Home/Daniel Larison/For Bolton, Diplomatic Success Is Failure and Failure Is Success

For Bolton, Diplomatic Success Is Failure and Failure Is Success

National Security Advisor John Bolton attends meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Oct. 23, 2018. (Office of the Russian President/public domain)

John Bolton was spinning the failure of the Hanoi summit as a success in an interview earlier today:

Well, I don’t agree at all that it was a failed summit.

For Bolton, a failed summit is his idea of the perfect summit, because it produces nothing of value and undermines future talks. He has been very open about his hostility to reaching any agreement with North Korea that they might find acceptable, and he has been working to sabotage diplomacy by insisting on maximalist demands that North Korea won’t agree to. What almost everyone else considers obvious diplomatic failure and malpractice on the Trump administration’s part is Bolton’s idea of how diplomacy should “work”: issue unreasonable ultimatums and then use their inevitable rejection to pursue more aggressive and punitive policies. Trump did his part to blow up the process by making a counter-offer that everyone in the administration had to know would be turned down:

In a dinner at the Metropole Hotel the evening before, mere feet from the bomb shelter where guests took cover during the Vietnam War, Mr. Kim had resisted what Mr. Trump presented as a grand bargain: North Korea would trade all its nuclear weapons, material and facilities for an end to the American-led sanctions squeezing its economy.

In short, Trump pushed Bolton’s “Libya model” on the North Korean delegation, and they predictably wanted nothing to do with it. He has encouraged Trump to chase the fantasy of disarmament, and rapid disarmament at that, because he knows that it will likely wreck what little progress U.S.-North Korean talks have made and it is very likely to derail the entire process in the months and years to come. Bolton hates every diplomatic agreement that has succeeded (e.g., the ABM Treaty, the Agreed Framework, the JCPOA, the INF Treaty, New START, etc.), and he applauds diplomatic breakdowns as successes.

Bolton’s reflexive hostility to diplomacy was impossible to miss in a separate interview on Face the Nation:

But we’ve tried to make it clear to them- as again the president has said this repeatedly we’re not going to make the mistakes of past administrations. We’re not going to make the mistake that Obama made in the Iran nuclear deal [bold mine-DL]. What we want is denuclearization broadly defined as the president himself laid out for Kim Jong Un in the paper that he gave him.

The “mistake” that Obama supposedly made with the nuclear deal was accepting the reality that Iran would not agree to abandoning their nuclear program in its entirety. In other words, Obama was prepared to make a compromise in order to secure a successful agreement that achieves the most important goal of the negotiations. The JCPOA imposed verifiable restrictions on Iran’s program so that they won’t be able to develop and build nuclear weapons, and Bolton and other Iran hawks hate it because it works so well that it deprives them of their pretext for conflict. Bolton is declaring once again that the Trump administration will pursue a blinkered all-or-nothing negotiating strategy with North Korea that is guaranteed to get the U.S. nothing. That he thinks this extreme rejection of compromise makes him and Trump an improvement on their predecessors is further proof that there is no successful diplomatic agreement that Bolton won’t try to wreck. As long as he is part of the administration, the administration’s North Korea policy will remain the failure that it has been to date.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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