President Donald Trump appointed John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, as his National Security Advisor (NSA) effective as of April 9th, 2018.
The move, replacing Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster is but the latest of high-level personnel changes in the Trump administration, but perhaps not the last. Mike Pompeo recently was selected to succeed Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State and is now pending Senate Confirmation. Trump’s Chief of Staff John F. Kelly may yet depart as well, and even the Secretary of Defence James Mattis could be eventually replaced.
Despite President Trump’s reluctance to publicly criticize Putin, he has signed off on no shortage of actions against Russia—including the recent expulsion of 60 Russian diplomatic personnel and the closure of their consulate in Seattle, authorizing an expansion of U.S. sanctions against Russia as well as lethal aid for self defence to Ukraine. While McMaster’s departure from the National Security Council has raised alarm bells in some spheres, the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations has shown himself to harbour no illusions about Russia and convinced is a supporter of NATO.
A long-time critic of Vladimir Putin and soft-handed American approaches to Russia, Bolton has called on the U.S. to cause Putin pain—as well as to draw a harder line against Russian aggression in Ukraine. In the White House, Bolton can be expected to continue on the current course of enhancing the U.S. deterrence in Europe as well possibly pursue additional avenues of engagement with non-NATO countries caught in Russian instigated ‘frozen-conflicts.’ Bolton lauded the White House’s decision to supply defensive lethal assistance to Ukraine and has also frequently expressed misgivings Ukraine’s failed NATO ascension efforts.
In regard to NATO itself, Bolton has a history of respecting the importance of the Alliance while also recognizing the need for greater burden sharing. He praised President Trump’s efforts in pushing the defence spending discussion into results, writing in the Boston Globe in September 2016, “Trump has emphasized that his complaints are intended to encourage debate about improving and strengthening NATO, not sundering it. The debate is well worth having.” However, on issues of European Union-led defence initiatives, Bolton appears more skeptical—calling Franco-German efforts in 2016 as likely to “achieve little beyond rhetorical success.”
While Bolton’s ascension to the position of NSA will likely not radically affect the current discourse between the West and Russia—or within the NATO alliance, however, there remains a serious cause for concern policies he’s advocated for in Asia and the Middle East. From his support of the Iraq War from 2003 to the present to calling for regime change in North Korea and Iran, Bolton has shown himself to be a fierce supporter of the use of military force raising a host of questions regarding the potential for future conflict between the United States and either or both states.
Accordingly, Bolton has made no shortage of statements calling for the U.S.’ withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The agreement already appears to be stuck in a perilous position following President Trump’s January 2018 comments which indicated recertification likely would not occur in May. In his efforts against Iran, Bolton once successfully lobbied for the removal of terrorist designations of the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), an Iranian political organization in exile that opposes the current regime, despite it being responsible for the killings of Americans in the 1970s.
On North Korea, Bolton has made several appeals for military action in response to the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program. There have been growing indications that the Trump administration had been exploring the option of a ‘bloody nose strike’ against the Kim regime prior to the latest news of denuclearization talks. Kim Jung Un recently met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in his first foreign visit since taking power. Purportedly, the talks focused heavily on the issue of denuclearization—perhaps an early indication that recent White House personnel changes continue to push the North Koreans to the table. It remains unclear what role Bolton might play in the upcoming negotiations likely to be held this May. Bolton himself had previously served as a member of U.S. delegation talks with North Korea until 2003 when he was removed for his comments about Kim Jong Il.
John Bolton seems to not only approve, but also explain Trump’s foreign policy. He may yet become an important interlocutor, like Secretary of State designate Pompeo between the White House and wider foreign policy community, however, it remains to be seen just how much influence Bolton will have over Trump. Should he be successful, he may yet guide in the administration into crafting a more proactive (including vs Russia) rather than reactive foreign and defence policy. At worst, he may yet drive the United States towards another protracted and bloody war.
President Trump has already demonstrated his willingness to conduct bold moves in the foreign policy arena—conducting cruise missile strikes in Syria to threatening China with a tariffs. Perhaps, Bolton’s entry into the White House signals a further departure from the soft reluctance to use force characteristic of Obama’s eight years in office, and while that may yield some advantages in hardening U.S. and NATO deterrence in Europe it is not without risks.