The national security adviser is one of the most important positions in the U.S. government, and by extension, in global politics. That person is responsible for providing the president guidance on national security issues, not only by offering advice but by marshaling a process to ensure that decisions on those matters reflect the best thinking of the entire government of the United States. The ability to manage that process is as important as, if not more so than, the subject matter expertise that he or she brings to the job.
Given the importance of the position, the speed with which U.S. President Donald Trump is going through national security advisers is alarming. This week, Trump either fired John Bolton, his national security adviser, or received his resignation — the uncertainty is typical of the chaos and confusion that marks this White House. Bolton was Trump’s third national security adviser.
Bolton’s departure confirms two important trajectories in U.S. national security decision-making. First, Trump is his own man on national security matters and is not going to be “managed” by the bureaucracy. Second, the president is more inclined to diplomacy and deal-making than belligerence. That latter swing is most likely the cause of the break between Trump and Bolton.
Bolton’s ascension to the role of national security adviser was a curious and revealing process. He was among the initial group of individuals considered to replace Gen. Mike Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, who was forced to resign only weeks into the new administration after being caught lying to investigators about contacts with foreign governments. Trump did not like Bolton, however, objecting in particular to his moustache. Bolton then found a home at Fox News, Trump’s favorite television network and used frequent appearances there as a soapbox to get the president’s attention and demonstrate a convergence of views. It worked. When Flynn’s replacement, Gen. H.R. McMaster quit, Trump turned to Bolton, mustache and all.
Bolton appealed to the president’s instincts. Both men are disdainful of any restraint on U.S. power and believe that toughness is the foundation of U.S. status in the world. Yet Trump also acknowledged that Bolton supported the application of force in ways that even he thought excessive. Trump’s decision to pull back from a strike against Iran after it shot down a U.S. drone was seen as a rebuke to the national security adviser.
More damning in the president’s view was a perception that Bolton had his own agenda. Bolton was accused of disloyalty, refusing to publicly defend policies that he did not personally support or actively working to undermine them. It was notable that Bolton was in Mongolia when Trump last met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un; in any other administration, the national security adviser would have been at the president’s side at such an encounter. Bolton’s hostility to any deal with Kim was well-known throughout the administration.
That divergence in views assumed greater significance as Bolton eviscerated the national security decision-making process. There were no meetings to coordinate government views on issues and Bolton reportedly only took his views and ideas to the president. That had two effects: It generated antagonism throughout the government and created adversaries for Bolton, and it made striking the divergence of views between the president and his adviser. While the two men have great faith in U.S. power and are ready to jettison elements of the postwar international order, Bolton is a traditionalist in other ways: suspicious of Russia, Iran and North Korea, and supportive of U.S. alliances. All go against Trump’s views.
Those divergences hint at future policy in the Trump administration. Bolton left the White House after an aborted attempt by Trump to strike a deal with the Taliban and reports that Trump might also be ready to negotiate with Iran. Trump’s readiness to follow his instincts and pursue diplomacy even with those groups reveals increasing self-confidence and a refusal to be “managed.” His inclination to make deals suggests that he is shifting away from the exercise of raw power into a peacemaking mode, with his eyes on the 2020 election — honoring the campaign promise to get out of Afghanistan, the longest war in U.S. history — and getting the Nobel Peace Prize that he so eagerly seeks.
That means Japan must be ready for more aggressive U.S. attempts to strike a deal with North Korea before the November 2020 ballot, and be prepared for an even more ad hoc decision-making process in Washington. Alliance strains will likely intensify given Trump’s disdain for those relationships and the knowledge among Washington bureaucrats that the White House does not want to hear opinions that challenge Trump’s instincts. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s relationship with Trump assumes ever greater significance, but even he must know that the president’s temperament means that the bond is tentative and fragile at best.