20 August 2019
National Security Advisor John Bolton has been highly unorthodox and radical in his political stance and rhetoric, but probably those were the qualities US President Donald Trump was looking for, which is why he offered him the job. Photo: AFP
National Security Advisor John Bolton has been highly unorthodox and radical in his political stance and rhetoric, but probably those were the qualities US President Donald Trump was looking for, which is why he offered him the job. Photo: AFP

Is John Bolton a time bomb in Trump administration?

Ever since Steve Bannon left the White House, US National Security Advisor John Bolton has replaced him as the No. 1 madman in President Donald Trump’s governing team.

And although Bolton has a pretty bad reputation in diplomatic circles, he and Trump apparently hold each other in high regard.

In the eyes of many, Bolton is like a time bomb in the Trump administration.

Back in his early years, Bolton was already a high-flyer and a top university student at Yale where he earned a bachelor’s degree, graduating summa cum laude, and juris doctor degree.

As a young rookie lawyer, Bolton landed a job with the federal government in the early 1980s. He was named assistant attorney general in the Reagan administration, became assistant secretary of state during the presidency of George Bush Sr., and undersecretary of state during George W. Bush’s term in office.

It is said that Bolton was initially Trump’s choice for secretary of state, only to shelve the idea because Bolton was such a highly controversial figure.

However, Bolton was eventually appointed as the national security advisor in April this year.

At first glance, Bolton’s remarkable credentials appear typical of those of any conventional political elite in Washington.

Since day one, however, Bolton has been a maverick who never follows the norms of traditional elite circles in Washington, and has remained highly unorthodox and radical in his political stance and rhetoric.

But probably those are the qualities that Trump was looking for, which is why he offered the job to Bolton.

There has never been any shortage of hardline and right-wing politicians, consultants, academics and commentators in Washington.

But Bolton is among the very handful of political figures in the United States who strongly argue that America should fully utilize its position of strength.

He is also among the very few people in Washington who criticize the US administration for building friendly relations with such countries as Iran, Cuba, North Korea and Russia.

Bolton is also among the very few today who still stick to their endorsement of the US invasion of Iraq back in 2003, not to mention that he is the only senior official who has publicly called on the administration to re-establish formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

Bolton also has a deep-seated distrust of international organizations such as the United Nations and the European Union, scoffing at supranational institutions like the UN as nothing more than hangouts for corrupt officials and diplomats.

Unlike Bannon, who has a background of working in Goldman Sachs and has remained closely connected with Wall Street over the years, Bolton is an undisputed legend in conservative think tanks in the US and a highly prolific scholar.

But while Bannon is known for his gratuitously cold political calculations, Bolton is always able to provide solid theoretical grounds that are fully in accordance with US legal definitions to support his arguments. This is probably Bolton’s most notable “function” at the White House.

There are many interesting stories about Bolton circulating in Washington. For example, it is said that he once put a grenade in his office as a “decoration”.

This is probably one of the reasons why he is regarded by some as a lunatic. But being a lunatic is exactly the kind of public image that he seems to be trying to cultivate for himself.

While he is perfectly aware that the mainstream political elites would never recognize him, his radical image and political stance may earn him substantial credibility among the far right. At one point, he was even eyeing the presidency.

The problem is, ever since Bolton became the national security advisor, he has come across as being more like Trump’s puppet than a chief aide who can influence the president’s decision with his constructive inputs.

For example, Trump’s decision to extend the olive branch to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un runs counter to Bolton’s hardline “ideals”.  But Bolton didn’t do anything about that at all, saying that at the end of the day, he is a “pragmatic” person.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that Bolton is no longer a relevant and influential figure when it comes to US foreign policy.

As Trump is now mounting a full-court press against countries he doesn’t like, a pawn like Bolton will always come in handy.

Unlike former state secretary Rex Tillerson or his successor Mike Pompeo, Bolton can always be relied on to come up with a set of arguments to justify the Trump administration’s confrontational diplomatic initiatives.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept 20

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

EJI Weekly Newsletter

Please click here to unsubscribe