On September 10, 2019, Donald Trump fired his national security advisor John Bolton, significantly changing the dynamic within the Trump Administration’s foreign policy team. So, what does the future of American foreign policy look like under the current president? Doug Becker speaks with Jeffrey Fields, Robert Williams, Peter F. Trumbore, and Nicholas Rostow.

Jeffrey Fields is an Associate Professor in International Relations at the University of Southern California. He is an expert in US foreign policy and is the author of State Behavior and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime.

Robert Williams is a Professor of Political Science at Pepperdine University, California. He is an expert in international security and is the co-author of Seeking Security in an Insecure World.

Peter F. Trumbore is a Professor of Political Science at Oxford University. He is an expert in international conflict.

Nicholas Rostow is a Senior Research Scholar in Law at Yale University. He is an expert in US national security.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length
Photo by History in HD on Unsplash

Doug Becker: Jeffrey Fields, let’s start with you. What are the institutional implications of the firing of John Bolton and the seeming marginalisation of the National Security Council?

Jeffrey Fields: Firstly, obviously there will be a different person there, a different personality from John Bolton. I think the larger question that you are asking is a little bit more to difficult to answer, not because it is unknowable but because it is difficult to figure out what Trump is doing. He has strange relationships with people around him, he likes to have people around him not always for their expertise but because they are friends, loyal Republicans. But in this particular position of national security advisor, it remains to be seen what this is going to be like, what Robert O’Brien’s relationship will be like with Trump. I guess I would say, with any administration, the president is going to have their own kind of relationship with the national security advisor, and whether that person acts in a way the statute envisioned – it doesn’t always happen in practice. That person may get side-lined, they may inflect their own policy priorities on the president. I think that is going to be the first thing to try to observe is what is their working relationship going to be like. I think you are asking also what this means for the NSC and the NSC staff as well, and there has been a whole lot of hand wringing and people thinking about the NSC staff over the last few years. Obama came under some criticism for having such a large NSC staff. I don’t know if there are any larger implications because every administration is going to use the staff differently.

DB: Nicholas Rostow, how typical is the current operation of the council?

Nicholas Rostow: I would like to answer by going back a little bit in time. It is useful to remember that we went through WWII without an NSC. The NSC was created by the national security act of 1947 and Truman didn’t like it and only came to use it late in his presidency. The genius of it is that it has become a management tool in the foreign and national security area because it is flexible, it can reflect the management preferences and styles of different presidents. This president strikes me as not really interested in government and so it is very difficult to see whether there is in fact an NSC inter-agency process that is recognisable. But Lyndon Johnson once said the president is entitled to listen to the advice of his chauffer, there is nothing Congress can do about it. Congress tried to streamline and regularise presidential decision-making with the NSC by creating the NSC, but they cannot force the president to use it. Each president learns over time that it is a very useful vehicle for managing difficult policy problems that touch many different agencies. This president has a very different style from his predecessors with respect to management and governance. So from an outside point of view, unless you are inside you really don’t know how things work, it is very difficult to place the Trump administration within the context of the history of the last seventy years or so. That said, obviously John Bolton is a person with a long track record in terms of strongly held views about certain things and Mr. O’Brien doesn’t have that track record, doesn’t have that public persona and that could be a tremendous advantage in terms of manging the inter-agency process and persuading the president to use it and pay attention to it. This president clearly doesn’t like advisors who are in the public eye so Mr. O’Brien may have an advantage there.

DB: Peter Trumbore, your thoughts on the role that the NSC might play, or just in general the role that advisors and experts have and likely will play with Trump?

Peter Trumbore: I think this is a really interesting case. I think John Bolton was an unusual choice for President Trump given the huge disparity in their temperaments. I think that Trump was attracted to Bolton because of what he saw of Bolton’s performances as a Fox News commentator. In the leadup to Bolton’s selection, Bolton was very effusive of his praise of Trump and I think as we have come to learn that goes a long way, flattery goes a really long way with this president. I don’t know that Trump gave much attention to the real big differences in their policy orientations and attitudes when he decided that Bolton was the NSC advisor his administration needed. That said, I don’t know that this president has much of a regard for anyone’s expertise other than his own and I think we have seen that in the nature of the nominations and appointments he has made across his administration. For example, appointing chief science officers who are not scientists, hand-amending weather maps on his own – I just don’t know that Trump cares much for expertise. If you go back to even the campaign with Trump’s insistence for example that he knew more about any number of topic than the experts, that he knew the military better than the generals, that he knew what to do about ISIS and terrorism better than anybody, that nobody was better on subject X than Trump. So I think this whole question is kind of spurious, I don’t think that Trump has any respect for any expertise beyond that of what his gut tells him is the right thing to do.

DB: With that in mind, let’s now look at specific issues. The Trump Administration has shown a willingness to use security issues for domestic purposes. Robert Williams, specifically on Ukraine, is the President freestyling his policy or has he been pretty consistent with his previous policies?

Robert Williams: Well phone calls are a common thing between American presidents and other leaders, but not typically ones like this one. And of course, we have had the release of the summary of this phone call and frankly those who have seen it would say there is nothing exonerating. But I want to make a bigger point about the way Trump is doing foreign policy and the way it meshes with his personal interests and his interests in re-election in 2020, the issues that are at the core of the Mueller Report, and this more recent issue with Ukraine that has finally moved the House leadership toward an impeachment investigation. The bigger issue is that Trump foreign policy is two very different things. On the one hand, it is Trump making a call like this to President Zelensky, it is Trump meeting with Kim Jong-un, it is Trump having a private conversation with Vladimir Putin. That is part of the Trump foreign policy. But the other part of the Trump foreign policy is what the rest of the administration in many instances is trying to do to moderate his impulses, to ensure there is some normalcy to foreign policy, it is pushing back in ways that are often designed to escape his direct notice. And so we have seen any number of cases where what is coming out of the administration is two different things depending on whether you are looking at Trump’s Twitter feed or what is happening from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or lower levels within the administration trying to conduct a foreign policy as if this was a normal presidency, and it is clearly not.

DB: Jeff Fields, if this is not a normal presidency, I guess one of the questions is what would it take to return to a normal presidency or what would a normal policymaking apparatus look like? Is there a middle ground between what seems to be a very unique form and something that might be more consistent with previous administrations?

JF: I think there is a middle ground, but I don’t think we can get there with this president. Trump is not particularly concerned with governance or policy. I mean that sounds cynical and you can turn on any cable TV show to have lots of people saying the same thing it just happens to be true. So the middle ground is where Trump decides to get serious about foreign policy and governance. Presidents are always going to disagree with their advisers and what that looks like in the end is going to depend on the president. I would think that if Trump wins a second term that it always has the potential to make him more relaxed and do things more differently. However, can this guy be a normal president? I mean we have seen so many examples where he just cannot. Talking about North Korea and Kim Jong-un, you have an inter-agency [group] working on this but then Trump wants to be the person that is out in front of it. The summit is on and then it is off, he is tweeting about it, tweeting directly at heads of state. When you can get that dialled back that is where I see the middle ground is. He has got to become somebody who takes this more seriously than he does and where his instincts on foreign policy are not just about how he looks. With the release of the Ukrainian phone readout, if you saw the press conference that he gave in New York, I mean it was just this long rambling affair where he is still talking about Hillary Clinton’s emails and the election and how many electoral votes he won by, he is just not a person interested in foreign policy. So I don’t know what the route is to get him more interested in that.

DB: Nick Rostow, it is clear that this is a president that doesn’t do things in the same way. But considering that, is it necessarily a bad thing that we have a president that wants to break with the past?

NR: I think actions, decisions, non-decisions, they all have consequences and presidents have to live with their decisions and the consequences of their decisions. The advisors can always say, ‘Sorry boss, I was wrong, I resign’. And I think that whether it is Iran, or whether it is the consequence of conditioning in any way assistance to Ukraine…I mean, to take Ukraine, our ambassador to the OSCE James Gilmour said the US does not recognise the annexation of Crimea by Russia or the incorporation into Russia of parts of Eastern Ukraine, and insists on the territorial integrity of Ukraine including Crimea, including Sebastopol. Well, that is a very strong statement by a US ambassador who is a personal representative of the president. Is it US foreign policy? Your guess is as good as mine. I think one of the drawbacks of Trump’s management style is the great uncertainty that it creates, but I don’t see that changing. I mean people like myself who have observed this man in New York for forty years know that his style as president is exactly the same as his style in New York, except that he has got a better pulpit and he is able to be in everybody’s attention span 24/7 which he was not able to do as Donald Trump in New York. With respect to his regard for experts, New York is full of people who were experts in their trade who have never been paid by this man and bankers who will not lend him money. There is nothing unusual about his behaviour as president compared to his behaviour before he became president. I am not optimistic that he is going to change. The US is a very serious member of the international community and it does help to act in a thoughtful and measured way. For good or ill, we are still the leading power and countries depend on the US and they react to our policy as best they can but they need to know what it is and it cannot be changing every twenty minutes.

DB: Pete Trumbore, It seems like one of the themes here is the need for consistency in foreign policy and predictability so that other leaders know what American policy is. Is this correct?

PT: I am glad you bring up this question about consistency, and let me preface my remarks by reacting to Trump’s notion that unpredictability on his part is a virtue. I think that Trump was temporarily taken with the crazy Nixon idea – someone probably said something to him and so he was enamoured with that notion for himself. If you actually look at Trump’s worldview as it relates to foreign policy he has been remarkably consistent going back to the 1980s on some very key points. One of them is that Trump believes in purely transactional relationships when it comes to foreign policy and has long argued that American allies rip the US off and that we pay to defend countries that ought to be paying the US for protection. According to Trump, this notion of permanent alliances is actually a sucker’s game when it comes to American foreign policy and that is an argument he has been making since the 1980s. He has also been arguing since then that free trade is a losers bet from the standpoint of the US, that the US should play economic hardball in its trade relationships and that if we are not playing by those rules then again people are taking advantage of us. And then the third area of consistency in his worldview has been this long standing admiration for authoritarian leaders, for demonstrations of strength. And so if we look at those things, then what we can say is that in the broad brush both our advisories and our allies really shouldn’t be surprised by the kinds of things that Trump says, Tweets, and the policy recommendations that seem to flow endlessly from his whims, impulses, and instincts. It shouldn’t surprise us that he throws our longstanding allies under the bus, meanwhile gets close to strongmen whether it is Duterte, Erdogan, el-Sisi, who he recently described as his favourite dictator, and the list goes on. I think it is kind of a misnomer that there is no consistency to his foreign policy. I think what is throwing us is that Trump’s internal consistency and coherency is out of step with how the US has been doing foreign policy for roughly the last seventy years.

DB: Robert Williams, what are the implications of Pete Trumbore’s observations on Trump?

RW: Well, first of all, I absolutely agree with Peter’s assessment and I think he raised three very important consistent elements of Trump’s ideas about foreign policy. I also agree that there is no consistency to speak of with prior American foreign policy and so I think here is where the rest of the world is having some trouble with this. I think a lot of people thought early on that American institutions, whether it be an executive branch that is difficult to turn quickly, whether it is Congress that asserts its own prerogatives, I think a lot of us thought American institutions might do a better job than they have of standing up to this kind of renegade foreign policy. And so there are agents and structures in international politics and US foreign policy, the structures have not held very well, and so I think the surprise is that Trump has been able to inject a whole lot more chaos into US foreign policy than perhaps we ever expected. In terms of his ideas around deals, he has this notion that he has this tremendous ability to make grandiose deals, nobody can make deals like he can. He only likes deals that he has made. He is quite willing to pull out of other people’s deals and it appears in the case of Iran at least, that he is almost willing to go back and make the same deal as long as he can put his own name on it and not associate it with Obama or someone else even in his own administration. I think one of the things that happened to John Bolton is that Bolton got in and thought he could play the role of one of these foreign policy actors who might be able to steer Trump in a particular way and I think Trump to some extent was enamoured to Bolton early on because of his Fox News appearances, but also because he thought Bolton was a like-minded iconoclast, someone who was going to come in with a wrecking ball in foreign policy the same way Trump had done. I think where Bolton ran afoul of Trump was when he began to assert himself more and when he began to contradict Mike Pompeo. There were reports that Pompeo and Bolton did not speak, they had to communicate through subordinates. Pompeo’s great virtue has been that he never upstages Trump, he never has an idea that is not Trump’s first or that Trump doesn’t get credit for, and Bolton was not in that league and I think that was his problem. So the Trump foreign policy, it is very personalistic, it is very much him and the ability to control for that seems to be far more limited than many of our allies thought or hoped, than many analysts had hoped.

JF: One thing I would note about consistency is that Donald Trump feels very adverse to military conflict. That I think is just something to note, and also, it would seem to me that that was inevitably going to cause a clash with him and John Bolton who is just a hawk’s hawk.

DB: Nick, your thoughts on that?

NR: Whatever everyone thinks of John Bolton there are few people who know the proliferation dossier better than John Bolton. He was always going to be a sceptic about the possibility of doing a deal with North Korea and what it could be, he was going to be a sceptic about doing a new deal with Iran, he was going to be a sceptic on relations with China and Russia. I think he knows a great deal about the details of those relations and their history and that is something that Trump would find uncomfortable in anybody.

DB: Robert Williams, building on that question, one area that we have seen quite a bit of inconsistency with previous administrations has been arms control deals. How much do you see, if there is a second Trump administration the future of some of these arms control deals?

RW: That is a good point, and I just want to mention that going back to the Eisenhower administration, every single US administration since has engaged in arms control and has come away with at least one agreement, I think in Nixon’s case maybe six agreements. Trump of course has not only not reached any arms control agreements, he has abrogated the INF treaty, pulled out of the arms trade treaty, and pulled out of the Iran deal. So Trump’s instincts on arms control are quite different and quite at odds with his predecessors. I think the fundamental problem goes back to something Peter mentioned, that Trump is very transactional in the way he views the world, he doesn’t see any kind of value in long slow relationship-building, probably doesn’t understand the concept of norms in international politics. I think to a considerable extent, all of his instincts are anti-arms control because arms control requires an awful lot of patience, requires an awful lot of effort, and what you begin building is not necessarily something you are going to see to fruition. These are agreements that usually take years and multiple administrations to bring to fulfilment. He is never going to be an arms control president. What is probably a little more troubling even than that though, is that I don’t think Trump even understands the national security establishment and I don’t think he understands nuclear weapons. And so, he sees big bang, he doesn’t see deterrence theory, he doesn’t see bargaining theory. There are a lot of things that people have spent a lot of time and energy trying to understand, trying to work out for our leadership that Trump has no concept of. And that is where I think the nuclear policies cause a great deal of consternation in the world for good reason.

DB: On that point, there is at least one country that he seems dedicated to get some kind of deal and that is North Korea. With that in mind, should the US be pursuing any kind of arms control deal with North Korea in order to address that clearly troubling issue of them developing a nuclear weapon, or is this more consistent with the idea that Trump enjoys his time with authoritarians?

PT: Of course we should be pursuing some sort of agreement that would reign in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. But I think North Korea and Kim Jong-un are particularly savvy in terms of recognising very early on that the way to the president’s heart is through shameless flattery. How often have we seen and heard Trump declaiming on the “beautiful” letters that he has received from Kim Jong-un. The president seems to go out of his way to excuse the bad behaviour of the North Korean regime and of the Kim government so that he can maintain this facade of progress. So should we be trying to make an agreement? Absolutely. Is Trump going to get us there? There is not a chance in the world that what he has been doing is going to produce the kind of effect that he thinks he is headed towards. There have been no commitments made by the North Koreans, in fact they have continued to test weapons, they have continued to perfect their technologies, and Trump essentially says, ‘Yeah, but these are not things that Kim promised not to do to me, these are short medium-range missile tests and he never promised me that he would stop doing that so what is the big harm?’ The bottom line in a lot of this conversation we have been having is that one of the lasting harms that Trump has done to American foreign policy is he has eviscerated our credibility. Trump blusters and bluffs and threatens. And going back to his business career, he just does not follow through. The tool that Trump relied on as a businessman was the threat of lawsuit and he very rarely followed through on that. And one of the hallmarks of his presidency so far has been the threat of military action even as it is well known that he has this very strong aversion to the use of military force. He talks a big game but no one believes him and the danger with that is there may come the point where we actually have to use force but no one is going to believe that Trump will follow through.

The other thing that he has done by essentially ripping up these agreements that prior administrations had committed themselves to – whether they were arms control or trade agreements or whatever – is he has essentially destroyed the understanding that successor governments in the US will honour the commitments made by previous presidencies. And that is actually very bad, it is bad now, and it is going to be especially bad in the future because our partners are going to look at this and say, ‘Well, what is going to stop whoever follows Trump from following the same playbook? We cannot trust the word of the US any longer’. And that is just a recipe for trouble from the standpoint of American national interests and the predictability that I think we all agree is essential for international stability and order.

DB: Jeffrey Fields, do you agree with this assessment that the likelihood of any deal with North Korea is pretty low?

JF: I think the probability of getting a deal is pretty low. I think it is pretty low because it is just going to be incredibly difficult. Lots of American presidents, especially Republican presidents lately have demonstrated the same thing with North Korea, so we are in unchartered territory here. To fully de-nuclearise North Korea would be an incredibly long, taxing process. There will be starts, they will walk away from the table, they will be accused of cheating, there will be all sorts of political pressure on the president to walk away, and that would test any president, but especially one like Donald Trump who does not want to immerse himself in the details and has a very short attention span. In terms of summitry, this is where I give him a little bit more credit because if you are going to try to crack a nut I think presidents should be willing to do that. When candidate Obama talked about his willingness to meet with leaders of Iran without preconditions he was just roundly eviscerated by that, Senator McCain talked about how naïve he was, etcetera. People on the other side would point out that, well, if you are going to get a deal you are going to have to negotiate with your enemies and I give Trump credit for that. Where he falls down is this transactional thing and he is more about the photo op and holding up the piece of paper that they have signed that doesn’t really say anything then getting into the details of it. But there he is sitting in the room, the first American president to meet the leader of North Korea. I am a big proponent of, ‘Well, go see what happens, it cannot be worse than where we are right now’. The Bush administration came in in 2000 and walked away from the agreement the US had. They had their reasons for doing that, some having to do with specifics and some having to do with wanting to walk away from something that President Clinton had negotiated. But if you talk to those people, they would say that they cheated on this, they are doing this, they are not serious. Well where did that get us in those eight years of the presidency? In 2000, North Korea had not tested a nuclear weapon and now they have tested six times. So if you had sat down and negotiated with them face to face at a very high level in 2001, what is the worse that could have happened? So I do give credit to Trump for that. And the same thing with Iran, it has been back and forth. Before this latest flare up it kind of seemed like he might have actually met with President Rouhani, not a lot of other presidents would be willing to do that. But for North Korea, it is going to take some creativity and patience and it is going to be incredibly difficult for Trump and even the next president after him.

Just one more thing. On the INF: Trump doesn’t seem to care about the nitty gritty of arms control or understands nuclear strategy. On the campaign trail, he was asked whether he would eliminate one of the legs of the triad and he clearly had no idea what the triad was. But on the INF treaty, you cannot really put that on Trump, I mean the Russians were cheating on it. And this goes back to the Obama administration. I was working at the State Department then and the question was what do we do, we know they are cheating, do we confront them? But that was probably inevitable that that treaty was going to fall apart.

NR: On the INF Treaty. I served in the Raegan administration when the INF Treaty was negotiated and of course, the Russians had violated the ABM Treaty very substantially, but it was useful to hit them over the head in negotiations about it rather than tear up the ABM Treaty. I think the fact that the Russians were violating the INF Treaty gave us a good lever and we were not using it. In terms of this whole question of personal diplomacy by a president: the president doesn’t get any points, the president’s prestige is not enhanced by meeting with Kim Jong-un or President Rouhani and not getting a new deal. But meeting with the president is a huge prestige win for someone like Kim Jong-un or Rouhani. And so a NSC staffer would remind the president to think seriously about what he would be giving to an advisory by meeting with them. That is one thing this president doesn’t seem to think about. The other thing that is interesting, take NAFTA, he said it was the worst agreement ever negotiated. Well, nobody was complaining about it and it seemed to work very well. And the new agreement that he negotiated is a tweak, it is NAFTA+ but it is renamed. And does that mean that he would re-enter the Clinton agreement with North Korea only call it the Trump agreement, would he re-enter a JCPOA with Iran with a tweak? That is not really accomplishing very much.

PT: I wanted to add to that a little bit. I appreciate the perspective that Jeff is bringing and I get the idea that maybe Trump deserves some credit for being willing to sit down and talk with these other heads of states that we have had these fraught relationships with. That is all well and good, and I would absolutely be okay with that if I thought that Trump was doing the homework necessary to walk into those situations and to be able to negotiate some kind of agreement from a position of solid information and preparation. But we know the president doesn’t read, we know the president doesn’t listen to briefings, we know the president believes that his gut is superior to the expertise of his advisors. So whether we are talking about Kim Jong-un or Rouhani or bringing the Taliban to Camp David just before [the 9/11 anniversary] so that Trump could negotiate the final details of an American withdrawal from Afghanistan. To me, all of this is about the optics and not about the substance. I don’t think Trump has any interest in the substance, I think Trump is interested in the presentation, he is interested in the spectacle, he is interested in the stroking of his own ego. I don’t think he cares one bit about the extent to which this elevates the people he is sitting down with, I think for Trump, it is all about him. And if it wasn’t that way, I would be completely supportive of Jeff’s position that Trump deserves credit for sitting down and talking with these people when others wouldn’t.

RW: I rarely have found myself expressing sympathy for John Bolton in any situation but I find myself imagining what his blood pressure must have been contemplating Donald Trump on the phone or in a meeting with Kin Jong-un or with Rouhani, he must have just been apoplectic about that possibility of something being done in ignorance with either of those leaders. North Korea back in May issued a statement calling Bolton a warmonger, and I have got to believe that is on his resume right now.

This interview originally aired on the Scholars’ Circle. To access our archive of episodes and download this interview, click here.

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Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this discussion reflect the views of the guests and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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