From what I have read, former UN Ambassador John Bolton will formally take up his new duties as President Trump’s National Security Advisor on April 9th. In his writings and TV appearances, he frequently channels Teddy Roosevelt’s “Big Stick” diplomacy, except for the bit about “speaking softly.” Coined in the early years of the 20th century, Roosevelt’s diplomacy aimed to make sure the world understood that the United States had great power, without yet presuming to be among the Great Powers. In the 20th Century, we decisively proved that word “among” to be an understatement.
But our success in that respect came from a strategy focused on alliance rather than pre-eminence. We eventually harnessed our material strength to wield the biggest stick, but the key to our greatest victories was the ability to share and work with allies—as diverse as Stalin’s Russia, then the focal point of international Communism; and Churchill’s Great Britain, the seedbed of our constitutional self-government. In that context, Alliance diplomacy, exemplified in the person of Supreme Allied Commander General, Dwight Eisenhower, was the key to eventual victory. For many of his peers, he was the archetype of the “political” General.
But both the Allied victory, and the post-war reconstruction of Europe, owed much to his appreciation for the ofttimes soft-spoken, agile toughness required to impose America’s leadership on nations that were, at best, circumstantial frenemies, not friends. As it turns out, “Big Stick” diplomacy, however warlike, is still diplomacy—especially in times of war.
Voices from the elitist faction’s left wing, typified by former President Jimmy Carter, vilify Ambassador Bolton because he does not shrink from weaving the threat and use of military force into the fabric of our strategic diplomacy as we deal with our adversarial competitors in the world. But though Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) has at present faded into the background of world affairs, the prospect of nuclear attack lives on.
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Iran and North Korea are not “Great Powers,” but if either finds the wherewithal way to carry out even one successful nuclear attack against the United States, they could grievously damage us.
If such an attack leaves Russia and China (their respective patrons) untouched, our already precarious reputation for pre-eminence among the nations could quickly evaporate.
By appointing a National Security Advisor known to have no fear of military action, President Trump puts both our adversarial competitors and the world at large on notice that we will not let this one-sided scenario unfold. If we suffer attack, the world will suffer with us, with all the volatile, apocalyptic consequences that may entail.
The Carters, Clintons, and Obamas of the elitist faction’s Democratic wing (and their echoing voices from its GOP cohort) can pretend if they like, that the coercive tools made possible by the growing economic interdependence of nations are sufficient to deal with this challenge. But that interdependence is precisely what makes North Korea such an effective wild card in China’s hand. The threat of sure nuclear retaliation against their cat’s paw may not be sufficient to assure deterrence, but what else will give them pause? What else creates the space in which for us to put tools from our economic arsenal to good use?
In what appears to be a decisive way, President Trump has already signaled the willingness to take actions that follow John Bolton’s words and logic. He did so dramatically at the outset of his Administration with the bombing in Syria. He did so by unleashing U.S. forces from the treacherous strait-jacket of Obama’s Rules of Engagement (ROE). He did so by sacrificing the hobby horse of his election campaign (the big, beautiful “Wall”) to procure the resources required to remedy Obama’s hateful neglect of our nation’s military capabilities. He is doing so by brandishing trade sanctions against China.
With his appointment of John Bolton, President Trump applies an administrative capstone to his “Big Stick” diplomacy, exactly fitted to set it firmly in place. People successfully distracted by his critics will probably fail to notice that UN Ambassador Bolton’s resume includes successfully negotiating UN resolutions that maneuvered China and Russia into joining forces against North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons.
Moreover, with John Bolton assumed to be “the Hand” implementing his thinking, any understanding that might emerge from President Trump’s meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is less likely to be suspect to the grassroots conservatives who provided the margin of victory for candidate Trump’s Presidential campaign.
In the wake of President Trump’s failure to veto the recently passed Omnibus budget “swamp thing,” even a hint of Obama’s “lead from behind” diplomacy will confirm the ire of his conservative constituents. If Kim Jong Un is allowed to retain his purported arsenal of nuclear weapons or feed his nuclear military pretensions in any respect, John Bolton’s presence will not be enough to perfume the result.
But if the outcome of the meeting puts both on the path to extinction, President Trump’s conservative admirers may be reassured by Ambassador Bolton’s participation—enough to accept a reasonable timetable for the results to unfold.
Thus the ancient saying, slightly modified, may prove true: To make peace, let it be known that you will as readily make war.
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