For almost as long as John Bolton has been in official foreign policy roles, smart diplomats have been trying to outmaneuver him.
In the run-up to the Gulf War, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Thomas Pickering worked overtime to keep the bulk of the diplomatic action in New York – in part to outmaneuver Bolton, who was then in his first State Department role as Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs.
Bolton “had developed a reputation among America’s UN diplomats for being intensely ideological,” writes David Bosco in his history of the UN Security Council, “Five to Rule Them All,” and “by generating the text of resolutions in New York, Pickering could minimize Bolton’s influence.”
It was an early preview of many battles between Bolton and America’s professional diplomats, a reflection of just how dangerous the-now National Security Advisor has been in the U.S. foreign policymaking world.
But North Korea rises above all others as the area of foreign policy where Bolton’s influence has the potential to become exceptionally dangerous.
Bolton’s outlook on North Korea has long been a mix of hardline, inflexible positions
That was clear in the weeks after the Hanoi summit, as an ascendant Bolton became the public face of U.S. North Korea policy – and in the process, squandered what could have been an important opportunity for the United States to reshape the diplomatic process on its own terms after walking away with no deal in Hanoi.
If President Trump wants his North Korea diplomacy to succeed, the most important thing he can do right now is to fire John Bolton.
A TROUBLING RECORD
Bolton’s outlook on North Korea has long been a mix of hardline, inflexible positions. Bolton called for complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and giving up chemical and biological weapons in a fiery July 2003 speech in Seoul that prompted a KCNA statement calling Bolton “human scum and a bloodsucker.”
Obligated to at least pay lip service to the then-nascent Six-Party Talks, Bolton praised President George W. Bush’s desire to find “a lasting multilateral solution” but said that “it would be the height of irresponsibility for the Bush administration to enter into another bilateral agreement with the Kim Jong Il dictatorship.”
And completely free to speak his mind in the years after the Bush administration, Bolton published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal entitled “The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First.”
Small wonder, then, that close observers of North Korea policy, like this author, had serious doubts that Bolton could be a constructive part of the Trump administration’s bilateral diplomatic process with North Korea.
Shortly after he took the position, he briefly caused consternation among North Korea watchers when he suggested the United States was considering the Libya model for denuclearization, but largely appeared to be sidelined on North Korea policy by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for most of 2018.
But in recent months, we have been more clearly able to discern Bolton’s imprint on recent North Korea developments. The net effect has been to squander the strong U.S. position heading into the Hanoi summit, instead putting Washington on the defensive.
The lack of a deal at the summit was a real turning point. In the weeks afterward, it was Bolton — not Pompeo — who appeared on a slew of U.S. Sunday morning political television shows to define the Trump administration’s public position on the summit.
His comments seemed to suggest that President Trump had offered Kim Jong Un an implausible grand bargain where North Korea would completely dismantle its nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons to receive comprehensive sanctions relief.
Special Representative Steve Biegun’s comments also increasingly appeared to follow a more Bolton-esque line, stating in background briefings to the press that no one in the administration was advocating for a step-by-step approach to denuclearization and suggesting the Trump administration wanted to achieve denuclearization within Trump’s first term.
In recent months, we have been more clearly able to discern Bolton’s imprint on recent North Korea developments
These remarks alarmed those of us who know that such an ambitious approach is essentially a poison pill for the current North Korea diplomatic process.
It also represented a big shift from what had initially appeared to be the problem in Hanoi: the U.S. and North Korea negotiating teams had come close to a deal that would include Yongbyon, some sanctions relief, and perhaps even the establishment of liaison offices and a Korean War peace declaration – but the two sides had disagreed on the extent of sanctions relief.
Bolton’s remarks suddenly made the U.S. position appear substantially more unreasonable.
THE U.S. SHOOTS ITSELF IN THE FOOT
Whether Bolton’s account of what happened in Hanoi is accurate or not, it has become the definitive U.S. public narrative.
That has laid the groundwork for a much tougher line from North Korea in recent days, as Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Choe Son Hui briefed the press last week that “we have neither the intention to compromise with the U.S. in any form nor much less the desire or plan to conduct this kind of negotiation” and hinted that North Korea was considering ending its moratorium on nuclear and missile tests.
She also praised the “mysteriously wonderful” chemistry between President Trump and Kim Jong Un but criticized Bolton and Pompeo for the “atmosphere of hostility and mistrust.”
This could have unfolded very differently. Immediately after the Hanoi summit, the United States had accomplished something exceedingly rare: it had put Pyongyang on the defensive and forced its negotiators to define and justify their position in public.
In a hastily called press conference, the North Korean negotiators had explained that they were asking for partial sanctions relief – but at a level many commentators quickly assessed was too high for just Yongbyon.
It was a rare moment when the balance of public opinion could have viewed North Korea as the one acting in bad faith while the United States was flexible and creative in putting things like liaison offices and a peace declaration on the table.
Bolton’s comments decisively closed that window of opportunity for Washington. Instead of emphasizing how flexible U.S. negotiators had been, Bolton framed the U.S. negotiating position as unreasonable and overly ambitious.
Instead of highlighting U.S. willingness to return to negotiations and discuss a deal that includes partial sanctions relief, thereby raising the costs for Pyongyang if it took a tougher line, Bolton gave North Korea plenty of ammunition to turn the tables on the United States without paying a price with China or other major players.
We cannot overstate how significant a tactical blunder he has created for the United States.
Bolton gave North Korea plenty of ammunition to turn the tables on the United States
BOLTON MUST GO
The record is clear: nearly one year after becoming U.S. National Security Advisor, John Bolton’s interventions in U.S. North Korea policy and public statements defending it have almost uniformly served to make the United States look unreasonable and inflexible, thereby reducing our leverage at the negotiating table and making it harder to secure consensus in the region for continued sanctions enforcement.
The day Bolton leaves the U.S. government will be a good day for North Korea policy – and indeed, all U.S. foreign policy.
In the meantime, it falls to pragmatic U.S. and South Korean diplomats to follow in the footsteps of Tim Pickering and countless other diplomats and outmaneuver Bolton by any means possible. Let’s hope they succeed.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: U.S. Navy photo by Julie Matyascik