President Trump on Thursday tapped John Bolton to replace H.R. McMaster as his national security adviser, and the American commentariat had a collective freakout.
The unanimity of the reactions makes you wonder if these hundreds of reporters and pundits all received the same memo ordering them to denounce Bolton in the most apocalyptic terms. The depressing reality, however, is that no such memo was necessary. Much of the Washington foreign-policy establishment is beholden to a set of polite myths about transnationalism, “soft power,” and war and peace. That Bolton’s ideas run often afoul of those myths is enough to make him fair game for every calumny and every hysterical attack.
Ian Bremmer, the Eurasia Group chief and Twitter-meme maestro, had a typically judicious take. “Probably the worst/biggest single day for geopolitical risk since I started [Eurasia Group] in 1998,” he tweeted.
By Bremmer’s lights, in other words, Bolton’s appointment is more destabilizing than North Korea’s nuclear tests; Syria’s chemical atrocities; Russia’s invasions of Georgia and Ukraine; the Ebola and SARS outbreaks; the Arab Spring and its aftermath; the 2015 migrant crisis; and the rise of Islamic State; among other catastrophes of the past two decades. This mild-mannered former diplomat and Bush 41 and 43 alumnus is more destabilizing even than 9/11.
That says more about the reliability of Bremmer’s risk-o-meter than it does about Bolton. Yet all the right-thinking people retweeted Bremmer, and his tweet helped set the tone and parameters of respectable opinion when it came to the Bolton appointment. Bolton, Americans were told, is a zealot, a warmonger, a “neocon,” and a threat to world peace and international comity.
These caricatures will likely haunt Bolton throughout his tenure in the Trump White House, complicating an already thankless job under an erratic president who finds conceptual thought and policy detail insufferable. Yet Bolton has a more serious, more coherent and anchored philosophy than nearly all of his critics—a philosophy that is well within the traditions of American postwar strategy and closely attuned to the dark realities of our present moment. At the core, he is a hawk with few illusions about what it takes to secure the national interest.
The Bolton Doctrine, if you will, has three cornerstones, and it is worth exploring each of them to understand the man who will have an outsized say in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy in the coming months and years.
First, he is a Hobbesian. Bolton’s public career, and his writings in COMMENTARY and the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal, make it clear that he sees the life of nations as nasty and brutish (and sometimes tragically short). Bolton doesn’t subscribe to the alternative, Kantian vision, according to which the expansion of law’s dominion is supposed to render war obsolete. John Kerry would disdainfully describe Bolton as a “19th-century” mind, but the new national security adviser might well take that as a compliment. After all, our geopolitics today in many ways resemble the era of great-power rivalry and competing spheres of influence.
In a COMMENTARY essay on the Jewish state’s diplomatic predicament, Bolton touched on the wider divergence between the dark American and Israeli view of foreign affairs and Europe’s “end-of-civilization weariness.” The Europeans, Bolton wrote,
believe they can now be liberated for all time from transnational conflict . . . From the European perspective, threats to international comity come not from external hostile forces—for them, such forces barely exist—but rather from seemingly friendly quarters, like the United States and Israel. They believe they are endangered by those nations that have decided (so far) that they cannot afford to fall prey to the false dream of extricating themselves from the world’s dangers by remaining in slumber or going prone in the wake of attack.
That essay was written in 2009. Readers can decide which vision—the Boltonian/Hobbesian one or the European/Kantian—was vindicated by events of the subsequent decade.
Second, Bolton forcefully rejects liberal transnationalism and refuses to fetishize “multilateralism.” Bolton is one of the leading American critics of transnationalism, the idea that states should relinquish an ever-greater share of their sovereignty to international bodies and “norm”-setting institutions, since the problems facing the world today are supposedly beyond the capacity of any one nation to solve.
It is true that the U.S. Declaration of Independence calls for “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind,” while Chief Justice Marshall held in an 1815 opinion that American courts are “bound by the law of nations which is part of the law of the land.” Customary international law goes back at least to Roman times. Contrary to the liberal caricature, Bolton doesn’t dismiss customary international law or duly ratified foreign treaties. Transnationalism is something else, however. It is a relatively new theory, born in the legal academy and the corridors of the European Union, which says that international “norms” drawn up by progressive experts can override relations between states and their own citizens. This model of transnationalism, Bolton has argued, is an affront to American ideals of self-government and democratic accountability.
He similarly is loath to hamstring America’s ability to defend itself and its allies in the name of “multilateralism.” China and Russia, he has repeatedly argued, should not be granted a veto over America’s sovereign prerogative of self-defense. Barack Obama’s red-line fiasco in Syria is a reminder of the essential wisdom of the Boltonian view.
Third, Bolton has little patience for democratizing campaigns. “Praise democracy, but pass the ammunition” was the pithy formulation Bolton used in a COMMENTARY essay on the future of the war on terror. Bolton doesn’t believe that the expansion of democracy in the rest of the world is necessary for safeguarding democracy in the West. Indeed, he contends that the U.S. national interest calls for backing distasteful strongmen when the alternatives are chaos, state collapse or rule by elected terrorists. This has sometimes led Bolton to stake out unpopular positions in favor of complicated leaders like Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The alternative view would have the U.S. take a chance on an elected Muslim Brotherhood government in the hope that time would bring reason and moderation to the radical group, or that voters would tire of Islamist rule and vote Jeffersonian liberals into power. But could the U.S.-Egyptian alliance survive that long interval? Could Israel’s security withstand it?
The Boltonian vision is unsentimental, even tragic. Then again, we inhabit a tragic world.