For just a moment last month, a divided Washington came together to marvel at the defenestration-bytweet of John Bolton, the West Wing’s resident uber-hawk. In his 520 days as President Trump’s national security adviser, Bolton acted on his extreme beliefs, driving the world towards conflict with Iran and taking a bureaucratic hatchet to the processes that traditionally steer U.S. foreign policy. The bonfire of American prestige that is the Trump administration has left many hands dark with soot, but his are blacker than most.
While Bolton will be little missed, he and Trump were always something of an odd couple. Hired on the strength of his brash Fox News performances, Bolton functioned as a muse and a vessel for Trump’s most aggressive, unilateral, nationalist instincts. But consistency is not one of this president’s virtues.
There is another Trump: one who loves to make deals, no matter their terms; one who craves approval, even from the world’s worst. The dissonance between these two personas – between his provocations and his willingness to back them up – has become so dangerous that some of Bolton’s critics even found themselves hoping that his dogmatism might temper Trump’s strategic OPINION nihilism. In the weeks before Bolton’s departure, as Trump invited Russia to the G7 and the Taliban to Camp David, those contradictions evidently proved too great to stomach.
Bolton’s exit comes at a turbulent moment. While the Persian Gulf seems to have temporarily stabilized, violence can flare up with no warning, as with the September attack on Saudi oil facilities. North Korea’s arsenal continues to expand, apparently unaffected by Kim Jong Un’s ‘love’ for Trump.
Closer to home, Venezuela’s crisis is crushing its people, destabilizing the region, and entrenching a hostile regime in the Western Hemisphere. Most importantly, what began as a trade dispute with China has hardened into a comprehensive, explicit competition for global influence that looks likely to continue for decades.
Above all this now looms the House of Representative’s impeachment inquiry, the first in American history to focus on a president’s actions abroad. The evidence that has already emerged is damning. Trump appears to have weaponized American foreign policy against his domestic political opponents, leveraging the powers of his office to coerce at least one foreign nation to intervene in the 2020 election. Impeachment will consume Washington for the coming months. It will be the prism through which the president sees the world.
What that means for the world is anyone’s guess. Will Trump quickly seal a cosmetic trade deal with Beijing to goose a weakening economy, or will he double-down on China-bashing to motivate his base? Will ending the so-called “forever wars” in the Middle East, irrespective of the situation on the ground, prove an irresistible opportunity to bolster his deal-making bona fides? What does any of this look like refracted through the far-right media, Trump’s last line of defence?
Whatever he does, Trump will not lack enablers. Bolton’s successor – Robert O’Brien, formerly a hostage negotiator – brings the thinnest resume to the post in decades, having only recently made a name for himself by shepherding A$AP Rocky, that prisoner of conscience, safely home from Sweden. A review of his career and writings (‘What Would Winston Churchill Do?’) serves as a road map to the once proud GOP foreign policy tradition’s descent first into cliché, then self-abasement. He is John Bolton without the mustache – or, it appears, the spine. And there are many more like him.
Ultimately, though, everything comes back to Trump. Confident in his judgement and freed from advisers that sought to control his impulses, he now sits alone in the cockpit of the American state. All the institutions, processes, and norms that should serve as guardrails lie demolished or ignored. With those hands firmly on the control-wheel, the United States will increasingly look to the world like its president himself – whipping back and from between warmonger and dealmaker, bully and coward, a source of fear and an object of scorn.
‘Blustery declarations, backed by unsustainable commitments, do not regain the strategic initiative,’ wrote Philip Zelikow, an American historian, in 2017. ‘Instead, they invite exemplary humiliation, this American generation’s version of Britain’s “Suez”moment, that some of our adversaries will eagerly try to arrange.’ Such a moment feels fast approaching, but only one thing is sure. For the foreseeable future, the United States will have no foreign policy beyond the self-preservation of Donald Trump. To a president who will not distinguish between national and personal interests, ‘America First’ has only ever meant ‘Me First.’