John Bolton’s Departure as a ‘Window of Opportunity’

On September 10, Donald Trump announced the resignation of John Bolton, his national security advisor and famed hawk, who is often blamed for escalating tensions between the US and Iran and destroying the arms control system. What will change with his departure? Were these processes determined solely by specific persons, or also by objective factors? What awaits New START, the “last bastion” of arms control? Valdai Club expert Dmitry Suslov, Deputy Director of the Centre for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the Faculty of World Economy and World Politics of the Higher School of Economics, answered these and other questions.

The dismissal of John Bolton from the post of national security advisor is an event that was both expected and unexpected. It is unexpected, because unlike his predecessor Herbert McMaster, Bolton strongly emphasised his personal loyalty to Donald Trump and did not try to stop him from pursuing his own foreign policy; complementing it, but not putting sticks in the wheels. On many foreign policy issues, the views of Bolton and Trump coincided: they included hatred toward Iran as a key enemy of the United States in the Middle East, and the perception of China as its main strategic opponent; the desire to provide America with a free hand in the field of defence policy and to weaken external restrictions, including legal ones; the neglect of international law and the opinion of America’s allies, a utilitarian approach to them and to international organisations, as well as commitment to a one-sided approach.

However, at the same time, there were issues on which their views diverged greatly. First, it is the role of ideology in US foreign policy and the policy of regime change; John Bolton was an adherent of both. He supports spreading democracy through violence, including military means. Trump considers these approaches erroneous and likely to weaken America, and insists on a pragmatic and utilitarian approach to foreign policy. In addition, Bolton is a supporter, and Trump an opponent, of US interventionism. In the George W. Bush administration, John Bolton played an important role in deciding upon the US invasion of Iraq in 2003; Trump considers that war to have been a huge mistake.

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Agreement on the Helsinki meeting is a positive development if for no other reason that it is deeply dangerous for our two nations, given their military capabilities, to refuse to talk to one another at the highest level. We have seen a series of past “resets” in the relationship that invariably yield to mutual frustration. Expectations should be set low for this one, in light of that record.

On this basis, the reason for the current resignation was, most likely, Donald Trump’s fear that Bolton could drag the United States into new military adventures with the aim of changing regimes, primarily in Iran and Venezuela; it was likely that Trump also feared that Bolton could prevent the implementation of a key pre-election project on the eve of the next presidential race – the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, which could end the longest war in US history. Recently, the US adopted a tougher stance in its approach to Iran, and the threat of military conflict has intensified, in the form of the “tanker war” and the general escalation of tension in the Persian Gulf. John Bolton’s policies could well set the United States against Iran and cause a war in the Middle East – which Trump, of course, does not need. In addition, Bolton was one of the promoters of the recent unsuccessful regime change attempt in Venezuela and he advocated more drastic measures, which Trump, who is more of a pragmatist, did not like. Finally, as many media outlets have already reported, Bolton opposed the US agreement with the Taliban, which is necessary for the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.

What will happen next? Naturally, one cannot expect a decisive and radical re-adjustment in US foreign policy. Washington will continue to perceive China, Russia and Iran as opponents, pursue a utilitarian and mercantilist approach to its allies, and remain sceptical regarding international organisations and international law. It’s most likely that the United States will not return to the recently-jettisoned arms control system, of which John Bolton was a fierce opponent.

Of course, the sacked national security advisor played a key role in many serious US decisions – for example, the liquidation of the INF Treaty – but the personal factor should not be exaggerated. Efforts to restore this treaty, as well as maintain the arms control system in its established form, will not succeed. Even after Bolton’s departure, the United States will not support the preservation of this system because of fundamental geopolitical and military technology changes which are taking place now: that is, the perception of China as the main enemy of the United States, the need to use military tools to contain it, and the US desire to confront Russia’s latest weapons, including hypersonic systems. These policies will persist with the new national security advisor.

At the same time, Bolton’s departure creates a kind of “window of opportunity” and inspires cautious optimism. First of all, it increases the chances of the New START treaty’s extension. Of course, even without Bolton, the United States will try to extend this treaty to the latest Russian hypersonic systems, as well as link its extension to a limitation of tactical nuclear weapons, where Russia now has a quantitative advantage. However, these conditions are presented in many respects as a bid for a new negotiating position. The Pentagon is still inclined to maintain a system of predictability and transparency in the field of nuclear weapons; meaning, it hopes prevent what Bolton advocated: a complete vacuum of any rules to the game. Therefore, without John Bolton, it may prove to be much easier to extend New START for a new term, until 2026.

Moreover, now it will be easier for Russia and the United States to negotiate a new system for strategic stability. In any case, New START is not forever, and the current architecture of agreements on the limitation and reduction of nuclear weapons is dying for objective reasons related to the geopolitical environment, weapons technology, and the politics of diplomacy. There are now more than just two rival nuclear powers, the line between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons is become blurred, and the US has adopted a policy of containing China and Russia. Therefore, now it is necessary to think about what strategic stability system should be created after the end of the New START treaty, whether this happens in 2021 or in 2026.

Finally, without Bolton in Trump’s administration, the US policy towards Iran and Venezuela is likely to be more cautious and less fraught with the potential for undesirable direct military clashes which would draw the United States into a big new war; this, of course, inspires optimism.

No radical change is foreseen, but new positive opportunities arise to reduce risks associated with American foreign policy.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.