Donald The Dove?
Bolton's departure changed nothing. That's because things already changed
Donald Trump’s entire brand rests on a combination of swaggering bad taste and a reputation for dealmaking. Sure, the deals are usually bad, but branding is branding. And if your goal isn’t to make quietly good deals but to make any deal to stay in the headlines in the short term, you’ll find no shortage of savvy counterparties willing to take you to the cleaners in the long term.
Whatever you want to say about John Bolton, the man didn’t believe in making bad deals. Or good ones. Or any of them. His rep rested on being the flinty, gimlet-eyed realist who wanted to protect the U.S. interest, narrowly defined, by replacing international cooperation with coercion, broadly defined.
In the long term, Trump-Bolton was a marriage doomed to fail. We can postulate some reasons why Trump wanted Bolton in the first place: there’s the perennial outsiders’ desire to shake things up, and Bolton could definitely do that. Both Trump and Bolton (the billionaire and the ex-UN ambassador) identify as steely outsiders who aren’t sucked in by the myths of the blobs and swamps. But mostly, I suspect, it’s that Bolton could sell Trump on the image of making him a hardliner unlike the squishy Obama.
Bolton’s way of being a hardliner, though, meant that he could never deal the shiny deals that Trump wanted more than anything. It’s been obvious since 2017 that Trump views “maximum pressure” as a way to get Kim Jong Un to the table to make a new deal, not as a way to overthrow KJU. (Why else make that ridiculous trailer?)
The entire thesis of Trump’s foreign policy, net of immigration, isn’t that the United States shouldn’t make deals but that the deals that have been made are bad ones. It might seem like hairsplitting to say that there’s a big difference between rejecting deals and rejecting dealmaking, but that’s the difference between Trumpism and Boltonism.
Even if Trump rarely actually makes good deals—and even if, despite his desire to make them, he sometimes reaches his walkaway point, as with the second Korean summit—the objective is still to have a signing ceremony and a deal. Bolton’s objective, by contrast, was to free America from the fetters of, uh, voluntarily signed agreements bound only by good faith.
For Trump, much of the bluster and insults he hurls are part of posturing before the signing ceremony. In the same way that seasoned analysts can distinguish between North Korea’s news agency KCNA’s constant hyperbolic threats about turning the White House into a sea of fire from the actual foreign-policy messaging that the service provides, analysts interpreting Trump’s messaging need to apply a massive set of deflators to separate Trumpian bluster from actual information. It’s more plausible to think that Trump’s “I hereby order” tweet was meant to tell the Chinese of steps he might take rather than something he expected could be done overnight, for instance.
To put it another way: you should apply the same conversion rate of Trump insults to normal presidential statements that you would apply to hyperinflated Zimbabewean dollars to a stable currency. This isn’t Trump apologia: sometimes you have to take him literally and seriously instead of seriously but not literally (or even neither seriously nor literally). When you’re the leader of the hegemonic power responsible for the welfare of hundreds of millions of people (and a nuclear stockpile capable of ending humanity), you should probably take care not to be misunderstood. What I mean, instead, is that when you’re trying to interpret what Trump means you can’t just take what Trump says at par—you have to index it to other indicators as well.
That’s why I’m skeptical of claims, like Tom Wright’s in The Atlantic, that Bolton’s dismissal heralds a turn to diplomacy. To the extent that Trump wants shiny signing ceremonies and glamorous photo ops to show what a very good dealmaker he is, well, that pivot is in the past. Way in the past.
That’s why even the news that the president is considering going forward with the French line of credit plan for Iran ahead of a possible meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the UN soon doesn’t signal a post-Bolton shift in policy. Rather, Bolton’s dismissal was the inevitable working-out of Bolton’s being out of step with what Trump has wanted since around March of last year.
The question is, of course, whether Trump can get what he wants. Structural factors mitigate against this. Softening sanctions against Iran will face opposition from Tel Aviv to Ted Cruz. At this point, getting a deal with China would be a mess. Given the president’s precedential use of national-security provisions in US trade law as escape clauses even in agreements with friendly countries, Beijing would have to be a little credulous to accept any agreement at face value, and that might mean insisting on too high a price for even an election-minded Trump to sign. And being too soft on Korea might let Democrats posture as the reasonable alternative to a president who’s tough on democracies but warm toward dictators, which could stiffen his spine just enough.
(I also note that on other issues, like Venezuela, Cuba, and Central America, the president doesn’t follow this rulebook, but that fits with centuries of many US presidents not quite treating the Western Hemisphere as a community of fully sovereign countries. A wild card: Afghanistan policy, where spoilers in the Taliban and elsewhere might continue to use attacks to make a deal impossible.)
And underlying all of this, of course, is the fact that the president’s policy process is in turmoil. The tension that Secretary Pompeo faces between remaining in office as the presumptive leader of the president’s foreign policy team or heading back to the Sunflower State to grind out a race for Kansas’s open senate seat only underscores the difficulty that the president’s team has faced in remaining constant or competent enough to execute the policies set by the tweeter-in-chief.
So where does this leave us? It means, as I wrote in the Washington Post/Monkey Cage on the afternoon of Bolton’s firing/resignation, that we shouldn’t expect big changes in Trump’s foreign policy. It’s still going to be a mess. He’s still not going to have a team that delivers. And even wanting deals isn’t enough to make them happen; think of Greenland.