John Bolton doesn’t seem like a man who quotes T.S. Eliot in moments of trial, but he might take comfort in these words from Four Quartets: “In my beginning is my end.” Bolton’s truncated tenure as national security adviser, a 17-month sprint from April of 2018 to this week, started with Donald Trump delighting in Bolton’s vigorous defense of the president on Fox News and ended, reportedly, with the POTUS fuming over Bolton’s refusal to be a talking-head surrogate. According to The Washington Post, “Bolton recently said he did not want to appear on television to defend some of the administration’s positions, particularly on Afghanistan and Russia.”
Television, then, was both the making and unmaking of John Bolton. Like so much else in the Trump era, Bolton’s career as national security adviser was a media creation. Fittingly, it ended in a flurry of competing tweets, with Trump claiming Bolton was fired while Bolton countered he’d tried to quit first.
Whatever the exact sequence, Bolton’s departure is welcome news for one simple reason: Bolton was an ultra-hawk who pushed some incredibly dangerous policies. Bolton advocated withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, coupled with badgering the Iranian regime; canceling long-term nuclear agreements with Russia; making impossible demands on North Korea—among other reckless initiatives. Bolton was known to stand in the way of Trump’s occasional gestures of diplomacy aimed at Iran, North Korea, and the Taliban. With Bolton gone, some optimistic souls are even hoping that Trump might enter a new phase of his presidency, one in which his unilateralist instincts will be turned toward negotiation rather than bluster.
Because Bolton was a hawk, his alienation has been cited by some as proof that Trump himself is a bit of a dove. Polling maven Nate Silver tweeted, “Trump has been fairly dovish so far.” Vox founder Ezra Klein sounded a similar note, writing, “I’ve said it before, but the best thing about Donald Trump is that he seems instinctually skeptical of going to war. His hiring of Bolton was a strike against that. His firing of Bolton is a rare bright spot in his presidency.” Even before Bolton’s leave-taking, MSNBC host Chris Hayes speculated that Trump would be the only president capable of pulling off a Nixon-to-China move by withdrawing from Afghanistan while keeping his GOP base happy.
These liberal pundits are being too generous to the president. It’s true that to date Trump, unlike George W. Bush, has avoided an all-out war. But Trump also likes to make statements and gestures that skirt close to war. He threatened to bring down “fire and fury” on North Korea before he declared he was “in love” with Kim Jong-Un. Trump has also ramped up drone strikes, with a chilling disregard for civilian lives that outdoes his immediate predecessor. And let’s remember: The same Trump who fired Bolton first hired him.
Trump is not a dove, nor is he a hawk. Trump is not a bird of any feather. He’s a narcissist. The key to understanding the wild gyrations of Trump’s foreign policy is his self-image as a great global dealmaker. President Obama won a Nobel Prize just for not being George W. Bush, and Trump would like nothing more than to best his predecessor. Much of Trump’s wayward foreign policy makes sense when we realize that his normal tactic is to create a crisis—then take credit for trying to fix it. That’s the pattern he’s followed with North Korea and NAFTA. It also seems to be his goal with Iran. Trump hungers for a photo-op that will prove once and for all that he’s the greatest dealmaker of the age.
As a candidate in 2016, Trump had two criticisms of the foreign policy establishment: It wasn’t tough enough, and it made bad deals. As president, Trump has tried to redress this problem with a combination of belligerent rhetoric (to prove his toughness) and stabs at diplomacy (to prove he’s a great dealmaker). So far, the dual goals of toughness and dealmaking have produced only instability and confusion, as both allies and enemies try to puzzle out Trump’s motives.
This dual-track policy of macho threats and dealmaking also explains Trump’s falling out with Bolton. In July, Trump humiliated Bolton by sending him to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, while the North Korean nuclear talks were going on in Hanoi. Tom Wright of the Brookings Institution read the tea leaves and concluded: “Over the course of three decades, Trump has carefully nurtured two images of himself—as a dealmaker, and as a militarist. Bolton did all he could to encourage the latter. But even from faraway Ulaanbaatar this past weekend, it was clear that, when made to choose, Trump would opt for the former.” Wright correctly predicted Bolton’s imminent exit.
Like many in the foreign policy establishment, Wright has the strange worry that Trump is too prone to diplomacy. According to Wright, “One way or another, Trump seems determined to present an image of himself in 2020 as a dealmaker who is getting tough with allies who have taken advantage of the United States and making peace with the country’s enemies. The risks are enormous. Trump may strike bad deals.”
This is a bizarre source of anxiety. To pull off a Nixon-goes-to-China coup, you have to have the cunning of a Nixon. You have to be able to outsmart bureaucratic and political opposition. Nixon and Henry Kissinger had to go through all sorts of schemes to even get China talks going. Kissinger, for example, once pretended to make a visit to Pakistan while actually on a covert jaunt to China.
Nothing in Trump’s record suggests he has the command of government policy—or skill at bureaucratic in-fighting—needed to make any sort of lasting deal in the face of opposition from his own party or the military-industrial complex. Bolton is gone, but Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo are still in power. They remain in Trump’s good books by diligent sycophancy. A former ambassador once described Pompeo as “a heat-seeking missile for Trump’s ass.” But Pence and Pompeo are also rigidly right-wing Republicans and can be trusted to undermine any diplomatic gambit.
The true danger of Trump is not that he’ll make bad deals but that his clowning will discredit diplomacy. Post-Trump, the United States will have to go into diplomatic overdrive: Sign back on to the Paris Accord and the Iran nuclear deal, come to terms with nuclear North Korea, make peace with the Taliban, normalize relations with Cuba, deescalate from a looming conflict with China, reengage with Russia on nuclear diplomacy, among many other urgent tasks. Even Denmark will need an apology for Trump’s buffoonish attempt to buy Greenland. All of this will be harder to do because Trump has convinced the world that the United States is a mercurial and untrustworthy superpower. With Bolton gone, the danger is not bad deals—but that the next president won’t be up to the daunting task of rebuilding American diplomacy.