U.S. President Donald Trump clipped the wings of perhaps the most hawkish member of his inner circle on Tuesday, firing national security adviser John Bolton in a move expected to have repercussions for Japan and American foreign policy in Asia.
Trump, who said he had disagreed “strongly” with Bolton on policy, announced via Twitter: “I asked John for his resignation, which was given to me this morning.”
A replacement — the White House’s fourth national security chief in less than three years — will be named next week, Trump said.
For his part, Bolton, who had been scheduled to give a news conference at the White House on an unrelated subject, denied being fired and insisted that he had resigned.
A veteran foreign policy hand and controversial figure, Bolton had been seen as one of the driving forces behind the White House’s hard-line approach to the North Korean and Iranian nuclear issues.
Known for his mustache and acerbic demeanor, the former United Nations ambassador had pushed back against Trump’s dramatic attempts to negotiate with global pariahs such as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, with reports tabbing him as a major factor in the collapse of Trump’s second summit with Kim in Hanoi in February.
The removal was likely to stoke concern among officials in Tokyo, said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
“They will fear this increases the probability of a hollow deal between Trump and Kim before the (2020) U.S. (presidential) election,” he said.
Bolton, who has been derided by Pyongyang as a “war maniac” and “human scum” for his attempts to end its nuclear program, was widely believed to be a major barrier to Trump sealing a smaller-scale agreement with the North that might eliminate longer-range ballistic missiles that threaten the United States but leave Japan in its crosshairs.
Now, his absence could prompt the mercurial Trump to rethink such a deal — and the potential electoral bump that comes with that — much to the chagrin of Japan.
For Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, an agreement that would eliminate the threat to the U.S. but leave Japan vulnerable to North Korea’s shorter-range arsenal would be a nightmare scenario.
The North already has stockpiles of Rodong medium-range ballistic missiles, which have a range of 1,200 to 1,500 kilometers, and Scud-ER (extended-range) weapons that can travel 800 km to 1,000 km.
In recent weeks, amid a spate of weapons tests by the North that have included new missiles that are easier to hide and difficult to shoot down, top Japanese officials have cranked up their language and criticism of Pyongyang. These officials have pointed out that the tests violate U.N. sanctions resolutions that ban the North from the use of all ballistic missile technology.
While Trump has said he’s “not happy” about the tests, he has largely ignored them, giving Kim a de facto blessing to continue his launches so long as they do not involve long-range missiles.
“We are in the world of missiles, folks, whether you like it or not,” Trump said Aug. 25, playing down the recent tests.
The message has exacerbated existing security concerns in Japan that Washington may not come to its defense at critical moments, especially if U.S. territory becomes vulnerable to a North Korean nuclear attack.
More immediately, the loss of Bolton’s uncompromising stance on North Korean denuclearization could leave Trump’s close ties with Abe strained if a deal is reached that leaves Japan in the lurch, according to James Schoff, a former senior Pentagon East Asia specialist now with the Carnegie Asia Program in Washington.
“Bolton was not the only voice critical of a deal in Hanoi, but he was a strong one, and his absence could make it easier for Trump to convince himself that a compromise with North Korea that produces a short-term diplomatic victory is worth longer-term ambiguity,” Schoff said. “Abe’s relationship with Trump will be more tested as a result.”
And while the change of one adviser is unlikely to dramatically alter the course of U.S. policy, Ewha University’s Easley said concerns about coordination are “warranted” since Washington’s relations with Seoul and Tokyo could come under strain over cost-sharing negotiations, and as Japan’s historical disagreements with South Korea spill over into the trade and security cooperation spheres.
On the cost-sharing issue, Bolton was reportedly dispatched to Tokyo in late July, where he conveyed a request by the Trump administration for a fivefold increase in what Japan pays to support U.S. forces based here.
According to a report by the Asahi Shimbun daily, Bolton’s proposal may have only been an opening gambit by the U.S. side in what are expected to be difficult negotiations over host nation support.
But Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said Bolton’s successor would almost assuredly continue to press Japan to pay more to have U.S. troops stationed in the country.
“Whoever replaces him is likely to continue to play that role,” Smith said. “But it is the president that will set expectations on (host nation support).
Trump has long complained that Japan has not been contributing enough to its defense and that the U.S. military was being asked to shoulder an unfair burden.
The departure of Bolton, a longtime backer of tougher measures against Iran, could also tip the scales for Japan as Washington seeks to persuade it to join a U.S.-led security mission to protect merchant vessels passing through key Middle Eastern waterways amid tensions with Tehran in the region.
Schoff said Bolton “was unique in his agitation vis-a-vis Iran” and that the security argument for Japanese participation in the maritime initiative was likely to diminish with his absence.
Ultimately, though, his firing is likely to have its most profound influence on the North Korea nuclear issue, experts agreed.
“Bolton has always been bad news for North Korea policy, and his departure removes someone who aimed to reinforce the president’s worst instincts and steer him toward an inflexible course that guaranteed little progress with North Korea,” said Mintaro Oba, a former State Department official who worked on North Korean issues. “That said, the problems with the Trump administration’s North Korea policy run far deeper than Bolton, reflecting a president unfocused on the details and a lack of initiative and flexibility at lower levels.”