The Bolton effect refers to the tendency of seeking diplomatic breakthroughs through undiplomatic, hawkish, and unilateral foreign policy moves.
Rabat – The Trump presidency has largely been reproached for the hawkish and undiplomatic turn the US is taking in world affairs.
Washington has especially been lambasted for its overt preference for a confrontational and threats-saturated approach in crises in the MENA region, instead of using alternative strategies to reach its goals without causing further havoc in a mostly troubled region.
According to President Trump, however, America’s relationship with the World would have been far more concerning and tempestuous if John Bolton, his senior national security advisor, had the US administration grant him all his wishes. Speaking on Sunday, June 24, to Chuck Todd, the host of MNSBN’s Meet the Press broadcast, President Trump said that Bolton is “absolutely a hawk.”
The subtext of Trump’s message, many have observers have since argued, is that the president’s perceived inclination towards bombastic threats—both verbal and military— which often confuse “enemies” and allies alike very much boils down to having John Bolton serving as his senior national security advisor.
Escalating for immediate results
The Bolton Effect, the argument goes, consists in preferring escalation in the search of immediate results rather than in investing in in-depth, time-consuming, and intricate diplomatic maneuvers.
President Trump said, referring to the team of senior officials in his inner circles on foreign affairs: “I have two groups of people. I have doves and I have hawks. John Bolton is absolutely a hawk. If it was up to him he’d take on the whole world at one time.”
If Bolton had his way, Trump went on to argue when assessing the US’ role in the Middle East, the situation with challengers like Iran would have reached by now a far more serious juncture. The US would have already gone to war with Iran.
But, Trump elaborated, there is no need to worry because he usually tempers Bolton’s fervor. Also, he added, “That doesn’t matter because I have both sides.” The idea is that by listening to “both sides” on a variety of foreign policy objectives, the president usually ends up not taking Bolton’s method of escalating and wrecking in order to reap immediate results.
Writing on May 15 on the risk of a breakdown in the US-Iran crisis, the Guardian’s Owen Jones presented Bolton as the mastermind behind much of President Trump’s ill-conceived and ostensibly hawkish foreign policy moves. “The principal driving force behind this is Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, a man who thinks there is no problem to which the answer isn’t war,” Jones said.
The ongoing crisis with Iran is not the only instance where observers took notice of the now infamous “Bolton Effect.” Ron Paul, a retired US congressman and the initiator of the Liberty Report, a broadcast on US diplomacy, is vigorously critical of Bolton’s “bad influence” on US foreign policy.
According to Paul, the “Bolton effect” is the main reason why President Trump’s historic diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea ultimately failed. “It looks like Bolton is living up to his true colors,” Paul said as he argued that he expected that the Trump administration’s North Korean overture would eventually fail “because of Bolton.”
The Bolton Effect in Western Sahara
In Western Sahara, the decades-long territorial conflict between Morocco, a historic US ally, and the Polisario Front, the militant group spearheading separatism in the disputed regions, has also had its dose of the “Bolton Effect.”
Presenting the US’s new agenda in Africa in December 2018, Bolton emphasized the need for the US to cement its presence on the African continent. To do this, Bolton proposed, Washington has to “contain” and thwart Russia’s and China’s growing influence in African affairs.
More importantly perhaps, Bolton said he was profoundly “frustrated” with the way successive US administrations have dealt with the Western Sahara question in recent years.
A professed critic of MINURSO, the UN’s peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara, Bolton has time and again decried both the US’ and the UN’ insistence on a long-term-oriented and intricate trust building in Western Sahara.
The “peacekeeping first” method, he argued, amounts to investing years, energy, and financial resources in “ineffective” peace-keeping operations. The best way to act in Western Sahara, he has suggested, is to be implacably confrontational towards actors—especially Morocco—and compel them to have no choice but to let go of their decades-long enmity.
“The conflict has not been handled well, and that’s why it continues to persist. There are two Americans who really focus a lot on the Western Sahara: one’s James Baker, the other’s me,” Bolton said. He added that only though exerting “intense pressure on everybody involved” can the Western Sahara question be solved.
In the meantime, President Trump credits Bolton with “doing a very good job,” although he personally “disagrees very much with him” on how the US should behave in the Middle East.
Critics, however, have vehemently argued that Bolton’s way of doing diplomacy is a relic of the Cold war rationality and should be shunned in a multipolar world that no longer revolves around the US alone and where “soft power” and “smart power” are more effective than Bolton’s apparent obsession with war and muscular diplomacy.