Pubblicato 5 Aprile su Medium

In the current climate of the United States v China ongoing trade war, there has yet been little inclination of how another Trump administration announcement will pan out in the next few months: the appointment of John Bolton as President Trump’s third National Security Adviser (NSA). So far most commentators have highlighted Bolton’s neocon and hawkish world view and consider his appointment as a surprise choice, indicating that Bolton, as a former ambassador to the UN during the George W Bush Presidency, is a less moderate voice in the President’s ear than the ‘intellectual general’ HR McMaster.

The choice of a foreign policy hawk as NSA appears as confirmation of Trump’s ‘America First’ doctrine, where the interests of the U.S come before that of any other state. Bolton is famous for the remark that “there is no United Nations. There is an international community that occasionally can be led by the only real power left in the world, and that’s the United States, when it suits our interests.” Many liberal commentators have tried to portray Bolton as an ‘interventionist’, at odds with the Trumpian doctrine of “let’s put American interests first” and the supposed ‘alt-right’ Trump powerbase. However as commentators such as Cas Muddle have pointed out, John Bolton has a structural realist view of the world order and fits in with a resoundingly Republican foreign policy stance.

Structural realists in international relations argue that that no body has the power to fully manage the international order. In a state of anarchy it is however up to individual states to maintain order and thus manage their own armed forces and weapon capabilities, including in some cases nuclear weapons. As political scientist John Mearsheimer argues “balancing is very important in realist theory. And balancing basically says that if another state becomes particularly threatening, the states that are threatened will individually take measures to protect themselves, and will also think about coming together, forming a balancing coalition or an alliance to check that aggressive and dangerous state.” This has created a situation in the international order where countries are organised in alliances such as NATO or the African Union or, like in the case of Israel, spend heavily in defence in order to protect itself against other powers in the Middle East. John Bolton, who once noted if that if the 38-floor UN building in New York “lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference”, largely fits into this view.

The theory suggested by Mearsheimer is that powerful states aim to “establish hegemony in their region of the world while making sure no great power dominates another region” (2006). The ‘structural realist’ view of the international system, where there is no absolute power that can govern relations between states therefore creating an anarchic world order, may help understand Bolton’s swaggering view that “the only real power left in the the United States, when it suits our interests”.The history of the United States shows that dominance of the West has been a deciding factor in America’s economic and political hegemony in the international system.

However one of the problems with the ‘America First’ view is the question of how the U.S will deal with the new rising power of China. As China asserts it power in the world, and gains influence and power in Asia and the world, it too aims to maintain this new power and influence. The expansion of China’s navy and military activity in the South China Sea has led to problems with neighbouring states such as Indonesia and the Philippines, not to mention Taiwan, all of which are under the sphere of influence of the United States. It will be interesting to see how Bolton, largely an ‘armchair cowboy’ who often resorts to suggesting military intervention on Fox TV as a solution to most international problems will advise President Trump’s on the rise of China in Asia and the Pacific and if this will inevitably lead to conflict with other powers such as Japan and South Korea.

At the moment Bolton’s view that the Iran nuclear deal was a mistake and his general realist world view largely goes with the President’s own view of the world. It will be interesting to see how the new NSA’s hard-power opinions will contribute to policy strategy in regard to North Korea and Russia, where President Trump has been much less hawkish. Either way, Bolton’s appointment as well as the recent appointment of arch-Republican Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State, shows how U.S foreign policy is back in the hands of the structural realists that during the 2000s held sway. The return of Republican hawks mixed with the volatile nature of the Trump administration creates many questions in relation to the problems with North Korea, Russia and Iran.

Alexander Marchi
4th April 2018

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