America's foreign policy, Israel, and globalization
An interview with John R. Bolton

White House/Pete Souza

President Barack Obama holds a meeting in the Situation Room of the White House, Dec. 7, 2012.

Article Highlights

  • Foreign aid can contribute to advancing American interests globally, but only if designed with those interests in mind.

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  • Sustained American prosperity at home depends on keeping the globalized economy operating freely.

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  • The reality is that order & stability in the world is provided by US strength, and the strength of our alliance partners

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FLORIDA, January 25, 2013 — American foreign policy consumes a great deal of attention and political resources. As we slowly recover from the Great Recession, are the spending on foreign aid and the attention focused on foreign policy really cost effective?

John Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, served in several Republican administrations as an Assistant Attorney General, an Undersecretary of State, and as the United States Ambassador to the United Nations. He discusses here his views on American foreign policy and whether it is driven by idealism or self-interest, the role of foreign aid, the importance of Israel, and the importance of economic globalization.


Joseph F. Cotto: The United States spends a great deal of money on foreign aid programs. In your opinion, are most of these programs cost effective?

Ambassador John Bolton: Foreign aid can certainly contribute to advancing American national interests around the world, but only if it designed and implemented with those interests in mind. Too often, however, we allocate assistance as if we had some abstract obligation to engage in “nation building” or international welfare. Especially in times of great budgetary stringency, we should redirect our assistance away from multilateral programs, such as the World Bank, the regional development banks and the United Nations, toward bilateral programs, both military and economic. We should focus particularly on countries that support our efforts against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism.

Cotto: It has been said that a nation should act in its own self-interest when dealing with international crises. Do you believe that American foreign policy today is sufficiently self-interested?

Ambassador Bolton: I think President Obama’s foreign policy rests less on defending American interests and more on his ideological distaste for the projection of American power and values. He is comfortable with a declining U.S. role, whether acting unilaterally or through our structure of alliances like NATO, as reflected by his massive defense budget cuts in his four years, nearing a trillion dollars and his apparent indifference to further cuts of $500 billion through the looming sequestration mechanism.

The Obama Administration has failed utterly to stem rogue nuclear proliferators like Iran and North Korea, and we have seen al Qaeda and terrorism generally metastasize across North Africa and the Middle East, as the September 11 tragedy in Benghazi and the deaths of 23 Western hostages in the Algeria terrorist attack demonstrate. Obama has made a complete mess of his own “reset” policy with Russia, and he has no China strategy whatever. This is a prescription for real trouble for America going forward.

Cotto: If one thing could be done to restructure our country's foreign policy, what would you suggest that it be?

Ambassador Bolton: Get a new President. The 2016 election cannot come soon enough. Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy was based on the theory of “peace through strength,” whereas Obama’s seems to be almost precisely the opposite.

The past four years were bad enough, but every prospect is that the next four will be worse. Our adversaries worldwide have sized up Barack Obama, and they see he is weak and inattentive, concentrating on national security issues only when he has no alternative but to put his obsession with domestic efforts to “fundamentally transform” America (his phrase form the 2008 campaign). Accordingly, terrorists, proliferators and others who seek to weaken or harm America have recalibrated their policies to take advantage of our disarray, and I would expect those challenges to expand and accelerate in a second term.

Cotto: Economic globalization is now a fact of life. How might the U.S. craft a diplomatic policy that deals with this in a constructive fashion?

Ambassador Bolton: Sustained American prosperity at home depends on keeping the globalized economy operating freely. The plain if sometimes unwelcome reality is that whatever order and stability there is in the world is provided by U.S. strength, and the strength of our alliance partners. It is certainly true that others benefit from our efforts, and almost none of them contribute their fair share of the costs and burdens of that stability, but let’s be clear: We are doing this for ourselves, not for the others. And if we continue to reduce our role and our willpower, either disorder will spread or others who do not have our best interests at heart will step in. We should not shirk our role, because without it our own way of life would be at risk.

Cotto: During the years ahead, how important do you expect Israel to be for our nation's interests in the Middle East?

Ambassador Bolton: Israel is a critical ally in the world’s most volatile and dangerous region. As Iran gets perilously close to succeeding in its twenty-year effort to wield a deliverable nuclear weapon and as the threat of terrorism continues to grow throughout the Middle East. Israel’s vital roll becomes even more vital. Israel will soon face an overwhelmingly important decision about whether to use military force again Iran’s nuclear weapons program. As of now, the most likely outcome is that, given the failure of diplomacy and the inadequacy of international sanctions, Iran will reach its goal.

Unfortunately, after years of failed U.S. policy, only the use of military force can prevent this outcome, and there is essentially no likelihood that the Obama Administration will act. Should Israel chose to act preemptively in its self-defense, we should firmly support its decision.

FLORIDA, January 26, 2013 —  The United Nations is the subject of intense controversy here in the United States. Some say our country should allow the UN. to play a larger role in its affairs, while others would like America to shun the institution. Whatever one’s opinion might be, chances are that it is strongly held. 

In this second part of our discussion, former Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton explains the greatest lesson he learned while serving at the UN. He also shares his views about whether or not it would be a good idea for America to make its foreign policy more reliant on the UN, if the UN has lost track of its founding goals, and what sort of role the UN plays in modern society. He tells us a bit about his life and career as well.


Joseph F. Cotto: What was the greatest lesson that you learned while ambassador to the United Nations?

Ambassador John Bolton: America has to defend its own interests in the United Nations, because you can be sure no one else will. Acting like a well-bred doormat gets us nothing but more pressure to conform in an environment that it is often far from conducive to our values and interests. That can be done politely and graciously, but we should never confuse being friendly with making substantive concessions.

Cotto: Judging from your experience, would it be a good idea for America to make its foreign policy more reliant on the U.N.?

Ambassador Bolton: Absolutely not, although I believe President Obama would like nothing better than to do just that. He has, after all, nominated John Kerry as Secretary of State, the man who, in his 2004 presidential campaign, proposed a “global test” for American foreign policy, in effect asking for UN Security Council permission to defend our vital interests. Obama’s inclination to multilateralize U.S. foreign policy could well be a major source of debate in the next four years, now that he no longer has to worry about re-election.

Cotto: Has the U.N. lost track of its founding goals over the years?

Ambassador Bolton: The U.N.’s primary founding political goal -- holding together the winning Wolrld War II coalition -- was never achievable given Soviet efforts to dominate Europe and spread Communist influence globally. While the UN system performs many beneficial activities through the specialized agencies and by providing humanitarian assistance, the UN’s political decision-making bodies function no better today than during the Cold War on the major global issues. Countries pursue their national interests, and until the lions lie down with the lambs, the UN will reflect these disagreements and conflicts.

Cotto: In our contemporary global society, what sort of role does the U.N. generally play?

Ambassador Bolton: The UN’s specialized agencies have largely pursued their limited, defined missions without political conflicts interfering. Whether in the Universal Postal Union, the International Maritime Organization, or others, this important work should continue. Where the specialized agencies become politicized, however, they can actually become dangerous, as recently demonstrated by efforts in the International Telecommunications Union to impose transnational control over the Internet.

Cotto: Tell us a bit about your life and career.

Ambassador Bolton: I certainly never expected to end up where I am today, I thought I would quietly practice law as a career, but Ronald Reagan’s election made it impossible to resist joining his revolution. What followed for me had less to do with a career plan, and much more with the sweep of events.

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