Walter Russell Mead never misses an opportunity to get things wrong:
Unilateralists see multilateralism as a policy of graceful surrender. They note that despite decades of sanctions and talks, North Korea has become a nuclear power; similarly, the sunset clauses in the Obama administration’s Iran deal will soon make its path to the bomb relatively easy.
Mead doesn’t describe the terms of the deal with Iran correctly, but that isn’t the most important mistake he makes here. North Korea acquired its nuclear weapons because the Bush administration blew up the agreement that was putting some restrictions on their nuclear program. The effort to prevent North Korea from getting nuclear weapons was working up to a point, and then the maximalist hawks that thought they knew better stepped in to screw everything up. The problem was not that they were “unilateralists” instead of being multilateralists. This distinction usually doesn’t mean very much when it comes to the substance of policy, and so of course Mead thinks it is very important.
The problem was that the maximalists wouldn’t settle for a compromise that was working and insisted on trying to force the other side into giving up more than they had already agreed to. The refusal to accept the compromise blew up in their faces then and it led to our current impasse with North Korea. It is going to blow up in the Trump administration’s face now. For fear of the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon at some point in the future, the maximalists are eager to destroy the JCPOA and make it more likely sooner. They aren’t wrong about the nuclear deal because they are unilateralists. They are wrong about the nuclear deal because they refuse to accept anything less than capitulation.
One of Bolton’s big flaws is that he is a maximalist and can’t accept the need for compromise. Multilateralists are often better at compromise because it is impractical to coordinate among several different governments without being willing to make concessions to find a solution, but there is no law that says that unilateralists have to be obnoxious fanatics. Bolton’s problem is that he is an obnoxious fanatic first, and everything else flows from that.
Messrs. Trump and Bolton may well get nonproliferation policy wrong, but they are right that the conventional methods are not working.
What Mead misses is that the nuclear deal with Iran is working. That is why scores of experts are urging him not to renege on the deal. Trump and Bolton are wrong in their desire to tear it up. A competent analyst would see that and be able to tell his readers this. Mead isn’t one and so he doesn’t. The JCPOA is not only working, but it is doing more to limit Iran’s nuclear program than anyone thought practicable a few years ago. The hard-line adviser and the foolish president that want to end it are obviously in the wrong, and the fact that Mead cannot acknowledge this shows us how useless his observations are.