Review: Surrender is not an Option by John Bolton

John Bolton raises no philosophical issues in this book, in fact he elides them where they would naturally emerge. This is a book about events, what happened, what was going on in the U.S. State Department and around the world, and what John Bolton did about it given the role he played at any given time. The philosophical issues arise from the tension between nationalist-oriented “American interests” versus “global interests”, and also between the need for foreign-policy continuity over decades versus the task of executing the policies of the “administration du jour”.

On the first issue Bolton is clearly a nationalist. He is not opposed to working with the international community, even furthering the interests of other nations (usually our allies) provided doing so also furthers American interests. This nationalistic bent reveals itself most starkly in the U.S. (and so Bolton’s) opposition to the ICC (International Criminal Court). The great moral light of the national community, a nation that was front and center in the prosecution of Nazi war crimes, opposed (and still refuses to recognize) an international body charged with prosecuting war crimes and other “crimes against humanity”. One has to ask why? The answer is two fold. First, being the elephant in the room of nations, enemies of the U.S. would be (and are) constantly charging the U.S. with crimes to distract the world’s nations from their own bad behavior. Second, however, the U.S. has in the past, and continues to be at times, guilty of crimes!

Vietnam comes to mind, the Eisenhower administration’s blocking of the 1954 unification vote precipitated 20 years of civil war in which millions died. Today, despite its communist government, Vietnam is an ally and important trading partner. A year earlier (1953) the CIA over-threw the elected government of Iran solidifying the monarchy of Shah M. R. Pahlavi. Then there was, and still is, Cuba. What the Kennedy administration did (or tried to do) to the Castro government (not to mention Castro himself) surely comes under the heading of “crimes against humanity” and if not “war crimes” then at least “acts of war”. A little later (1973) came the CIA sponsored coup in Chile and the murder of its legitimately elected president. All of these crimes reflect irrational American anti-communist panic. The U.S. has never (to this day) been able to distinguish between communism and socialism. Castro was a socialist but not a communist until the U.S. embargo literally drove him into the arms of the Soviet Union!

Such shenanigans go on to the present day as we look aside while right-wing autocratic regimes murder journalists and opposition figures. In Israel today, though its slide to the political right was well along in Bolton’s time at the UN, the farthest right, who also happen to be the settlers in the formerly Palestinian (Jordanian) West Bank are now such a huge voting block, having out-reproduced other Israeli Jews for 3 generations, they either control or have veto power over the national government! Treatment of West Bank Palestinians by the far-right settlers is sometimes akin to the treatment of American blacks in the South during the first half of the 20th century! While perhaps not an Israeli policy, the government’s turning a blind eye to it surely is some part of a “crime against humanity”.

These just a few examples of America or its allies behaving badly. There are others, but the broader problem is how to live in an anarchic world community being the biggest kid on the block and having to fight (often diplomatically at least) to maintain the product and resource flows (both in and out) that maintain your biggest kid status. Bolton repeats several times the mantra that “the [UN] diplomats work for their respective governments, not the other way around”. If one accepts that for a given delegation only the national interest is at stake, then it will be surely guaranteed that nothing will get done. Short of military intervention or economic destruction so thorough it precipitates a period of anarchy, no nation will agree to act against its interests. Bolton is right to complain that far too much of what the UN throws up in the way of opprobrium is so watered down that even to agree to the terms does not much slow the offender down. Even many of the potential “sticks” (and the carrots too) are both ineffective and expensive in global economic or military terms, while accomplishing little but steeling the bad player’s resolve or triggering a hot war.

I agree with Bolton that empty agreements are no agreements, but substance is not easy to achieve unless both sides can give up something substantive. Too often the global community has not sufficient motive to surrender or spend what is necessary to make something substantive happen. Surely Bolton is aware of this. He does not seem interested in reflecting on it, though he is, and especially now (in 2020 after his stint as Secretary of State), in a very good position to say something interesting.

Besides the national-international world tension, there is the matter of U.S. State Department thinking. Some of the dynamics that drive global competition never change (geography) while others change every few decades with broad changes in trade flows and military power. Still others change every few years, especially in democracies having typically short election cycles. Bolton says both that the State Department must “think and act long range”, while also telling us that the job of an employee of State is to serve the policies of the “elected person at the top”. It should be obvious that these two mantras can easily come into conflict. Bolton fails to make any attempt to reconcile them. As I said at the end of my formal book review (attached below), I look forward to what he might say in his new book.

Surrender is Not an Option (2008) by John Bolton

Awaiting John Bolton’s new book on his short stint as Secretary of State in the Trump Administration. I thought it would be good to familiarize with his thought about his efforts in more conventional administrations. I have to wonder, given what he says in this book, if he has at all changed his mind about the proper role of career people in the State Department.

Surrender is not an Option begins briefly with Bolton’s introduction to politics as a 16-year-old volunteering for the Goldwater campaign in 1964. He never really says why he was so drawn to the Republicans, but other than alluding to his dislike for Democrats he doesn’t much compare and contrast them. Obviously a smart man, Bolton got the right education (Yale law) and was at the perfect age to mount the first rung of the State Department ladder under Reagan continuing into the elder Bush (Bush 41) administration. Skipping over Clinton (he went back to law practice) and then again jumping into government with the election of Bush Jr (Bush 43) in 2000.

Bolton seems to have earned each new rung on the ladder through good work for his superiors. He also seems drawn naturally to the neo-conservatives whose broad approach with foreign policy was to engage with the world for the purpose of shaping it to American interests. The first half of the book is about what he did at State from Reagan through the first Bush 43 administration. In the second half, he details his work as UN ambassador during Bush 43’s second term, two plus years, from August 2005 (the Senate never would confirm him, his time spent as a Bush “recess appointment”) until the end of the year 2007. These were all years of constant crisis whether the Iran-Contra scandal, disintegration of the Soviet Union, North Korean or Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons, genocide in Sudan, or the mess in Somalia. He mostly skips past the disastrous (Bush 43) debacle of Iraq saying only (in his concluding chapter) that it was right to depose Saddam notwithstanding we mostly botched the aftermath. He is short here on details.

In the book’s first half, he is little critical of the State Department under Baker (Reagan and Bush 41), and even Powell (Bush 43) in his early days, but as his experience at State grows he finds much to dislike about the later Bush years. As UN ambassador he finds a lot to dislike about the UN, and understandably so having become mostly a debating society now and for many decades, something even the liberal “high minded” as he calls them, recognize. In both parts, he bemoans international diplomacy as too much carrot and concession and not enough stick. He says little in the first half about what the sticks might be though he does address this in his conclusions.

He gets into specific recommendations in the second, UN-years half of the book, but here the tendency of others (including Bolton’s superiors at State) to compromise over-much and give away the store (at least as far as American interests are concerned) before real negotiations begin is front and center. Bolton is ideologically far to my right, but his observations, “process over substance” and numerous problems with UN diplomatic ritual (not to mention outright failure and corruption in places) are accurate portraits of organizational dysfunction.

Bolton does his best to represent U.S. interests as he sees them and at the same time be a loyal soldier of the Bush 43 State department. There certainly was enough nonsense going on in the UN to fill several books, and as the second Bush 43 term winds on he finds much to criticize about the Rice State Department as well. No one gets away unscathed here except Bolton himself. He would come across a statesman except he ruins the effect with incessant (almost every page) derogatory remarks targeting both individuals and various collectives.

Time marches on, and much has happened since the end of 2007. Has Bolton learned anything? The international community is less stable than it was 13 years ago, much of this we might say due to American and international failure to take Bolton’s advice. On the other hand, very much might just as easily be laid at the feet of an international community (including the U.S.) too willing to engage in stick-wielding at the wrong time and place. He tells us the job of the people at State is to implement the policies of the big boss, the elected president. Does he still believe this about the current boss? I am very much looking forward to his present thoughts.

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