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What NSA John Bolton’s exit means for US foreign policy

With Trump showing interest in striking deals with Iran and North Korea, Bolton’s exit seemed necessary.

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New Delhi: US President Donald Trump Tuesday dismissed National Security Advisor John Bolton, abruptly ending the tenure of the hawkish official with whom the American leader had significant differences on Iran, Afghanistan and other issues, said an Associated Press report.

Bolton, however, refuted Trump’s version and said he offered his resignation that Trump merely accepted.

Regardless of the two versions, the US foreign policy community’s understanding seems to be that with Bolton’s exit, Trump’s most hawkish phase has likely ended.

Moreover, with Trump increasingly showing interest in striking a deal with Iran and North Korea, the move seemed like a necessity. Some commentators believe Trump could now effectively blame past diplomatic failures on Bolton and start afresh with both the countries the US has a difficult relationship with.

Others, however, argue that the lack of foreign policy process and Trump’s erratic nature might still make it hard to strike these complex deals.

The hawk among hawks

Over the past couple of decades, the former NSA carefully cultivated the image of a stubborn foreign policy hawk, facetiously referred to as the John “pre-emptive strike” Bolton — he famously advocated preemptive strikes against Iran and North Korea for their nuclear programmes.

Bolton advocated a muscular US foreign policy, where hard power lies at the heart of achieving all goals. And he seemed to adhere to the notion of “clash of civilisations”. According to this idea, it is fundamentally impossible for the US to have friendly relations with culturally incompatible countries like Iran and North Korea.

Writing for the Financial Times, Edward Luce recounted a small incident that shows how Bolton was viewed even by Donald Trump.

“A few months ago Donald Trump hosted Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s prime minister, in the Oval Office. Gesturing to his mustachioed national security adviser, the US president said: ‘John, is Ireland one of those countries you want to invade?’” wrote Luce.

A difficult relationship

The number of advisors and senior officials that have departed the Donald Trump administration in the US President’s tenure makes every new exit seem like a mundane addition.

“In 31 months, Trump has had 2 defense secretaries, 2 acting defense secretaries, 2 secretaries of homeland security, 2 acting secretaries of homeland security, 2 secretaries of state, 1 acting secretary of state, 2 CIA directors, and 3 chiefs of staff,” US journalist Jim Geraghty noted in a tweet.

But far more seems to be at stake with John Bolton’s firing. According to several reports, the Trump-Bolton relationship had become untenable over the past few months.

While Trump is himself seen as a hawk, with him unleashing a trade war with China and irking almost all of the traditional US allies during his presidency, it was remarkable when talking about Bolton in May, he said, “I actually temper John, which is pretty amazing.”

The US President has been showing interest in striking deals with Iran and North Korea. But Bolton’s hawkish positions had been a major hindrance.

Moreover, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — the other half of Trump’s foreign policy administration — reportedly struggled to work with Bolton.

Following Bolton’s dismissal, Pompeo said, “He (Trump) should have people that he trusts and values and whose efforts and judgments benefit him in delivering American foreign policy.”

It would now be easier for Pompeo to carry out diplomatic manoeuvres.

The question of ‘process’

One of the most pertinent critiques of Donald Trump’s foreign policy-making has been the sheer lack of “process”. Successfully striking complicated deals requires months, if not years, of tedious negotiations. Top-level bilateral summits are usually a mere formality at the end of these negotiations.

But Trump doesn’t believe in such practices. He rather prefers having top-level summits and leaving the bureaucratic work for after.

This lack of process in diplomatic relations makes it hard for the US to conclude complicated deals. This was evident in the failure of the second Trump-Kim summit earlier this year.

Critics argue that despite John Bolton’s departure, it is unlikely that a foreign policy process would suddenly emerge now.

In addition, Trump can get in his own way during these negotiations.

In a report for The New Republic, foreign policy analyst Ankit Panda wrote, “His (Trump’s) ascension to the presidency opened up new, unthinkable possibilities in international relations, like a thawing of relations with Kim and a truce with the Taliban. But his desire to be the star of every story line tragically quashes all those possibilities.”

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