John R. Bolton is the former U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. One of America’s foremost experts on foreign policy and national-security issues, his long career in public service includes time as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security during the George W. Bush administration, assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs in the George H.W. Bush administration, and assistant attorney general and assistant administrator of USAID during the Reagan administration. He is an adviser to the Romney presidential campaign and senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can find out more about Amb. Bolton’s views at: www.aei.org/scholar/john-r-bolton.
Decker: Some critics shoot arrows at you for supposedly being too hawkish. This is the charge leveled at anyone who dares suggest that a superpower should use force to achieve an objective, no matter how dire the circumstance. Liberals like to quote Teddy Roosevelt’s maxim about speaking softly and carrying a big stick without understanding that the compelling force is fear that the stick might actually be used. What’s behind this modern imperative for never-ending dialogue shorn of any real means of enforcement?
Bolton: It is central to successful U.S. foreign policy that we achieve the overwhelming preponderance of our key objectives diplomatically, without the use of force. But as the Romans said, si vis pacem, para bellum: If you want peace, prepare for war. George Washington used the maxim in his first State of the Union address, and in our day, Ronald Reagan characterized his policy as “peace through strength.” The point is clear.
Unfortunately, too many mistake resolve for belligerence. President Obama, for example, acts as if American strength is provocative, that we are too much in the world, and that a lesser U.S. profile would make other nations better disposed toward us. This is exactly backwards. It is not our strength that is provocative, but our weakness, which simply emboldens our adversaries to take advantage of what they see as decline and retreat.
Decker: You wrote a 2007 New York Times best-seller titled, “Surrender Is Not an Option.” Contrary to the position of strength you advocate, President Obama has pursued a policy of “leading from behind,” whereby Washington takes a back seat in determining the course of major international affairs. How does this absence of U.S. leadership invite more ill-natured regimes to fill the power vacuum in ways that have serious consequences down the road?
Bolton: When our opponents sense a weak, inattentive U.S. administration, they are obviously motivated to seize the opening before a Reagan-like president appears. So, when Mr. Obama pleads with Russian President Medvedev to give him “space” before our election so Obama can be more “flexible” afterward, our adversaries take careful note. And when China’s official news agency scoffed last week that, “U.S. power is declining and it hasn’t enough economic strength or resources to dominate the Asia-Pacific region,” China’s neighbors shudder.
The perception of U.S. weakness can certainly be reversed, as Reagan did, but the costs are inevitably high. Today, debilitating cuts in the national-defense budget, with more to come if the sequestration provisions kick in, only make the task of rebuilding harder. International leadership is undeniably a burden, and many other countries benefit as free riders, but we cannot forget we are not leading out of altruism but because of the sustained economic and political benefits that accrue to America. We cannot have one without the other.
Decker: There is a hyper-egalitarianism running amuck that sees all nations as equal. This ideology posits that Brazil should have a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, that some Third Worlder should be president of the World Bank, and there’s no justification for preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons when America maintains its own stockpile. What’s wrong with this picture? Does it ignore how the world works?
Bolton: George H.W. Bush correctly assessed his 1988 opponent Michael Dukakis by saying, “He sees America as another pleasant country on the U.N. roll call, somewhere between Albania and Zimbabwe.” This is essentially Mr. Obama’s view, that of a self-described “citizen of the world.” It rests on two elements. One is “moral equivalency,” seeing all nations as fungible, no one having a higher claim than another, including our own. Iran, North Korea, America — it’s just too parochial to treat them differently. The other is “mirror imaging,” the fallacy of seeing other nations as operating according to our same incentives and disincentives, our rationality and our same ranking of outcomes. While we can overcome these failures, we must first be aware how pervasive they are within the American Establishment.
Decker: The United States took its eye off a lot of the globe for a while after 9/11, which is understandable given the enormity of the imminent danger at the time. Outside of the Middle East and radical Islam, what other threats to U.S. national security are lurking that should be on the next president’s radar screen? What current weaknesses leave us vulnerable to another 9/11-type surprise?
Bolton: Beyond question, our gravest threat comes from the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical and biological) and the means to deliver them, including ballistic missiles. Whether in the hands of terrorists, rogue states or increasingly from a re-surging Russia and a rapidly advancing China, the WMD threat is growing. It has been so long since nuclear testing, above or below ground, that I worry too many Americans have lost sight of the power of nuclear weapons, seeing them as something from grainy black-and-white films from 1940s testing in Pacific atolls.
The consequences, however, are terrifying, whether we contemplate the loss of even one American city held hostage to nuclear blackmail by terrorists, or the prospect of Israel vaporizing in a nuclear holocaust. There is more to defending the United States than just the military assets we deploy. More fundamental is our basic attitude: Do we acknowledge, or not, the possibility — even the likelihood — that there are ideologies, religions or nations that wish us ill, even to the point of our destruction?
Amazingly, having just concluded a century where vicious ideologies like Nazism and Communism caused slaughter and torment beyond description, we find many political leaders — like President Obama (“the tide of war is receding”) — essentially prepared to declare “peace in our time.” No war on terror, no radical Islam, no geopolitical competitors, no nothing. This is a prescription not for peace ahead, but for imminent danger.
Decker: In a recent speech in Florida, you said, “The most important thing you need is a president who is proud of the United States of America, who believes in American exceptionalism.” Can you explain why it’s vital for a leader to appreciate we’re more than just one more nation in the world, that we do have a special, benevolent role to play in it, and what the consequences are when a president doesn’t share this vision?
Bolton: Contrary to what its critics, including many in this country, say, American exceptionalism simply recognizes the reality of our distinct history. After all, a Frenchman, Alexis de Toqueville, first characterized us as “exceptional,” and he didn’t mean it entirely as a compliment! Mr. Obama once compared U.S. exceptionalism to Britain and Greece, and he easily could have listed the other 190 United Nations members. If everyone is exceptional, no one is, leading almost inexorably to believe that the United States has no special role to play internationally, even on its own behalf. It leads to a “come home, America” approach that inevitably weakens the United States, its friends and allies, and the values and interests we should be advancing.