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14.09.2019 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Will Bolton’s Exit Cause a Change in the US Foreign Policy?


Although not strictly a foreign affairs minister, John Bolton’s exit from the White House might leave a significant impact on the US foreign policy, for the US foreign policy is typically deeply intertwined with the question of US ‘national security’ and it is the name of ‘national security’ that the US has been overthrowing regimes all over the world ever since the end of the Second World War, and continues to pursue more or less the same policy in the 21st century vis-à-vis countries like Syria, Iran and North Korea. There is hardly any gainsaying that behind the US’ aggressive policy vis-à-vis these countries, particularly Iran, John Bolton’s role was significant and his exit, coming against the increasingly bright prospects of a meting between the US and Iranian leaders, signals a possible breakthrough between the US and Iran over the nuclear deal. This explains why Iranian leadership has welcomed Bolton’s exit and why Israel is only very uneasily trying to digest the exit of their “Trojan horse” from the White House. Indeed, for Iran Bolton’s exit represents a major rupture in the notorious “B-team”, consisting of Bolton, Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudia’s Muhammad bin Salman.

According to reports presented even in the mainstream western media, Bolton’s fundamental disagreement was over Trump’s idea of easing sanctions on Iran as a means to open the path to negotiations. In other words, while Bolton was opposed to easing the US’ “maximum pressures” policy, which was very much his own brainchild, Trump and some of his top officials wanted to experiment and see how far they (the US and Iran) could go to normalise tensions.

While the presence of Mike Pompeo, who is no dove and had in fact laid out 12 demands last year as pre-conditions for Iran to become a “normal country”, might still mean that a hard-line US approach towards Iran will remain intact, there is also no gainsaying that Pompeo’s policy hasn’t worked and none of the 12 demands have really been fulfilled. In addition to it, Pompeo has recently been seen softening his own stance, saying only last week that the US president was ready to engage in talks without any pre-conditions. In other words, with Bolton’s exit have also departed the idea of ‘no talks’ and ‘pre-emptive strikes.’

One significant reason why emphasis on talks has increased is that the US president has yet to win any major trophy in the foreign policy arena to showcase in his re-election bid in 2020. The US president’s foreign policy has been nothing short of a disaster: US relations with China are cold; no major win in Syria; Turkey continues to drift towards Russia; Afghanistan talks are “dead”; Iran remains strong in the face of hardest ever sanctions; and Trump’s forward play vis-à-vis North Korea hasn’t worked either. Trump, therefore, has nothing to show to prove he is a “master negotiator” and a smart “deal maker”, and he will remain empty handed unless, of course, he brings a major change in his foreign policy or actually wins a trophy before the next year elections.

Therefore, if there is one reason why Bolton’s exit might bring a foreign policy change, it is Trump’s imperative of avoiding a defeat—a political objective that Bolton could never be sensitive to. For instance, if Bolton has nothing to lose in a new Middle Eastern war with Iran, this war could be a deeply reckless and, in fact, a politically suicidal thing to happen in Trump’s own scheme of things.

What could equally hurt Trump’s re-election bid is the on-going trade-war with China and the impact it is leaving on the US economy after all. Bolton’s departure coupled with China’s decision to ease down tariffs on some of the US products ahead of up-coming talks indicates some progress towards normalisation, if not a breakthrough at all. For China, Bolton was a nuisance and trouble-maker. As China’s Global Times noted in its report, “Bolton has also never been of any good use to China. And he is clearly one of the players pushing China-US relations to a deep impasse.”

Yet, despite Bolton’s influence and exit, it remains a fact that Trump and Bolton shared ideas on all of the major issues concerning the US. As a matter of fact, Trump was always opposed to the current Iran-nuke deal and he always wanted to ‘firmly deal’ with China. And, he had stated taking steps to this end long before Bolton’s appointment as NSA. Therefore, the question of what how and if things will change at all is still relevant after Bolton’s exit, for while Bolton’s presence left an impact, his was not the only impact. There is a constant ‘Trump factor’ as well and this factor inherently sees Iran and China as ‘enemies’ Hence, the question: what will actually change, if at all, in the US foreign policy?

Given the overwhelming influence of Trump’s own mindset, a major change in the US foreign policy should not be expected. In fact, Pompeo made it clear that a single departure doesn’t and wouldn’t change policy.

However, while the essential policy will mostly remain the same i.e., the US would still want to make a new deal with Iran and make China submit to US economic pressure, what might change is the extent of emphasis put on aggressive steps and hard-line approach to active diplomacy and negotiations and an openness to strike a compromise – all with an eye on the 2020 presidential election. In other words, while the essential policy will remain unchanged, only the way and the tactics to pursue it might change.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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