Brexit offers a chance for Britain to become a “strong and independent country” that will have a positive impact on the rest of the world and play a vital role in Nato. That is the considered view of John Bolton, the United States national security adviser, who is a committed advocate of Britain leaving the European Union (EU).
Speaking exclusively to the Daily Telegraph, Bolton said the outcome of the 2016 referendum represented a “triumph of democracy”. He also backed Trump’s pledge of a trade deal that will be mutually beneficial to the US and Britain.
“We have agonised with you throughout this process,” said Bolton. “The US preference is for Britain to follow the course of what the people asked for and leave the EU. It is a lesson for everyone in the triumph of democracy.
“As a separate nation again, Britain’s impact on the world has the prospect of being even greater. And from the US point of view, that is all to the good. I think it will help us ... to have another strong and independent country that will help Nato to be more effective, and that has to be a plus.”
Under the Obama administration, Iran felt they had us in their pockets, so the Iranians did not fear us any more. Now they need to worry that if they do something they will pay a price.
Bolton, 70, a former US ambassador to the United Nations and veteran of the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush Republican administrations, is regarded as one of the more hawkish members of Trump’s foreign policy inner circle. As a staunch advocate of the “special relationship” between London and Washington, Bolton sees the commemorations to mark the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings, when US and British troops spearheaded the Normandy invasion that led to the defeat of Nazi Germany, as an opportunity to reinvigorate US-United Kingdom ties. “It remains a very strong relationship,” he said.
“The relationship between the two militaries is as good as it has ever been. From our perspective, Britain’s role is not simply as a European power. Britain is a world power.
“Across the board, the American people still see it as the most important relationship that we have. And when the preoccupation with Brexit is finally resolved, there is no upper limit to the influence Britain can have globally.”
The first step, Bolton believes, towards a closer relationship is for the next prime minister to complete the Brexit process and negotiate a trade deal with the US. “The president ... wants to make a deal with Britain that will leave both of us better off, and free Britain from the regulatory constraints it faces with the EU. Even though these are the last days of Theresa May as prime minister, this is a great time to talk about our common interests in the military and political space.”
As for who should replace May as Conservative leader, Bolton would not be drawn, although, like Trump, he is an admirer of Boris Johnson, whom he knows from the latter’s stint as foreign secretary.
The D-Day anniversary should remind people of the importance of the trans-Atlantic alliance in defending democracy. “The best way to protect our common values is to make sure that we are prepared to resist challenges,” Bolton said. “This is what Ronald Reagan called ‘peace through strength’. And if people are prepared to live up to that, then we should be united going forward.”
An American attorney, political commentator, Republican consultant, and government official, he has previously worked as the US ambassador to the United Nations (2005–2006).
Born on November 20, 1948 in Baltimore, Maryland, Bolton served in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Educated at the Yale University, he played a key role representing George W Bush in the presidential election recount in in 2000. He became Washington’s top arms control official in May 2001.
Bolton is, like Trump, keen for Britain to maintain the strength of its Armed Forces. “It is important that everybody pays their fair share of the burden. It is a mistake to say we passed the end of history, as some people said, at the end of the Cold War. We hoped it might be the case, but it turned out not to be true, and we have to acknowledge the real world that we live in ... It is critical that Britain retains its military strength.”
One of the recent causes of friction between Britain and the US has been May’s equivocal attitude on the issue of the Chinese telecoms giant Huawei, and whether it should be involved in building the 5G network.
The US has restricted Huawei’s access to its network, citing security concerns, and has encouraged the other members of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network — Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Britain — to follow suit.
May resisted Washington’s pressure, prompting US officials to warn that allowing Huawei continued access to the British system could jeopardise intelligence-sharing between Britain and America. “The threat is that Huawei is working to take over our communications systems,” said Bolton. “We are still having discussions with the British government on the political and technical level. We are all a bit late in understanding the nature of the threat.”
He also called for better cooperation between the US and its European allies on the issue of Russia, and Moscow’s attempts to undermine the western alliance. “We need to have a more coherent Russian policy with our European partners.”
Bolton’s main national security preoccupation is Iran, and dealing with the aftermath of the Trump administration’s decision last year to withdraw from the nuclear deal with Tehran that Barack Obama helped to negotiate in 2015. “Under the Obama administration, Iran felt they had us in their pockets, so the Iranians did not fear us any more. Now they need to worry that if they do something they will pay a price.”
In recent weeks, Washington has significantly increased its military presence in the Gulf, including the deployment of an aircraft-carrier battle group and fleet of B-52 bombers, following intelligence reports that Tehran was planning attacks on the US and its allies.
“The president has made it clear that we are ready to negotiate on the nuclear issue,” Bolton said. “But we are not going to accept Iranian threats to restrict access in the Strait of Hormuz, or [other things] that threaten our allies’ interests. That is why we took the military steps we did: Not because we want conflict, but precisely because we want to avoid it. We want to create the structures of deterrence that will convince Iran that this would be a dangerous course for them to pursue. It would be a very foolish mistake for Iran to doubt our resolve.”
Negotiating a new nuclear deal
Bolton, who is credited with being the architect of the Trump administration’s robust stand on Iran, dismissed claims, particularly from Europe, that US sanctions against Iran would fail to meet their objective. “Everyone said the sanctions would not work, but we have demonstrated we can do this on our own. Regime change is not the president’s policy. We want to negotiate a new deal. The sanctions are working. The Iranian economy is close to collapse. Countries have a choice: Would you rather do business with Iran or the US? And they have chosen the US.
“The sanctions are having a very big impact on Iran’s ability to finance the Revolutionary Guard and other terrorist groups. We do not want a war with Iran. But if you look at the central cause of trouble in the Middle East today, it is Iran.”
Bolton has a similarly robust stance on other national security issues, such as North Korea and the emergence of China, and it has earned him critics, many of whom resort to personal abuse in an attempt to discredit him. Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, recently denounced Bolton as part of a “B-team” that had been determined to destroy the nuclear deal. North Korea’s state media described him as a “human defect”, while US media regularly reports that he is about to be sacked.
Bolton remains philosophical. Regarding Washington’s foreign policy turf wars, he said: “If you agree with everyone 100 per cent of the time, you are living in fantasy land.”
And Iran’s attacks he dismissed as “a propaganda campaign”. “I like that old Central Asian saying,” he concluded. “The dogs bark, and the caravan moves on. I don’t care what they say.”
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2019
Con Coughlin is the Daily Telegraph’s defence editor and chief foreign affairs columnist.