Ambassador John Bolton has had a close-up view of the most pressing issues in national and global security since his term as our U.N. representative. In the interview below, he outlines what he sees as the most serious threats to stability — the U.S. withdrawal from the world being first among them — and what America’s foreign policy posture should look like after the election.
Octavian Report: What do you see as the top threat to global order at the moment?
Ambassador John Bolton: I think the main threat actually is the withdrawal of the United States from its position of leadership around the world under the Obama administration. It’s reflected in a lot of different ways over the last seven and a half years. It really is a matter of the United States not looking after its own interests around the world, under the mistaken impression, I think, that if the United States is less assertive, less visible, less present in the world that there will be enhanced international peace and security. I think exactly the opposite is true, but I think until the United States returns to a posture where it’s very vigorously asserting its interests that you’re going to see this trend accelerate.
Beyond the United States, which may or not be corrected by our own elections, I believe the threat of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction — nuclear, chemical, and biological — is the main threat coupled with the continuing spread of international terrorism. Worst of all being the perfect storm where a terrorist group gets a nuclear weapon. Those are the threats on my mind today.
I think there are longer-range strategic threats, like the belligerent posture that Russia has assumed in what they call their “near abroad” in central and eastern Europe and Chinese belligerence in the East and South China Sea. Those are part of longer-term historical developments, but they certainly should be at the top of the minds of U.S. decision makers and I don’t think they are at the moment.
OR: Do you think that cyber terror is a realistic threat in the near future?
Bolton: I do. I think we still need some conceptual thinking of the Herman Kahn and Albert Wohlstetter variety in the cyber area as they did in the nuclear area. What is it that distinguishes cyber vandalism, if you will, a grad-students-on-a-Saturday-night-in-their-dormitory kind of thing, people using magic marker on walls, from actual crime, actual pilfering of information of value to be used or sold to somebody else? Versus, at a third level, espionage (which clearly is going on all the time)? Versus, at a fourth level, what’s an actual act of war in cyber space?
I don’t think we have that in mind very clearly but I think we’ve certainly seen high-level acts of espionage — whether it’s the Russians, the Chinese, the North Koreans, or others — that maybe if we thought about it more would constitute acts of war. We may be seeing it now with Russian efforts to interfere in the American election. I think we just don’t think about it enough and it may require a more generational shift in strategic thinking, but I don’t think it’s another dimension. I think it’s part of how adversaries wield instruments of power. It’s very different from the physical power of weapon systems but it can have consequences that are just devastating.
OR: What do you see as the foreign policy outcome of a Clinton victory? Of a Trump victory?
Bolton: I think Clinton is essentially Obama’s third term. I think that’s true in domestic as well as international policy. I don’t buy the argument that she’s somehow fundamentally different, more hawkish, or anything like that. I don’t think that’s what her record reflects. I think she is very comfortable with what is now the dominant, overwhelming opinion within the Democratic Party.
I think in Trump’s case, the governing reality will be that he will function within the mainstream of where the Republican Party is. I think he’s given himself room to do that, even on issues like trade. He has said that he’s in favor of free trade. He just wants it to be more rigorously policed. I have to say, I’ve always been a free trader, but it’s certainly true that not every agreement called a free trade agreement is really a free trade agreement. The World Trade Organization is not a free trade organization. What we ought to be doing is making it more free-trade oriented than it is.
It’s also true that the State Department, the U.S. Trade Representatives, and other departments that are involved in international affairs are congenitally unable to say that violators of the treaties are in fact violators. At the State Department you can barely get the arms control bureaucracy to say that Russia or China or any other government has violated a multilateral or bilateral arms control agreement. The same is true in the trade area. It’s a real mistake for the United States. We don’t get into as many treaties as other countries, but when we do, we actually honor our commitments and we ought to insist that other people do the same. You can play it out, but I think a Trump administration would be recognizable in the mainstream of Republican thinking. I don’t think it would be a neoconservative, democracy-building administration, like George W. Bush’s. It would be much more of a traditional Republican administration and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I’ve never been a nation-builder myself.
OR: What’s your view of Trump’s potential policy towards both Israel and NATO?
Bolton: On Israel I don’t see, once president, that he would be very different from the mainstream of very pro-Israel support has been within the Republican Party. I think that although he’s said somewhat different things, I think he’s also absolutely against the nuclear deal with Iran, which is the biggest threat that Israel faces. Now, there’s also chaos throughout the Middle East which poses a threat to Israel and does require strong American presence there. There’s no avoiding that. I think that’s where you’ve got to end up and where logic takes you if you have any interest in preserving Israel’s security.
Trump has said a few things that troubled me about NATO. Everybody that I know in the American foreign policy establishment, and I mean everybody for decades, has said that most European countries are rescinding on their military spending commitments and that they need to do more. The difference with Trump is he actually said that if they don’t do more maybe there should be consequences. Maybe that’s what it takes to actually get them to spend more. I don’t know. We’ll have to see how it plays out.
I also think, and this certainly reflects my own experience, that decision-making in NATO is sporadic at best. Shaking up that bureaucracy, just like shaking up bureaucracies in Washington, could have a beneficent effect. When you cut through all this, maybe there’s a difference in tone, maybe there’s a different emphasis. Maybe because somebody who never participated in the traditional foreign policy debates is saying these things, that irritates some people.
OR: Has, in your opinion, irreparable damage been done by Obama’s foreign policy? What would a new administration need to do to change that? Do you see that happening?
Bolton: I think significant damage has been done, which is why I worry that four more years of it could make elements of that damage irreparable. It’s not enough, unfortunately, now simply to reverse the Obama policies of withdrawal and lesser American influence and expect that the world would then revert to the status quo of eight years ago. The easy part is reversing the policy. It’s overcoming things that have happened as a result of the policy that make it much harder just to go back to where we were.
For example, there is now a substantial Russian airbase in Latakia in Syria. This is the first time the Russians have had that kind of capability since the mid-1970’s, when Anwar Sadat expelled the Soviet advisors and moved Egypt towards the West. Now, the Russians are not going to give that airbase up just because we elect a new president. It’s a fundamental change in the geostrategic realities of the world. It’s a fundamental change that, at least as of now, Iran is on an unobstructed path towards nuclear weapons.
I don’t know how we easily roll back China’s efforts in the South China Sea — it’s not just creating facts on the ground, it’s creating the ground. Then it’s putting facts on top of the ground: the islands it’s building and the bases and facilities constructed on them. These are all manifestations of the consequences of America’s withdrawal and it’s going to take a number of significant changes to try and get things right.
I think one thing can happen very quickly, and that’s a dramatic political signal that American policy is going to change. I think Reagan did that with his inaugural address in 1981. I think that’s a necessary but clearly not a sufficient condition. I think other things are going to take much longer, maybe years. For example, and very similarly to what Reagan said, rebuilding our military capabilities. We have ships at sea now equivalent to what we had in World War I. That’s not easily reversible. Even if you started a massive naval ship-building campaign now, the size of the fleet at sea will continue to decline because of the aging of the ships that are already there. This is just an example, but I think signaling the political shift at the beginning is critical, and hopefully that’s what we start doing in the inaugural address.
OR: What can be done to stop the spread of terrorism?
Bolton: I think that the terrorism we face is obviously a political ideology based on religion. Until we’re willing to acknowledge that and understand it, it’s very hard to have a strategy to defeat it. King Abdullah of Jordan has said that there’s a civil war within Islam. If anybody knows, the Hashemite king of Jordan ought to know. If it’s good enough for him it ought to be good enough for us for a starting point. What we need is really a comprehensive strategy. What Obama is doing at best — at best — could most kindly be described as a reversion to the Clinton administration strategy that they themselves labeled “whack-a-mole.” You see a terrorist here, you hit him. You see a terrorist there, you hit him. All that means is that the terrorist will reappear somewhere else.
Today, for example, it’s not enough to bomb ISIS in Sirte in Libya. It’s not enough to have a half-hearted campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. You need a comprehensive approach to deny them any privileged sanctuary where they can rest, where they can plan, where they can recruit and train more terrorists. You need to eliminate their physical safe haven. While you’re doing that, you need to be much more aggressive in searching out the terrorists that are already in western Europe and the United States. These all have to be done simultaneously, along with us catching up with ISIS in particular in its ability to communicate through social media and over the internet. They have been leaps ahead of us in recruiting and inspiring and training terrorists online.
It’s a phenomenal shift. They don’t all have to go to the Caliphate to get their terrorist training. Unfortunately we’re watching this play out on what seems to be a weekly basis, certainly in western Europe and increasingly in the United States. If you simply think that terrorism is inspired by economic poverty and that more jobs will somehow solve the problem but in the meantime law enforcement is sufficient, it’s hopeless. We will always be responding, we will always be burying innocent civilian victims.
OR: In our interview with Gen. Michael Hayden, he expressed concern about the pendulum swinging too far towards transparency in the intelligence world. Do you think he’s right, that a drive to openness can undermine our security?
Bolton: I think our national technical capabilities remain unequaled in the world. I have confidence that we’re doing, even under Obama, more or less what we need to do. Where we have been weak, for over two decades, is human intelligence. That was true even in the Bush administration, although it was improved significantly. The harm that’s been caused — really, going back to the Church Commission in the 1970’s; what Carter did, what Clinton did, what Obama’s done — has just left us unequal to the task of gathering intelligence through human means. I think it’s particularly the case when it comes to things like nuclear proliferation, like terrorism. Where however sophisticated your technical means, you need human capabilities to infiltrate leadership structures. I think the next president has really got to do a major overhaul and expansion of our human intelligence gathering capabilities. Otherwise, we will be more in the mode of reacting than of getting ahead of the threats and working to make sure that they don’t become more serious threats than they are when we detect them.
OR: How should we be dealing with Putin? With Xi Jinping? With Erdoğan?
Bolton: I think you have to treat each one differently. I actually think Erdoğan is an Islamicist himself. He tried to destroy Mustafa Kemal’s project for a secular Turkey. I think that explains a lot of the post-coup repression that you’re seeing now. It’s a purge of his opposition. If Putin thought he was dealing with a strong United States as opposed to a weak and feckless United States, I could see areas of cooperation against Islamic radicalism. Xi Jinping, I think, is a different story. I think this is a regime that is determined to reconsolidate power and it’s a Han Chinese nationalist regime. When they look at the Uyghur and see Muslim terrorists, I’m more likely to see Uyghur nationalists (although they’ve certainly engaged in terrorist activity).
OR: Do you think either China or Russia presents a long-term threat to the United States?
Bolton: I think China is demonstrating a long-term threat capability. It’s increasing its nuclear arsenal. It’s increasing its ballistic missile capabilities. It’s building a blue-water navy for the first time in over 600 years. It’s developed a very sophisticated cyber warfare capability. It has anti-satellite weapons programs that are designed to blind our overhead intelligence-gathering capabilities. It’s got area denial anti-access weapons that are expressly meant to push the United States back from the shores of the western Pacific. All of this is the sign of a power determined to expand its hegemony over its near neighbors. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the other ASEAN countries are none too happy about that. I think there is real potential for trouble there.
Again, Russia is a different story. Its economy is a one-trick pony. It’s all about oil and gas, of which they have considerable reserves. They also have still the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear weapons. It may be more of a shell than we get the impression in the West. It has much more severe problems domestically than I think even we understand. Its capabilities obviously do make it a threat. We could have a different relationship with them if they thought we were any kind of adversary to be feared.
OR: Are you optimistic given all this?
Bolton: I’m not going to be optimistic unless we change direction. As I say, I think that depends on the outcome of the election. I don’t believe in tipping points or irreversibility. Really, I guess I’m more optimistic than that. I also know that at some point it’s very, very hard to change course.
OR: What’s your view on North Korea?
Bolton: North Korea remains a very serious threat. Our commanders in the Pacific and Korea specifically as well as the South Korean military all think that the North is getting very close to being able to miniaturize a nuclear device sufficiently to send it into a nosecone that can put it on top of a rocket that can hit the west coast of the United States in a very short period of time. We know North Korea and Iran are collaborating on their missile programs. They may well be collaborating on their nuclear programs. It’s very hard to detect what Iran is doing on the nuclear side, if they’re doing it under a mountain in North Korea.
The Obama administration has let seven and half years go by. North Korea has tested three additional nuclear devices and continues to test ballistic missiles, and yet you never hear anybody in the United States talk about it. That is very concerning.
OR: Do you think there’s a chance that Kim Jong-un does something destabilizing in the next two to three years?
Bolton: Well, I think that the Kim hereditary communistic dictatorship is not rational in our terms. It may be rational in its own terms, but what that means is they are capable of doing something that we would consider out of the ordinary. That worries me, too. That’s why I think the only long-term solution to the North Korean threat is the reunification of the Korean peninsula. Until that happens, and it requires China to agree to it, North Korea has a capability that is very hard for us to deal with because of the vulnerability of South Korea in particular.
OR: What do you see happening to Iraq and Syria in the short and medium term, and what should the U.S. posture there be?
Bolton: I’m not at all sure that both Iraq and Syria exist as functioning countries any more. In Iraq, the Kurds are de facto independent. There’s nobody big enough to push them back in. The Sunnis are not going to go back into Iraq where they are dominated three to one by the Shia. That’s one reason they are attracted to ISIS. I’ve taken the view that one way to give them an incentive to fight ISIS is to say that we’re going to carve a new Sunni state out of western Iraq and eastern Syria. I’m not sure that they’re coming back together.
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Amb. John Bolton served as the U.S. permanent representative to the U.N. and is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.