America’s foreign policy is even more unstable now that President Donald Trump has fired national security adviser H. R. McMaster and replaced him with John Bolton. “There are few people more likely than Mr. Bolton is to lead the country into war,” The New York Times’ editorial board wrote. “His selection is a decision that is as alarming as any Mr. Trump has made so far.” Slate columnist Fred Kaplan was more blunt. “It’s time to push the panic button,” he argued. “John Bolton’s appointment as national security adviser—a post that requires no Senate confirmation—puts the United States on a path to war. And it’s fair to say President Donald Trump wants us on that path.” One European official told Reuters, “Any moderating factor in White House foreign policy is being lost. We hoped the ‘adults in the room’ would win over Trump, but now the adults are leaving.”
There’s no denying that Bolton, who served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush, is an advocate of a belligerent foreign policy, but there is dispute about how to describe his worldview. Because of his work in the Bush administration, many were quick to label him a neoconservative, the faction that promoted regime change in Iraq in the name of democracy promotion. But that’s inaccurate. Bolton is far too extreme to be a neoconservative.
Historian Kai Bird, the author of a joint biography of foreign policy experts George Bundy and William Bundy (who served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations), tweeted:
Washington Post reporter Josh Rogin rejected the neocon label, arguing that Bolton is really a “conservative hawk.”
BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith added to the confusion by first suggesting that Bolton was a paleoconservative and then amending his description to say that Bolton was “a nationalist with teeth.”
So what is John Bolton: a neocon, paleocon, conservative hawk, or nationalist? These terms are thrown around so loosely that it’s difficult to make sense of them. But it’s clarifying to place Bolton within the broader framework of Republican foreign policy.
Since the Vietnam War, the GOP has had three major foreign policy wings: prudential realists, neoconservatives, and radical nationalists. The prudential realists (best exemplified by George H.W. Bush and his national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft) believe in using American power within a system of international institutions to promote a narrow agenda of maintaining global hegemony. Neoconservatives, best exemplified by figures like Paul Wolfowitz, believe that American global hegemony is best maintained by democracy promotion, which sometimes includes the flouting of international norms (as with the invasion of Iraq in 2003). Radical nationalists, such as Barry Goldwater and, in more recent years, Jesse Helms and Dick Cheney, share the neoconservative disdain for international institutions but have no real interest in democracy promotion. Rather, they advocate a raw assertion of American power for the sake of maintaining global hegemony.
Neoconservatives are often scapegoated for the Iraq war, but in fact it was the result of an alliance between neocons and radical nationalists, who sidelined the prudential realists who were wary of the war. Bolton is a radical nationalist.
“Like his neoconservative counterparts at the Pentagon, he believes that, absent the robust assertion of U.S. power, a fundamentally Hobbesian international scene will erode,” Lawrence Kaplan observed in a 2004 New Republic profile of Bolton. “Unlike them, he does not believe the spread of American ideals can ameliorate this condition.” Kaplan accurately noted that Bolton’s approach to foreign policy has “echoes of the postwar conservatism of the early National Review, of Barry Goldwater (who Bolton campaigned for), of Jesse Helms—who once boasted, ‘John Bolton is the kind of man with whom I would stand at Armageddon.’”
The fact that Bolton is a radical nationalist rather than a neoconservative puts him in closer alignment with his new boss. Trump has no deep foreign policy knowledge, but his instincts are hyper-nationalist. He has little use for alliances and sees all other nations as trying to take advantage of the United States.
That’s exactly the approach that Bolton took when he was the ambassador to the U.N. “At the United Nations, Bolton demonstrated a profoundly zero-sum view of international relations,” Mark Leon Goldberg reported in The Daily Beast. “Other countries’ gains—no matter how insignificant—were ipso-facto America’s losses. This upended traditional alliances at the U.N. Typically, the United States and its European allies would band together in negotiations that reflected common interests. But Bolton was never willing to give an inch and accept the kinds of tradeoffs proposed by American allies.”
According to Bolton, Joe Biden once described him as “too competent.” That Bolton shares Trump’s worldview, but has a genuine command of the details of policy and international relations, could lead to a U.S. foreign policy that exactly mirrors the president’s gut instincts. That could mean a preemptive strike on North Korea, encouraging nuclear proliferation in Asia, and growing alliances with strongmen like the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte. It could also mean war with Iran. Who knows? But with Bolton as the new national security advisor, this much is clear: We’re about to learn what a Trumpian foreign policy really looks like.