Small Wars Journal

Bolton’s Challenges

Share this Post

Bolton’s Challenges

Richard A. Best, Jr.

The announcement that John Bolton, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs and Ambassador to the United Nations in the George W. Bush Administration, will succeed H.R. McMaster as National Security Adviser effective April 9th raises important and interesting questions about the direction of American national security policy and the role of the National Security Council (NSC) staff. Bolton’s reputation as an arch-conservative and acerbic critic of international institutions and multilateral arms control endeavors has brought forth strong opposition from many foreign policy specialists. Within government agencies there is no doubt trepidation, even fear, as a result of Bolton’s well-earned reputation as a take-no-prisoners bureaucratic infighter, one who boasted in his memoirs of being “locked in trench warfare against the Crusaders of Compromise.”[i] Media reports that extensive personnel changes are planned exacerbate concerns that he will plant ideological hacks throughout the government.

Closer reflection, however, suggests a possibility that Bolton’s appointment could lay a foundation for more coherent policymaking. Historically, effectiveness as a National Security Adviser depends on access to the President as well as the Chief Executive’s confidence in the appointee’s judgment and loyalty. Bolton’s long-held and often articulated views that U.S. interests should not be encumbered by international agreements are very close to those that President Trump proclaimed in his Inaugural Address.  He has a track record; in his U.N. post, Bolton emphasized and effectively advocated the promotion of American interests rather than seeking to accommodate cultural norms or policy preferences of foreign entities.  The shared views of the President and his chief adviser should help solidify Bolton’s position as he and the NSC staff wade into endlessly complicated, eyes-glaze-over exercises in national security policy formulation.

Dealing with the immediate issues of North Korea and Iran will necessarily require Presidential decisions. In a White House whose decision-making has not always reflected a deep familiarity with bureaucratic realities, Bolton comes with a preternatural understanding of the ways in which lower-level officials with their own policy preferences and agendas buttressed by widespread sympathy from some lawmakers and the media can frustrate presidential initiatives.  He has vast expertise in frustrating their knavish tricks.

According to historical consensus, the Adviser serves as an “honest broker” who ensures that the President can review the considered positions of the major agencies which provide advice “with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security so as to enable the military services and other departments and agencies of the Government to cooperate more effectively in matters involving the national security.”[ii] Under ideal circumstances, after a carefully structured consideration of the perspectives of the different agencies, including the recommendations by the National Security Adviser—and with due regard to congressional opinion, the President makes a decision.  A well-executed process helps ensure that policies are understood throughout the Government and can be conscientiously implemented. 

Implementation cannot be left to chance. It requires leadership and discipline in the departments from the Secretaries of State and Defense, the Director of National Intelligence, the head of the CIA, and other agencies with major international roles and their senior officials. It also needs the NSC staff to ensure effective follow-up and to identify bottlenecks—procedural and personal.  An initial challenge will be to encourage agencies to fill vacant positions with qualified officials sympathetic to the Administration, or at least career officials “who are exactly what they should be: civil servants who follow the policy directions of the administration that is in power, and do so vigorously and unapologetically.”[iii]

As Bolton well knows, the emphasis on the primacy of American interests and our military, political and economic capabilities and a disinclination to subordinate them to the exigencies of multilateral cooperation is at odds with the much of the culture of U.S. bureaucrats, to say nothing of outside experts and media commentators. He has negotiated, at times successively, with strong-minded representatives of both friendly and hostile nations at the U.N. and he has also worked—sometimes effectively—within the established American bureaucracy where advocacy of America First values is not routine. Bolton will have to combine his considerable reserves of knowledge and experience with degrees of sensitivity and tact that have not always been on display in his writings. His memoirs are replete with epithets about “EAPeasers,” “EUroids,” “mattress mice,” and other choice labels.  Even if it is accurate to criticize “the true believers, the High Minded elites who worship at the altar of the Secular Pope [the U.N. Secretary General],” it may not facilitate gaining acceptance of American goals. The new appointee is, however, a careful lawyer and will take care to the ensure that “i’s” are dotted, “t’s” crossed, and citations are accurate.

In some ways, Iran and North Korea are conceptually straightforward issues; the regimes need to change and their nuclear programs must be eliminated. It is the unattractive implications of any conceivable U.S. option that are daunting.  More ambiguous than Iran and North Korea are long-term relations with Russia and China. They are not friends, but neither are they yet existential threats in the way Imperial Japan, Nazi German, or the Soviet Union became. The U.S. and its Allies will try to build a relationship with each that will protect core American interests and permit the peaceful resolution of disputes. Unless a crisis gets out of control, this is a generations-long endeavor that should command ongoing consideration by the NSC, acceptance and implantation of policies by U.S. agencies, and, hopefully, understanding and support by the public. A lawyer by training, if not a scholar of Kissingerian omniscience, Bolton will nevertheless have the opportunity to lay the intellectual foundation for decades of competition and (hopefully peaceful) coexistence. This will not just be a matter of placing a few bureaucratic allies in key slots, but of orchestrating wide-ranging analyses and policies that have enough support from the public to ensure that it will survive the next election. Bolton complains about the existing ideological environment among policymakers and diplomats; to be successful the Administration must now re-shape the intellectual environment in a credible way.

Bolton has indeed been acerbic and combative, but he also acknowledges the wisdom imparted by former Secretary of State James Baker, a onetime mentor, whose “golden rule [is] to yield on process issues in order to hold the line on substantive questions.”[iv] Given the rancid political environments now existing in Washington and inevitable and foreseeable media hostility, the judicious identification of such distinctions will  make or break his NSC career.

End Notes

[i] John Bolton, Surrender is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007), p. 118.

[ii] 50 U.S.C. 402.

[iii] Surrender is Not an Option, p. 448.

[iv] Surrender is Not an Option, p. 35.

About the Author(s)

Dr. Richard A. Best, Jr. retired in 2011 from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) of the Library of Congress after over two decades there. Previously, from 1971 to 1979, he was with the Office of Naval Intelligence. Holding B.A. and M.A. degrees in History from Rice University in Texas, he earned his Ph.D. in History at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. He prepared numerous CRS reports on U.S. intelligence policy and legislation, but the views expressed herein are solely his own.