Last year, I wrote a column wondering what sort of impact Trump’s then new “war hawk” National Security Adviser (NSA) might have on America’s national security policy. My conclusion was that he was mostly bad for multilateral diplomacy and Transatlantic Relations. Now that Bolton has left the White House, scholars are conjecturing on his legacy and his long-term impact on U.S. foreign policy. The consensus is that Bolton was a norm flouter to the point, in at least one scholar’s estimation, that he was responsible for “breaking” the National Security Council (NSC), that body that advises the president on national security affairs. Is it true, did Bolton play the midwife to the Trump administration’s destroyed national security policy process?
Third time is not a charm
In September, John Gans wrote an opinion editorial in The New York Times that argued that Trump’s third national security adviser’s legacy would be the destruction of the National Security Council system, “the intricate structure that governed American foreign policy since the end of World War II.” Gans, a scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, also recently published a book on the National Security Council and thus has the historical perspective. It is obvious that unlike previous NSAs, Bolton did not view his role as one of coordinating. Instead, Gans said that “Bolton persuaded Mr. Trump he didn’t need the National Security Council to make decisions.” The process that Bolton endeavored to put in its place had two components: himself and the president, with the two of them managing the country’s foreign and security policy by themselves.
Of course, this type of management aligned with the president’s own predilections to make decisions about important issues in the world with as few advisers as possible. However, while Bolton envisioned himself to be one of the few, Trump did not, especially after clashes over Bolton’s hard line on North Korea, Iran, Venezuela and Afghanistan. Rather than make policy with the President, Bolton was tweeted out of office. Gans argues that a fourth NSA will not bring the 70-year-old process back, since no one is going to convince the president that the system that preceded Bolton remains relevant.
Please Validate my Conspiracy Theory
One aspect that Gans is leaving out of his analysis of the breaking of America’s national security process is that tearing down norms is Trump’s signature governing style. Trump’s approach continually forgoes customary checks of government process to pursue matters outside normal channels, like sending his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to meet with foreign officials. We recently learned that in 2017 Trump also pressed then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to persuade the Justice Department to drop a sanction-busting case against an Iranian-Turkish gold trader (who also happened to be another of Giuliani’s clients). Tillerson and others in the Oval Office were shocked by Trump’s efforts. (Intriguingly, dropping the case against the Iranian-Turkish gold trader is a priority for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.)
Then, there are Trump’s efforts to have foreign leaders investigate conspiracy theories about his political rivals. The now ill-famed 25 July 2019 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky being a prime case in point. However, Zelenskiy is not the only foreign leader subjected to Trump’s solicitations to advance his own political interests. Last month, Trump urged Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to assist Attorney General William P. Barr’s efforts to discredit the Robert Mueller probe into Russian election interference.
Trump also sent Barr to meet privately with Australian foreign intelligence officials. Barr similarly met with Italian and British intelligence, again with the explicit aim to debunk the origins of Mueller’s investigation. Clearly, the outcome of the Mueller inquiry (that there was insufficient proof to charge Trump with colluding with the Russians) is not enough for the president. Trump wants exoneration. This means he wants evidence that substantiates a variety of farfetched theories put forward by Trump loyalists like Stephen Miller.
We’ve been here before
Gans worryingly argues that Bolton’s destruction of the National Security Council has weakened one of the few constraints that kept Trump from running foreign policy in line with his own erratic judgment. The shambolic decision-making on the proposed Taliban summit at Camp David (coinciding with the anniversary of 9/11) and, after a call with Erdogan, Trump’s dramatic reversal of support for America’s Kurdish allies in the fight against Islamic State, demonstrate an impulsive foreign policy without constraints.
More distressing still, since Trump’s fourth NSA, Robert O’Brien, will not be able to reconstruct the postwar system, we can conclude that America’s foreign policy process will remain broken for the rest of Trump’s current term and even during a second, should he be re-elected in 2020.
The only comfort that we can take from Gans’ analysis is that we have been here before. U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt micromanaged foreign policy with a handful of aides, with the result that in the late 1940s, Congress, military leaders and Roosevelt’s successor, Harry S. Truman, drafted the 1947 National Security Act, which created the NSC and the NSA to help America deal with the thorny global issues of the emerging Cold War.
If the United States had the wherewithal to build institutions after FDR’s dominating-style of foreign policy, it has the means to re-invigorate necessary structures and processes after Trump’s self-centered approach. The stakes are too high for whoever comes after Trump not to try to reconstruct a reliable framework for the making of American foreign policy.