Trump wants to build a legacy, Bolton to break things – something had to give

Julian Borger in Washington
Photograph: Carlos Barría/Reuters

John Bolton can at least boast that he lasted longer than his two predecessors, but few observers of Trumpworld expected him to cling on until 2020.

Donald Trump hired Bolton to break things, like the Obama administration legacy and the orthodox foreign policy establishment in general. Now, with the 2020 election coming, a downturn looming and a second presidential term in doubt, Trump is trying to build a foreign policy legacy of his own – or at least a reasonable impression of one.

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For the president, that involves shaking hands with adversaries and announcing diplomatic breakthroughs with the likes of Tehran and the Taliban. Almost no one expected him to be able to make that hairpin pivot with someone as bellicose and determined as Bolton at his side.

The abrupt departure of the US national security adviser comes just three days after it emerged that Trump had invited the Taliban to Camp David to finalise a deal. The scene, in the same week as the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, was like an outtake from Bolton’s worst nightmare.

It was quickly reported that Bolton, an inveterate hawk, had vigorously opposed the move, and according to one version, the two old men argued bitterly over the issue. Bolton is an accomplished bureaucratic infighter, and his views usually find their way to the press.

In the end, the Camp David encounter did not happen (either because of the Taliban attack in Kabul on Thursday, or because the Taliban refused to attend, depending on who you believe), but Bolton’s dissension was public – certainly not for the first time, and it would not have been the last. There are other hostile foreigners Trump would like to shake hands with before the election campaign gets going.

France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, is currently pushing Trump into meeting the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, at the UN this month, and Trump signaled he was open to the idea. He has suggested many times he believes he could make a quick new deal with Iran if he could meet the country’s leadership face to face.

Trump’s model for such summitry is his relationship with Kim Jong-un, who he has met three times, a grand spectacle on each occasion, accompanied by announcements of breakthroughs without the reality of North Korean nuclear disarmament.

Before entering the White House, Bolton had been derisive about diplomacy with Pyongyang. After being hired in March 2018, he initially seemed to make his peace with the Trump glad-handing style, but was clearly uncomfortable and had a hand in the derailment of the second summit in Hanoi.

When Trump sought to resume the diplomacy, his proudest foreign policy achievement, with a meeting on the dividing line between the two Koreas in June, Bolton was nowhere to be seen. He had been sent on a diplomatic mission to Mongolia.

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The relationship suffered another bad blow over Bolton’s handling of Venezuela. He was convinced at the end of April that the regime of Nicolás Maduro was about to fall, and he put US prestige wholeheartedly behind what later turned out to be a sketchily planned coup d’etat that depended on senior Maduro aides defecting. It failed, and Trump was reportedly furious.

“It is pretty clear that Trump has an agenda: meeting Rouhani, doing a deal with North Korea, doing a deal with the Taliban. On all of that, Bolton was a pretty major obstacle,” said Thomas Wright, director of the Center on the US and Europe at the Brookings Institution.

Trump had no compunction about humiliating Bolton. He would point to him in meetings with foreign leaders to make fun of him. “He wants me to go to war,” he told one European head of state. “But I won’t let him.”

It was for those very instincts, however, that Trump had appointed Bolton in the first place. The then president-elect had given Bolton an audition after winning the 2016 election but was uneasy about the bristling grey walrus moustache. He had a certain idea of how he wanted his top officials to appear, and Bolton did not look the part. It was also unlikely Bolton would get confirmed by the Senate. The chamber had previously blocked him for the post of US ambassador to the UN, fearing he was too extreme and undiplomatic, so George W Bush ultimately went around Congress and gave him a recess appointment.

By spring 2018, Trump was getting restless and felt boxed in by the “axis of adults” who were stopping him walking out of the multilateral nuclear deal with Iran that Barack Obama had agreed to in 2015. Bolton was one of the few who hated the deal even more than Trump and was making his views plain on Fox News, which gave him a platform almost daily. He was also being pushed by one of Trump’s biggest donors, casino magnate and Israel ultra-hawk Sheldon Adelson.

Within two months of Trump hiring Bolton, the US was out of the deal and on the way to “maximum pressure” on Iran. The incoming national security adviser also convinced the president to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with Russia.

Related: How will John Bolton's dismissal affect US foreign policy?

Bolton’s departure was unsurprisingly hailed by arms control groups on Tuesday as the best news they have had for years. But the celebrations are tinged with caution. Bolton has degraded the interagency process, the way the administration makes policy, largely by ignoring it. He did not bring the department heads together because he wanted to have Trump’s ear alone.

“Bolton played an important role for Trump – he freed him from the bureaucratic constraints of a national security policy process by demolishing it. This is one reason he lasted so long,” said Suzanne DiMaggio, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Any successor will inherit this bureaucratic wasteland, with few, if any, checks on the commander-in-chief.

The next national security adviser may steer in a more dovish, diplomatic direction, but he or she will still have Trump grabbing the wheel at whim. The best prediction is that for the foreseeable future, US foreign policy will continue to swerve violently from one extreme to another.