Foreign Policy Blogs

John Bolton’s Unrestored Mind


John Bolton speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Oxon Hill, Maryland, U.S. February 24, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

John Bolton’s alarming return to a position of power, as top aide to the United States’ President, is cause for worry. A die-hard self-described Americanist, Bolton sees the world in black and white. In his thesis, “Should We Take Global Governance Seriously?”, published in 2000, Bolton outlined an America divided between “Globalists,” a small coterie of highly educated academic intellectuals, and “Americanists,” virtually everyone else. In a wide-ranging career in public office, Bolton has un-diplomatically torn into the United Nations, criticized international treaties, backed conspiracy theorists, supported military wars as primary solution to dictate foreign policy, and scoffed at non-governmental agendas like human rights.

Bolton’s resistance to the United Nations, the poster-organization of multilateral decision-making, underlies his studied indifference to international treaties, per se. As recently as last year, Bolton penned an essay, titled “How to Defund the UN”, in the Wall Street Journal. A graduate and undergraduate student of law from Yale University, Bolton disavows the basic tenets of international law. Most lawyers generally agree that international treaties derive their power, or legitimacy, not because they are legally binding by definition, but because they are unequivocally accepted as a legal concept and widely treated as such. For Bolton, however, adherence to international treaties maybe prompted by political or moral motivations, but never by course of legal obligations. More than that, Bolton believes that international treaties constrain the United States from acting in its own best interests.

The United States government, however, has frequently treated international treaties as legally binding for all decades in history. As far back as 1946, when France breached the Air Service Agreement, the United States asserted transgression of an international obligation and applied countermeasures. The countermeasures were upheld by an international arbitral tribunal.

Let’s consider a more recent example. In 1996, Bill Clinton became the first leader to sign onto a pact, called the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, that aimed to curb nuclear proliferation in the world. However, according to a constitutionally directed process, in which all treaties have to abide “by and with the advice and consent of the Senate,” the nuclear arms treaty fell into the pits of political decay. Nearly two years later, in 1999, the Senate reviewed and rejected it. Clinton, who saw the decision as a severe setback to his administration, assured allies that he would, according to the Vienna Convention of 1969, which, too, the Senate never signed as party, uphold the intent of the treaty still.

Even though the Senate’s decisions should have been to Bolton’s liking, he was infuriated. In Bolton’s eyes, Clinton should have asserted constitutional supremacy instead of cleaving unnecessarily to external constraints.

When the same treaty banning nuclear arms was revived for discussion in the Senate in 2001, Bolton, then acting as George Bush’s Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, asked the State Department’s legal office if the President could unilaterally withdraw a treaty from the Senate. The lawyers responded, and said—“no.”

In a 1997 testimony before the House International Relations Committee, Bolton claimed that the United States did not have to pay dues “decided by the General Assembly or other governing bodies”; that is, according to the United Nations Charter. Seen in this context, it is hardly surprising that the United States’ invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003, in circumvention of the UN Security Council’s authorization, were seen by Bolton as a triumph for the nation.

Now, Trump has appointed Bolton to advise him as his National Security Advisor from April. The increasing “presidentialization” of the position, or the role of an individual alone to exercise influence in politics, and the marginalization of other key positions, like the Secretary of State, is not lost on those working in the administration. Aligned with plenty of ideas consistent with the President’s “America First” vision, Bolton has called for tearing up the Iran nuclear deal, and for preemptively striking North Korea. In the past, Bolton has also floated the idea that Israel should strike Iranian nuclear facilities. Judging by the options that have been floated so far, there is only one question left to be asked—is Bolton’s influence going to remain implicit or made explicit by the administration? 



Roshni Majumdar