Peter Niggl spoke with John Bolton, Former Advisor to U.S. President Trump
John Bolton is a US politician and diplomat. He served as National Security Advisor to U.S. President Donald Trump from April 2018 until his resignation in September 2019. He has held various positions under several US presidents. The evening prior to the release of the German edition of his latest book, “The Room Where It Happened,” he granted SECURITY INSIGHT an interview.
Mister Bolton, you criticize Donald Trump for reacting too hesitantly and too slack in many things. The question, as it regards Germany, is, how and where would you have taken a tougher approach?
Well, I think the fundamental mistake of Trump’s approach is not understanding the nature of an alliance and particularly, not the NATO alliance. He views things in very transactional terms, so he sees a balance of trade deficit between the United States and Germany, he sees Germany not currently meeting or likely to meet the Cardiff commitment to spend 2 % of GDP on defense by 2024 and he asks why therefore the United States should defend Germany as part of the NATO alliance, why we should keep US troops deployed in Germany, and he doesn’t ask what advantage the United States gets from the NATO alliance, why we have troops anywhere in Europe. So, these are questions that can be explained, they can certainly be debated but these are not the kinds of debates that Trump engages in. You know, when people talk about the recent decision to redeploy 12000 American troops out of Germany, people argue about whether they should be deployed elsewhere in Europe or should they be taken back to the United States, they don’t discuss the bigger question, which is, maybe there is an argument to move a certain number of American troops out of Germany, but not to weaken the NATO alliance but to strengthen its overall capabilities. And that gets lost in the discussion that Trump has with Chancellor Merkel or President Macron or Prime Minister Boris Johnson or whomever it might be. So, to ask what I would have done that was tougher in this respect, I think the NATO alliance benefits the United States, I do think that people in the NATO alliance should contribute to the overall strength of the alliance capabilities, proportionate to their economy. And some countries are not doing that. That’s not to say that if Germany by December 31, 2020 isn’t on the road to 2%, that the United States should pull its troops out of Germany, not defend Germany and post tariffs on German cars and trucks, it means that there have to be adjustments, and it wasn’t like anybody forced the 2% commitment on Germany, it made it along with the other NATO allies voluntarily. I do think that there is a general sense that we have other problems around the world as well, that dealing for example with China and China’s theft of intellectual property, where we would be better of working together rather than being at odds over tariffs between the United States and the EU. But these tariff questions are issues that endanger the relationships with allies just as they do the relationships with adversaries because everybody thinks that their domestic businesses are being discriminated against in tariff arrangements and I think what Trump said actually at one G7 meeting was why don’t we do away with all tariffs, all subsidies, and all regulations that impair imports and exports and have a really free trade arrangement. And, of course, nobody in Europe really wants to do that. It would be hard on the United States as well. But that’s the objective we should be working towards, rather than fight over tariffs on cars and trucks or aluminum or specific issues like that.
Will an additional term for Trump mean the end of NATO?
Well, I think that it’s entirely possible that he would withdraw from NATO in a second and this goes to a point I try to stress in my book, that Trump doesn’t have a basic philosophy, he doesn’t have a grand strategy when it comes to national security, he doesn’t even really follow policies on a consistent basis. And many of the decisions that he made in his first term on national security issues were made not with the merits of the particular question or policy options in mind but with a view to what the US domestic political reaction would be. And the fear particularly of getting a very negative reaction from the public and of members of the house of senate. So, if he wins re-election with that political guardrail eliminated or at least substantially reduced, many of the decisions that he made in the first term, he could well reverse in the second term. I explained in the book how close he came in June of 2018 at the NATO summit in Brussels to announcing the US would withdraw from NATO. I think the redeployment of forces stationed in Germany is a piece of that. It’s obviously not a significant one, but it’s interesting that he’s doing it three months before our election, which shows a kind of confidence of what he would do after the election. So that’s why I think it’s important for people to understand that without being able to draw a philosophical continuing in his views, there can’t’ be any assurance of what he will do in a second term.
The German-Russian project Nord Stream 2 is being strongly criticized in Washington. How far will the Trump Administration go, to make this project fail?
Well, there is another good example, I don’t know the answer to that question. Certainly, he has criticized Nord Stream2 for a long time. And in fact, it reflects, you may not know this, but it reflects a view in the United States that goes back to Reagan, when Germany first proposed building oil and gas pipelines to, what was still back then, the Soviet Union and Reagan said ‘I would advise you not to do that because you will become dependent on Russian oil and gas’. And, in fact, that’s close to what has happened, at least with respect to that particular energy source. There are a lot of complications involved in this, but it does raise the question why any country would put itself at greater risk of granting a potential adversary that kind of leverage. In a crisis, the pipeline, the flow through the pipeline, could be stopped. The pipeline advocates in Germany, as I understand, made the point that allowing the pipeline to go through would help increase European leverage over Russia. I think it’s exactly the opposite. And, so, I think it’s a fairly popular view in the United States that this is a mistake. Why did the United States not then impose sanctions before now, because a lot of people said to Trump, it would damage relations with Russia, which is true. But Russia is not building the pipeline merely to make money, although that’s certainly a big part of the motive, it’s to get Western Europe more dependent on Russian oil and gas. And that’s what is happening in many of the Central and Eastern European countries, they still rely on distribution systems that were created under the Warsaw Pact or in the Cold War. Europe has other options on oil and gas. It’s got the United States, goodness knows for natural gas there are now many fields in the Eastern Mediterranean that could be exploited to bring natural gas into Europe, there’s probably natural gas and oil in Europe that could be exploited, so why build a pipeline to Russia, I think is a good question. But will Trump do anything about it between now and the election? I don’t know, maybe he will. Today it was announced in the United States that Israel and the United Arab Emirates would exchange full diplomatic recognition in exchange for Israel not annexing portions of the West Bank, not declaring Israeli sovereignty over them. So, this is what we sometimes call an October surprise, when it happens in October before an election. This is August, well before, but it’s a demonstration of the powers of incumbency. But whether Trump would see imposing these sanctions against Nord Stream2 before the election because it would help him politically, that might induce him to do it, or he might conclude it would hurt him politically because it would hurt the relationship with Russia, so he might not do it. But I can assure you, it would have next to no bearing on the merits of whether Germany ought to be constructing the Nord Stream2 pipeline, it will be a political decision before the election or after the election.
His sanctioning threats against the port town of Saßnitz show an odd picture. The President of a world power is taking care of the details of his sanctioning policies. Are these the practical effects of his “America first” policy?
Well, I think the question of different kinds of sanctions to be applied to Germany, the car and truck tariffs, the Nord Stream2 sanctions, and various other things, part of our concern with China and China’s influence around the world trying to take over fifth generation telecommunication system, means that Trump spends a lot of time thinking about Germany and thinking about the specifics and I think, if you’re not comfortable thinking at a philosophical level or strategic level, you’re much more likely to speak in terms of specific transactionally identified steps that you can take because it’s what your horizons are. And I think that’s characteristic of the way he makes decisions not just in terms of Europe or even Germany.
If I read this correctly in your book, Trump apparently pursues a somewhat indifferent course towards the Chinese tech giant Huawei. You say Huawei is an arm of China’s intelligence services. Will the issue Huawei and consequently also 5G become a test for the relationship to other countries?
Well, I think it’s important for the countries involved. If Huawei can, through not just the hardware that it supplies, but more importantly the software, take data out of 5G networks anywhere that it installed it, that’s a very serious problem, not just in terms of safeguarding classified information at the national government level, but keeping commercial information private, keeping personal information private. You know, some years ago, the Chinese stole the personnel records of tens of millions of Americans who had worked for the Federal Government from our office of personnel management. They copied everything as far as we can tell, and exported it all to Beijing. For example, my personnel records from my various government jobs are now in Beijing. All the FBI investigations, whatever people said about me in the course of the investigation. It’s pretty incredible when you think about it. I’m not concerned, I’ve led a boring life, there’s nothing there to surprise them, but a lot of people see it quite rightly as a grievous invasion of privacy. Well, they would be setting Huawei up to do this on a 24/7 basis if they had this access. That’s why, I think the British Government, in the past month or so, has effectively reversed the decision of its predecessor government to purchase Huawei equipment. They are not. They are going to do everything they can not only to not use Huawei but to take out Huawei infrastructure that’s in the fourth and third generation telecommunication systems. China is operating on a completely different set of rules from the rest of us, their own rules, and they’re not free trade rules, and they don’t reflect the same kind of values that we have. So we can either try and deal with this threat now or we can wait until the threat gets worse, which is what would happen if we didn’t do something about Huawei.
The former chairman of the Social Democratic Party, Sigmar Gabriel, expressed his concerns that the ideas of the West and the alliances that developed out of them, simple did not matter to Trump. Is a commitment to treaties generally a disturbing factor for Trump?
No, I don’t think he has anything against treaties as such or deals. He would have loved to make a deal with Kim Jong-un, that didn’t work out. He would love to make a deal with the Iran, that hasn’t worked out. Just within the past days he said in four weeks we could have a replacement for the Iran nuclear deal, which doesn’t make any sense and wouldn’t be a good idea in any event. But he doesn’t have any idea one way or the other about treaties or their implications or what view he might have of them. That’s just not part of it. But I had not heard that quote from the former chairman of the SPD. But just in terms of Western values, it is not fair to say in the context of German politics and the current coalition government in Germany, that the SPD is the principal reason why the defense budget isn’t going up. Well, how about adherence to the Cardiff agreement that people would spend 2 % of the GPD by 2024. Most Americans think that that’s absolutely the right thing to ask for, the difference is it’s also because most Americans think that by having countries spend an equal proportion of their domestic economy on defense, you strengthen the alliance. Trump wants that because otherwise he can use it as a grant to pull out to weaken the alliance. But I don’t see why anybody would want to stay in the alliance and be a free-rider. So, as I say, Trump has picked up on that. But it’s a view that Barrack Obama had as well when, in a famous interview in the Atlantic magazine, he said many in the alliance were free-riders, not paying their fair share. But the point is to pay the fair share, not because that’s what it costs the US to defend Germany but because that makes it a stronger mutual defense alliance.
Can it be expected, as already striven for by Ambassador Grenell, that German institutions have to report directly to the Trump authorities? Ambassador Grenell had told German companies to report to him whether the sanctions imposed on the Iran were being adhered to.
I was not aware that he had said that. I think the United States did the right thing certainly, I have been against the Iran nuclear deal for a long time. I think it’s correct for us to withdraw, I think it’s correct for us to re-impose sanctions. A number of countries have objections to that and I understand what their logic is, but I don’t think it’s unfair for the United States to say to a company you have a choice, you can trade with Iran or you can trade with us, because we consider Iran a grievous threat to us and frankly Europe in the near term more of a threat. But if you want to trade with them, you’re perfectly free to do it, but you’re not going to do it in our currency and you’re not going to trade with us as a consequence. And I don’t care whether they report to the United States or not. I could see where people in Germany take offense at that kind of statement, and really, it’s for the governments to talk to each other. I’m sure that parts of the US government would be happy to hear from German businesses or French businesses or anybody else if they want to make a case, but they certainly don’t have any obligation to report that.
What do European and particularly German companies have a prepare for, if Donald Trump is re-elected for a second term?
Well, I think it’s likely that in a second term, these car and truck tariffs are going to get put in place. Because again, the argument against that has been the political and economic reaction in the United States. And I just think that’s less of a persuasive argument to Trump when he doesn’t have to face re-election again. Now, you know, it’s hard to predict because on any given day, a different factor may be motivating him more on that day than it will the next day or than it did the day before, and I think this is also a consequence of not formulating policies on the basis of a coherent underlying philosophy. Not to say you have to be a philosopher king but you ought to have some idea what your priorities are and some notion strategically how to match the resources with the objective. But that’s just not the way Trump operates.
In your book you write Macron wanted to find out about Trump’s agenda in the commercial war with China and the EU, but Trump said that that was of no importance. Can this statement be interpreted as meaning that the United States of America are in a trade war with the EU?
No, I think that Trump thinks he’s in a trade war with the EU, but this is the kind of thing that demonstrates why Trump is an anomaly for the United States, and why, if he’s defeated in November, Europeans and others should understand that this is not a reflection of where the United States are. It’s unique to Trump. Because many of these sorts of issues many people in America don’t have an opinion on. It’s just not something that concerns them all that much. Other aspects may concern them If they think that Europe or anybody else unfairly excludes American products for competitive reasons but the disguise is regulatory seen, that’s why trading negotiations are always difficult. But what Trump looks at is like reading a balance sheet, he looks at the balance of trade circumstance, if he sees the US has a deficit, that is a bad thing in his mind and he wants to do something about it.
Trump always points to China and implies that additional sanctions would have to follow. As China is now an integral part of the global economy, our question is: Do we have to presume that the economic framework will be broken up. Will this be the end of globalization?
I think Trump could change his position 180 degrees on China the day after the election. He spent three years trying to negotiate the big trade deal with China – didn’t succeed. But one of the reasons that he wouldn’t listen to warnings about the threat of the Corona virus coming from China and the disinformation and concealment that China was engaged in, was because he didn’t want to face the implication that China’s deception and concealment could damage the US economy, which he saw as his ticket to re-election. And which he might have been right about. Now he takes a very hard line on China. Because he understands that public opinion in the United States is moving very strongly in that direction. But that doesn’t mean that the day after the election, if Xi Jinping called him up, that he wouldn’t be right back to where he was before. He doesn’t really care about what happens in Hongkong, he doesn’t care about the freedom of religion in China, he wants the trade deal. And it’s possible that we would go right back into negotiations with China on that. I think that China does pose a threat to the United States, to the West as a whole in many respects, and that it requires a better response than would we had for the past several decades, but I don’t think Trump is capable of formulating the strategy that would do that.
Do you think that Trump admires the political and economic systems in China?
I don’t think he understands them enough to admire them. I think he believes that bilateral relations between two countries are essentially dependent on the personal relationship of the leaders. So that if he has a good personal relationship with Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong-un, then relations between the two countries are good. That, of course, is ridiculous. I’m not saying personal relations don’t have a role in international affairs, of course they do, but they don’t override the basic national interests of the countries themselves. Yet, you see within the past week, Trump has said ‘My relationship with Xi Jinping is not so good now because of the flue’. Well, his relationship with Xi Jinping hasn’t changed at all, unless he simply says ‘I can’t like somebody, who did this to me.’ You can get along fine with people who are your adversaries, it doesn’t change the fundamental balance of forces or concerns that you have about the other country. And vice versa.
His crisis management in the Corona virus pandemic put Trump in a predicament. Will his contradictory attitude regarding the health hazard be a hindrance in the upcoming election?
I think it’s a big problem for him that he did not develop a strategic response to the threat Corona virus, that the performance of the United States both epidemiologically and economically is not satisfactory to most of the Americans, his approval / disapproval ratings on handling the Corona virus are going lower, and if they continue to do that, it will be a serious problem on November, 3rd. But it’s also typical of the way he does decision-making as a whole. He doesn’t think big picture, he doesn’t plan long-term, he goes from day to day, and I think you’re seeing the consequences of that in the effects of the Corona virus across this country.
How reliable are the United States of America under Trump for their partners, particularly for Germany?
I think the performance has been inconsistent. But I don’t think that reflects any fundamental change in American attitudes towards Germany or really any of its alliance partners, that is why I said before, Trump is an anomaly. I think his behavior has caused problems for the United States internationally, but I think those problems can be fixed after one term fairly quickly. But I worry that, if he has a second term, the problems will grow deeper, it would be much more difficult or in some cases impossible to repair, which is the reason for the first time in my adult political life, I’m not going to vote for the Republicans, I’m not going to vote for Biden either, but I’m going to write in somebody else. I just don’t think Trump is confident to conduct a US national security policy in this very difficult time.
You describe Trump as a simple-minded person. How come he can still get so many people to follow him in the United States of America?
Many people, like at the riots that are taking place, see a threat to domestic security. They don’t like the way liberal leads in the country refer to them. So, there’s a lot of that kind of hostility and Trump is playing on it very well. There’s saying in American politics that responsible politicians don’t address the concerns of the people, irresponsible politicians will address them. And I think that’s what Trump fundamentally represents.
How fragile is Trump’s team?
Well, I think they’re in difficulty now. They’re behind in the polls, but that gap has been narrowing in the past couple of weeks, and if it continues to narrow, the election will be very close. I think it’s still too hard to call who will win in November and I think it could be a very close election.
You yourself worked side-by-side with Trump for 17 months. Is it that difficult to comprehend what he thinks for such a long time?
Well, I understood what he thought. That wasn’t really a problem. It was the lack of strategy, the lack of consistency, the lack of understanding the subject matter. A lot of what we talked about, he didn’t learn. In many cases in areas where he was not informed when he came into the White House, and no president ever is, the job is too big to be fully informed. But competent presidents know they don’t know everything and learn about it. But he never cared about learning. So, from that perspective, I did all that I could for 17 months and then I really could not do any more, so I resigned.
Sir, thank you very much for your time and this informative interview.