 

Trump was explicitly aware of Bolton’s attitude toward military interventionism ‒ a former senior administration official told Filkins that Trump was wary of “his interventionist mind-set. ‘Trump had big reservations,’ the official said. ‘John wants to bomb everyone.’” Yet despite Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran and support for increased defense spending, he has also attempted to wind down the United States’ “endless wars” through the Taliban peace deal, the disastrous decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northeastern Syria, and other policies that would be anathema to Bolton.

It wasn’t Bolton’s attitude toward interventionism that Trump admired ‒ the rationale behind selecting him as national security advisor is best summarized by the noxious slogan Trump uses to describe his foreign policy: America First. As Filkins put it in his profile of Bolton: “Trump’s foreign policy, to the extent that he has one, tends toward isolationism, while Bolton’s is expansive but heavily unilateral, spurning allies when necessary. At times, though, unilateralism can sound a lot like America First.”

In Bolton’s view, many international institutions and agreements are ploys to constrain or harm the United States—a zero-sum attitude that Trump shares. In fact, many of the points Bolton made during the Obama years were almost perfect prefigurations of Trump’s policies today.

Bolton is hostile to multilateral institutions and agreements because he believes they are undemocratic encroachments on American sovereignty. For example, in a 2011 article that accused the Obama administration of using international institutions as a way to circumvent domestic political constraints, Bolton argued that “limiting America’s military options and capabilities through international agreements and organizations is a high priority for the Obama administration.” In the piece, Bolton condemned everything from arms control treaties to the UN to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Bolton observed that the Obama administration had been “hard at work since Inauguration Day negotiating with Russia to significantly reduce both America’s nuclear weapons and delivery systems,” and he was critical of Obama-era arms control agreements such as New START. Now the Trump administration has announced that it will pull the U.S. out of the Open Skies Treaty (which allows countries to track military movements and installations with reconnaissance flights) after exiting the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty last year. New START will expire in February 2021, and while the Russian government says it’s willing to renew the treaty for five years without preconditions, the Trump administration is considering whether instead to push for a new treaty that would incorporate China. The chances of a successful replacement are slim.

Bolton described the ICC as a “giant opportunity to second-guess the United States and the actions we take in self-defense.” Earlier this month, Trump issued an executive order which declares that the ICC is threatening to “infringe upon the sovereignty of the United States” after authorizing an investigation of possible war crimes in Afghanistan. The order states that this constitutes a “national emergency” and announces the imposition of sanctions on ICC officials who are responsible for investigating U.S. personnel—an unprecedented attack on the court.

“Under our Constitution,” Bolton argued in 2011, “we are fully capable of deciding how and when to use military force, how our warriors should conduct themselves, and how to deal with those who violate our standards.” But just a few months ago, President Trump granted full pardons to a pair of Army officers who had been charged with war crimes—one of whom, 1st Lt. Clint Lorance, was serving a 19-year sentence for ordering his soldiers to fire on three men in Afghanistan. Trump also promoted a Navy SEAL who was acquitted on the charge of murdering a prisoner of war but convicted of posing with the man’s corpse. Bolton argued that the United States didn’t need and didn’t deserve international supervision. Trump interpreted the freedom from supervision as carte blanche for lawlessness.

Bolton said, “We do not need international human rights experts, prosecutors, or courts to satisfy our own high standards for American behavior.” But he makes it clear that observing high standards of behavior isn’t his dominant concern—what he cares most about is protecting American “sovereignty.” “Many senior administration officials,” he wrote in 2011, “have demonstrated their sympathy for using international ‘human rights’ norms on the conduct of war to constrain the United States.” When Bolton hears talk of protecting human rights with multilateral laws, norms, and institutions, he hears a veiled threat to the United States.

Trump hears the same thing, which is why he constantly insists that trade agreements, alliances, and international organizations are actually mechanisms for attacking the United States. Trump obsessively emphasizes what he regards as the pitfalls of international cooperation while ignoring the overwhelming benefits, and this has drastic implications for the policies he pursues.

Trump argues that “Our allies take advantage of us far greater than our enemies.” He regards the United States’ role in NATO and its economic relationships with European and East Asian allies as “ridiculously unfair” and decries the “massive amounts of money spent on protecting other countries” while “we get nothing but Trade Deficits and Losses.” To Trump, NATO’s record of maintaining stability and security in Europe since World War II is tantamount to getting “nothing” for “massive amounts of money spent.” His rhetoric suggests that he would prefer the alliance worked as a protection racket in which the U.S. is paid for its security services (in fact, host countries already fund a wide range of projects and initiatives such as housing and other facilities for American troops, tax abatements, etc.).

Trump described the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a “rape of our country.” Instead of seeing TPP as one of the few effective checks on China’s economic rise and an opportunity to guide trade policy for 40 percent of the world economy, he regarded it as another ploy to hobble the United States.

He also claimed that the Paris Climate Accord “disadvantages the United States to the exclusive benefit of other countries.” Trump didn’t see the Accord as an international effort to address an urgent crisis—he saw it as a “massive redistribution of United States wealth to other countries.”

The words “sovereign” and “sovereignty” appear dozens of times in the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy. It promises to defend “America’s sovereignty without apology.” It explains that international engagement “does not mean the United States should abandon its rights and duties as a sovereign state.” When the U.S. participates in multilateral organizations and initiatives, “we must protect American sovereignty.” The United States “will not cede sovereignty to those that claim authority over American citizens and are in conflict with our constitutional framework.” Although the National Security Strategy was written under Bolton’s predecessor, H. R. McMaster, this is the language Bolton uses as well, presenting a wide range of international institutions as infringements on American democracy and law.

Trump and Bolton don’t just regard multilateralism as wrongheaded—they believe it’s part of a conscious plot to undermine American democracy and limit American power. During the speech announcing his decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, Trump outlined an international conspiracy to sabotage the United States: “The same nations asking us to stay in the agreement are the countries that have collectively cost America trillions of dollars through tough trade practices and, in many cases, lax contributions to our critical military alliance. You see what’s happening… at what point do they start laughing at us as a country?”

Bolton accused Obama administration officials of trying to bypass the American political system by “retreating” to international organizations and “hoping they and their international leftist allies can win there what they failed to win at home.” But no international agreement or institution will function if countries aren’t willing to make concessions and apply rules and norms to themselves as well as others.

Perhaps it’s too much to expect Trump to understand that NATO, the European Union (which he labeled a “foe”), and the United Nations are institutions that the United States helped build not only for the benefit of other countries, but for our own as well. Together, these bodies have helped to avert war and stabilize the world for the past three-quarters of a century. It was in the context of this stability that the United States defeated communism, became a global hyperpower, and experienced unprecedented economic growth. Can’t Trump and Bolton agree that at least some of these results were good, and perhaps even worth the price of slightly limited autonomy?

Now that his feud with the president is dominating the headlines and selling piles of books, Bolton says Trump’s foreign policy is built around a single variable: what will get him reelected. While it’s true that Trump’s cynicism is a force of nature, Bolton may want to reflect on his own role in perpetuating the insular and paranoid ideas that have animated the president’s populist assault on the international system that the United States has built over the past 70 years.

Matt Johnson

Matt Johnson writes for Haaretz, Quillette, Arc Digital, and other publications. He is author of How Hitchens Can Save the Left: Rediscovering Fearless Liberalism in an Age of Counter-Enlightenment.