Many who have challenged the people who make American foreign policy under Donald Trump’s presidency are horrified at the prospect of former U.N. ambassador John Bolton becoming national security adviser.
Bolton’s support for the Iraq War, as well as his Reaganesque approach to international relations, have led those who oppose him to conclude he is too tough when it comes to diplomacy and American interests. And yet, in a world that includes Chinese military buildup, Soviet-style regression in Russia, the propensity for a war by Turkey against Greece and the claim that North Korea might want to denuclearize, robust American leadership is exactly what is needed.
The United States may have emerged the victor from the Cold War, but the fall of the Soviet order was not the end of history as many claimed. Powers that fall re-ascend. America’s moral right to global leadership was, in recent years, abdicated, creating a power vacuum into which bitter, envious and vengeful immoral powers took their opportunity to aggressively reemerge. It is a world predicted by Robert Kagan in his 2004 book “Of Paradise and Power,” but one which did not have to be.
General global order, assured by the United States and its international commitments, was a costly but critical component to ensuring peace. The War on Terror was seen as an evolution in the kinds of combatants that would be fought in a new century, but President George W. Bush reminded Americans that maintaining a large, conventional army capable of protracted wars was not a thing of the past no matter who wartime participants might be.
The Russian invasion of the nation of Georgia in 2008 should have also reminded the world that old powers were not ready to fall in line with the Western order, that traditional modes of war were not irrelevant, but this did not occur. Rather than expanding America’s military and reassuring friends and allies of America’s moral commitment, the Barack Obama administration backed away and downsized. America’s “lead from behind” strategy in those years allowed others antagonistic to America to step up and lead, instead. Russia, ultimately, forcefully annexed the Crimean Peninsula and rapidly expanded its influence in Syria and the Middle East.
At the same time, many on both sides are applauding President Trump’s decision to expel 60 Russian diplomats in response to Soviet-style tactics. It is both a demonstration of moral American leadership, and of loyalty to our British friends in the United Kingdom. Bolton will continue to take a hard line against Russia, echoing the sage observations of Ronald Reagan — that the Soviets respected only strength. Bolton sees Russia as the natural heir to that philosophy.
He likewise disavows politics when it comes to Russian election interference. He does not care who Russia did or did not help, but the fact that Russia sought to influence American elections at all is considered an affront to the American people and the U.S. Constitution. That should satisfy those on the left as well as on the right.
Meanwhile, inactivity by NATO, and an absence of past American leadership and support in the Aegean, have led to the brink of war between an ascendant, radicalizing Turkey and a Greece on the front lines of the European Union. Turkey is claiming ownership of a handful of islands long under Greek control, and many of Turkey’s political leaders have identified their national course of expansion in conjunction with taking those islands. Judging by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, and by the previous recent American approach to international relations, Turkey is relatively assured that if it comes to war with Greece, Greece will have to fight alone.
However, Bolton stands poised to change things. He is known for supporting American friends and allies, and that includes the American-aligned Kurds that Turkey has waged war against. Bolton has long supported a Kurdish state, and further Turkish antagonism toward Greece may result in formalizing this as American policy.
China is already referring to itself as a superpower. Its military expansion, intellectual theft and unfair trade practices are a kind of challenge to those who might doubt its ascendance. Neither Bolton nor President Trump want war with China — but they do expect China to comport itself according to the law and to established agreements. Simultaneously, Bolton may be poised to bring America into closer relations with Taiwan, which China abhors. The further China pushes against the United States, the closer it may push the United States to Taiwan.
In a world that in many ways resembles the 1910s and the 1930s, it is the American John Boltons, Nikki Haleys and James Mattises the world needs, not the appeasement posturing of Cold War liberals, Neville Chamberlains and Marshal Petains. American toughness has potential. North Korea, formerly testing a slew of nuclear missiles, has found itself increasingly isolated and constricted by American-led international efforts. Now, they are reaching out to neighbors, signaling a willingness to talk, and a willingness to set aside their nuclear weapons. Time will tell whether they are serious, but American scrutiny and pressure must be maintained until it can be known.
This is a state of world affairs in which moral justice has to be brought to bear against evil, corruption and abrasive conduct. The difference between the United States and ascendant countries like China or Turkey is that the United States is not governed only by national self-interest. As Nikki Haley has noted before, “America first” means that America leads. American self-interest matters, absolutely. But the United States recognizes that the sacred and pre-eminent place of power that it occupies among world nations is one of responsibility.
For example, American leaders put Americans first by challenging China’s trade practices, while in leading such a challenge, America also benefits other nations who have been wronged by those trade practices. And yet America would not institute those same trade practices on others merely because it had the power to do so. As such, the United States can do moral good with the power that it wields. With the addition of John Bolton, that moral imperative will be strengthened even more.