Updated: Dec 16, 2019
As his power and influence grow, the national security adviser is helping to tear up international agreements he’s railed against for years. When John Bolton was a State Department official under President George W. Bush, he loved nothing more than sabotaging international agreements that he felt undermined America’s sovereignty and security.
His “happiest moment” at the State Department, he recalled in a 2007 memoir, came when he personally extracted the U.S. from the International Criminal Court. “I felt like a kid on Christmas Day,” Bolton wrote.
Now that Bolton is President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, Christmas has been coming early and often. Since his arrival in early April, Bolton has helped to trash, weaken, or undermine four international treaties, organizations and agreements. They range from the major, like the Iran nuclear deal, to the minor, like an obscure 144-year-old international postal treaty from which the Trump administration withdrew last week.
This week, Bolton traveled to Moscow to tell Russian President Vladimir Putin in person that Trump will quit the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
If it is a dream come true for Bolton, it is a nightmare for the Washington diplomatic establishment he has relished torturing for the past three decades. In a Monday op-ed, Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, wrote that Bolton is “on a serial killing spree of arms control agreements” and asked: “Can he be stopped before he kills again?”
Probably not. Although Bolton got off to an awkward start with Trump, he has regained his footing and seen his influence in the Oval Office grow, Trump officials say. The trip to Russia, a sensitive diplomatic mission and Bolton’s second visit to the country since taking the job, is the latest sign of his growing clout.
So too was his willingness to challenge White House chief of staff John Kelly in a heated Oval Office argument over immigration last week. (Trump sided with Bolton, who was pushing the more hard-line position.)
Even Bolton’s critics concede that he is a man who has met his moment. “He’s using this opportunity to achieve his life’s work,” said Tom Wright, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He added: “Bolton’s in a hurry” to undo as much international dealmaking conducted by past diplomats as he can in the potentially short time he has.
And Bolton himself makes no secret he's enjoying his newfound influence. After eight years decrying the Obama administration's foreign policy as a commentator on Fox News, Bolton told the conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt he is loving his current gig. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything else,” he said.
It’s a striking turnaround from an inauspicious start as national security adviser. Just a month into the job, Bolton infuriated Trump when he suggested, weeks before Trump’s summit with Kim Jong Un, that the U.S. would make hard-line demands for North Korea’s swift de-nuclearization. Trump suspected Bolton, a longtime skeptic of nuclear diplomacy with Pyongyang, of trying to sabotage the summit, and fumed privately over the remark.
White House aides wondered whether Trump would even bring his new national security adviser to the summit in Singapore. (He did.) Others questioned whether the headstrong Bolton might wind up clashing with the president much like his fired predecessor, H.R. McMaster.
Since then, though, Bolton has bounced back, exercising his influence in multiple ways — including by reducing the number of National Security Council meetings, in part to crack down on embarrassing leaks about foreign policy that were a regular feature of the McMaster era.
This has left some Trump national security aides feeling cut out of the process, and even Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have clamored for more meetings. But one hardly hears a peep anymore about the inner workings of the NSC.
Some foreign diplomats with little love for Bolton’s worldview or personality have also found things to appreciate about him. They include his directness and, above all, a sense that he is in sync with the president — unlike McMaster, who was often working to contain Trump’s impulses.
“I don’t think he’s liked very much, but I don’t think it’s his objective to be liked. He does his job. He’s not looking to be popular. I rarely meet somebody who says, ‘Bolton is a fantastic guy,’” said one foreign ambassador to the U.S.
Said another: “Given his worldview and his doubts about some international structures like the U.N., we don’t agree with him on everything. But we have no doubt about his effectiveness and intellect.”
Meanwhile, Bolton has been exercising his growing influence in part by picking off and weakening international treaties he has railed against for years.
Although Trump has been predisposed to go along with his attacks on global tribunals like the International Criminal Court, winning the president’s approval for an exit from the INF, which banned the production of short and intermediate range nuclear missiles, was more complicated.
Bolton had called the INF “obsolete” even before members of both parties in the U.S. came to acknowledge that Russia has been violating it for several years. In early October, he met with Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), both advocates for American withdrawal from the agreement and, like Bolton, skeptics of working with Russia. The two urged him to go after the treaty now, according to a source familiar with the meeting.
Meanwhile, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a frequent Trump golfing companion, had been lobbying the president to appoint a congressional delegation to negotiate a renewal of the INF treaty with the Russians. Paul, who shares Trump’s desire for warmer relations with Moscow, was also urging Trump to extend the New START nuclear treaty signed during the Obama administration.
Bolton’s view prevailed. “We're not going to let them violate a nuclear agreement and go out and do weapons and we're not allowed to,” Trump told reporters on Saturday.
These tactical and strategic victories have been the lifeblood of Bolton’s government career. A former ambassador to the United Nations and undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security in the George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush administrations, respectively, Bolton has spent decades playing legal jujitsu, finding ways to poke holes in international agreements and generally running circles around his opponents.
Bolton’s critics argue that spurning international institutions and agreements, including over the objections of allies, escalates global tensions and the chances of a major war. They point to Bolton’s own writings as a case in point:
A month before Trump tapped him to be national security adviser, Bolton argued in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that the U.S. had a legal right to preemptively strike North Korea.
Those critics, like Wright of the Brookings Institution, also say that Bolton’s focus on the legalistic aspects of international affairs have led him to miss the forest for the trees. “They’re expending a lot of energy and time trying to find ways to leave treaties rather than on big geopolitical issues — our relationship with China, how technology is changing the geopolitical landscape, Russian political interference,” Wright said.
Bolton has for years been sinking his talons into the International Criminal Court, and the tribunal was the subject of his first major public remarks as national security adviser in September — a withering attack on the ICC as an “ineffective, unaccountable, and indeed, outright dangerous” organization.
As George W. Bush’s undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, Bolton managed to strike bilateral agreements with over 100 countries to ensure Americans would not be handed over to the court, established in a 1998 treaty signed by President Bill Clinton.
In his September speech, he was able to push the cause further, warning the organization that the U.S. would not cooperate with it, assist it, or join it — and would “take note” when countries sided with ICC investigations against U.S. citizens, including wd how much foreign aid and military assistance to grant other nations.
If Bolton was fettered in previous administrations by savvy bureaucrats who, at various points, managed to block and tackle his initiatives — in his book, Bolton derides them as “High Minded Accommodationists” and “Crusaders of Compromise” — he has found less resistance in the Trump administration, where the president has given his seal of approval to Bolton’s attacks on American sovereignty and international law.
Bolton, for example, was a critic of the Iran nuclear deal from the start, but Trump too had derided it as a “one-sided” and “disastrous” agreement before Bolton joined the administration. Mike Pompeo, the secretary of State, also favored exiting the agreement. On this issue and others, Bolton has been pushing an open door.
“John’s views have been consistent in all the years I have known him, but he was not able to turn them into policy when he was blocked by people like Colin Powell,” said Elliott Abrams, who served as deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration. “Today, he is able to move forward.”
Certainly, Bolton is showing no signs of self-doubt. During a press conference he held in Moscow after his meeting with Putin, he recalled the George W. Bush administration’s decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty with Russia, which had been ratified 30 years earlier.
“In 2001, we used to have a joke with respect to the ABM treaty that on computer screens in media offices all over the world, whenever somebody typed ‘The ABM treaty of 1972’ there was a key — that the reporter only had to hit the one key, and it would type out, comma, ‘the cornerstone of international strategic stability.’ So if you take away the cornerstone, the entire construct of international stability collapses.”
“It was not true,” Bolton continued. “It was not true then, it will not be true now with the withdrawal from this treaty.”