United States President Donald Trump’s recent Cabinet shake-up — with former CIA director Mike Pompeo replacing Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State and foreign-policy hardliner John Bolton replacing H.R. McMaster as National Security Adviser — represents a significant shift in national security priorities and attitudes. After over a year of near-daily drama, the world has begun to adjust to the reality of the Trump administration.
Many world leaders are increasingly attempting to mitigate the effects of the Trump administration’s unilateral decisions, many of which directly undermine global cooperation. Notably, Trump withdrew the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership — two initiatives that would have helped to cement America’s global leadership, had the US administration not insisted on regarding them as Lilliputian conspiracies against the US.
More recently, Trump doubled down on this approach, announcing stiff tariffs on aluminium and steel, from which some allies — but not Japan — are temporarily exempted. This doesn’t look good for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who had rushed to be the first to embrace the Trump administration. While Abe will recover his political footing on the tariff issue, he will be far more cautious moving forward.
As these developments unfolded, Tillerson and McMaster struggled. Diffidence and arrogance is a fatal combination for a secretary of state, yet that is precisely what Tillerson displayed — and he rarely seemed to have a good day in the job. Similarly, McMaster — a hasty but welcome replacement for the disgraced Michael Flynn — seemed to be in over his head, unable to connect with the president or manage inter-agency dynamics.
By contrast, Pompeo and Bolton have shown that they can communicate with Trump — no small feat for a president who, well into his second year in office, has yet to develop a strong relationship with his national security team.
Becoming Secretary of State — the Cabinet’s most prestigious position — is a significant step up for Pompeo, whose short tenure as CIA director was preceded by a six-year stint in the House of Representatives, representing Kansas’ fourth congressional district. Most Americans first heard of him in 2015, when he grilled the then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton on her supposed role in the tragic death of the US ambassador in Benghazi, Libya. While that performance could conceivably indicate a welcome concern about the security of US diplomats abroad, it also indicates a politicised approach to security and decision-making, which was also reflected in Pompeo’s tenure at the CIA.
As for Bolton, he has served as a political appointee in several administrations. A relentless bureaucratic brawler, Bolton has many accomplishments. His Proliferation Security Initiative, launched during former US president George W. Bush’s administration, is generally regarded as a diplomatic success that has helped to foster international cooperation. But, for the most part, Bolton has shown himself to be a foreign-policy hawk.
With the North Korea crisis looming, the world will not have to wait long to find out how Bolton’s and Pompeo’s inclinations translate into action. Both are expected to start their new jobs in the run-up to Trump’s expected summit with Kim Jong-un — the product of yet another abrupt unilateral decision by Trump.
Many within the Republican Party who are sceptical of diplomacy, of whom Bolton is a leader, have balked at Trump’s decision to meet Kim, arguing that talks with dictators are a waste of time that ultimately play into autocrats’ hands. Even those who instinctively support diplomacy have serious doubts: With no further diplomatic steps available, if Trump’s gambit fails, only military solutions will be left.
Bolton and Pompeo may believe that the best possible outcome is for the meeting to take place, with Trump storming out angrily. But a negative outcome is not what most people want, especially given the lack of compelling alternatives. And it is almost certainly not what Trump wants, given his eagerness to prove that he was magnanimous to accept Kim’s invitation to meet. The extent to which Pompeo and Bolton support the initiative will thus have a significant impact not just on the summit itself, but also on Trump’s presidency.
Successful summits tend to be those that are well prepared. Will Bolton be willing to engage South Korea’s leaders, whom he has sometimes criticised as appeasers, in order to harmonise the US and South Korean positions? Will he or Pompeo work with the Chinese to identify an effective mode of cooperation? Will either official be willing to meet with the North Koreans before the summit to ensure a positive outcome?
A president may pull a rabbit out of a hat from time to time, but that trick is possible only when diplomats — usually led by the national security adviser and the secretary of state — have prepared the props. Whether Pompeo and Bolton can do so remains to be seen.
— Project Syndicate, 2018
Christopher R. Hill, former US assistant secretary of state for East Asia, is chief adviser to the chancellor for Global Engagement, professor of the Practice in Diplomacy at the University of Denver, and the author of Outpost.