National Security

John Bolton’s Wisdom

What is good for America is good for the world

John Bolton
John Bolton / Getty Images

Speaking in London in 1982, Henry Kissinger described how, in foreign policy, Britain passed down to the United States "a convenient form of ethical egoism," believing that what was good for itself was "best for the rest." Thirty-seven years later, John Bolton is adhering to this notion, this self-confidence in American power and morality, as President Trump's national security adviser.

Bolton is the subject of a new profile in the Atlantic, in which he explains his worldview to Graeme Wood, the author. "The greatest hope for freedom for mankind in history is the United States, and therefore protecting American national interest is the single best strategy for the world," Bolton says. It is unclear whether Bolton knows of Kissinger's speech at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, but he certainly echoes the same idea: what is good for America is good for the world.

Critics will call this view American chauvinism, and they may be right. But that does not make Bolton wrong. In fact, his conception of America's role in the world is the best way, both morally and strategically, to foster global peace and prosperity—to the extent that either is possible in a turbulent world.

In the international system of states, war is natural and peace an aberration, not the other way around. History shows that peace does not preserve itself; powerful countries with the ability to wield influence on a regional or global scale do so. "The preservation of peace," writes the American historian Donald Kagan, "requires active effort, planning, the expenditure of resources, and sacrifice, just as war does." Such efforts include "maintaining a strong military … and the willingness to use it when necessary." When great powers choose instead to withdraw, disarm, and disengage, conflict is more likely to follow. The outbreak of World War II is the classic example, but far from the only one. Looking forward today, who will take on the burden of preserving the peace?

America is the only option. None of the other democracies—in Europe, Asia, or elsewhere—have the will or capability to do so. Nor does the United Nations, which struggles to condemn—let alone stop—atrocities around the world. Powerful autocracies, especially Russia and China, like to think they have the ability to run a global order, but their leaders live in fear of their own people, lack the needed international backing, and lack the military and economic might to do so. More importantly, the world's dictators are precisely the ones who need to be countered to preserve the peace, since they will, left unchecked, take over territories and terrorize peoples.

The United States has the military and economic power, network of alliances, and, for the most part during the last 70 years, the will to preserve peace to the extent possible and prevent large-scale war. The United States is also blessed with a unique geographic situation that allows it to influence events on the Eurasian supercontinent, where many of the world's troubles take place, while being separate from it. Moreover, the global order that followed World War II and reached new heights after the Cold War—defined by an open global economic system, international institutions, and liberal political norms—was—and is—possible because of American supremacy. American power brought unprecedented peace, wealth, stability, and freedom to so many parts of the world, including the United States itself.

So of course Bolton is right: doing what is best for America is, broadly speaking, to the world's benefit. He should not apologize for saying so. American dominance only hurts those who thrive on destabilization, abuse human rights, and pursue belligerent imperialism.

Bolton describes his views to Wood as "pro-American," a term he also uses to describe the real meaning of Trump's "America first" foreign policy. Here we come to Bolton's wisdom. On the one hand, Bolton promotes Trump's more protectionist foreign policy and is chiefly concerned with American interests—he has called himself a "realist" in previous interviews. But on the other hand, Bolton says America's interests serve the world because the United States is mankind's "greatest hope for freedom." Bolton has long emphasized the importance of pushing for freedom abroad. "I identify with the liberty interest from my days as an anti-communist," he said in 2007. "That was for me the value side of wanting the collapse of communism: people within the communist empire would be free to choose, not that they would necessarily choose Wilsonian democracy. Freedom to choose and what is chosen are two different things."

Bolton may draw an interesting distinction between promoting freedom and promoting democracy, but he is still talking about the importance of values. In other words, Bolton's "pro-American" foreign policy is fundamentally internationalist, rooted in a sense of idealism. He seeks to defend American interests, which in turn benefit the world and promote American values. This formulation is the perfect bridge between realist protectionism and idealist internationalism. Bolton's worldview is the way to connect the foreign policies of Trump and the late Sen. John McCain, to unite the political right under a banner of pragmatic internationalism. The isolationist inclinations of America firsters would be unable to preserve the peace, no matter how hard America tried to withdraw from the world. And, on the other extreme, a messianic quest to remake the world in America's image is noble, but entirely unrealistic; moreover, the American people would not accept the cost in lives and money that such a project would require.

This is John Bolton's wisdom: to recognize that what is good for America is good for the world. Such a view inherently promotes national interests, but in the name of spreading freedom to oppressed peoples who suffer under the rule of brutal dictators. That is not the thinking of a warmonger, but of someone who seeks to better humanity in a realistic way.