By Bill Emmott
After nearly three and a half years in office, we all know far more about how the Trump administration functions or doesn't function than we knew about most previous American presidencies. So on the face of things, the publication of yet another book, this time by the former national security advisor, Ambassador John Bolton, should make little real difference. Yet the interest this book has attracted is not wrong. In between all his accusations and frequent self-congratulation, John Bolton's book, "The Room Where It Happened" turns out to be more revealing about America's future and its potential impact on the world than might be expected.
Many of the headlines about Ambassador Bolton's book have highlighted his criticisms and concerns about President Trump himself: about how poorly informed the president is; about how he has seen foreign policy chiefly as a way to gain personal political advantage; about how willing he has been, as Bolton writes, "to make obstruction of justice a way of life" so as to provide favours to foreign dictators such as Vladimir Putin of Russia and Recip Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey; about how naive he was in his much-vaunted summits with North Korea's Kim Jong Un.
Although they are familiar by now, these personal observations do have some value, given that they come from a true and very senior Republican: they remind us of President Trump's contemptuous attitude to American political institutions including most notably the rule of law. He is willing to manipulate institutions, to try to bend them to his will, to circumvent them, all in his own interest, which Bolton describes as an interest essentially about re-election.
If that is all it is, however, we would be left wondering exactly what this would mean if Trump were to be re-elected in November since then he would have lost his basic motivation for much of the malpractice that Bolton accuses him of, as he would not be able, as the U.S. Constitution stands, to stand for re-election for a third term. Despite his age, in fact, it is not inconceivable that Trump would then try to get the Constitution changed, which could be possible if his Republican Party were to increase the share of state legislatures it controls from the current 29 to 33 or more.
That is, however, somewhat theoretical. What the book mainly does for me is to remind me of something beyond Donald Trump, namely the fundamental importance and nature of U.S. leadership in world affairs. During recent years, and especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, we have heard a lot of laments about the decline and disappearance of that leadership, along with concern about the opportunity this provides to other great powers, most notably China.
Yet reading "The Room Where It Happened" does not give you a message that American leadership has declined or disappeared. Far from it: the over-riding sense the book gives, with every meeting that Bolton describes hosting or attending, with every decision President Trump makes, is of an abundance of American leadership. In the story he narrates, American power is still firmly at the centre of just about everything. For those who don't like what President Trump has been doing, the problem in fact is not a lack of U.S. leadership, but rather an excess of what they see as the wrong sort of leadership.
In all the areas Bolton writes about, such as Russia, NATO, arms control, the Middle East, China or the Korean Peninsula, the abiding impression is one of continuity of U.S. interests and involvement more than change. This is so even in cases of U.S. retreat. Ever since the 21st century wars in Afghanistan and Iraq proved to be such damaging and costly failures, the U.S. has been pulling itself back from any notional role as "global policeman" or even as the chief global promoter of democracy. Moreover, former President Barack Obama began the shift in U.S. emphasis away from the Middle East and towards Asia, and President Trump has continued this, albeit in a different style.
Such variations in the degree and extent of U.S. intervention, especially of a military sort, in global affairs have been a feature of the whole post-1945 era. A similar retreat from forward deployment and involvement was seen especially after the Vietnam War ceased in the mid-1970s, and we saw a great deal of American reluctance to intervene abroad during the 1990s too, whether in the former Yugoslavia, in Rwanda, in Somalia or in North Korea.
The Trump presidency has, in this sense, been quite typical of America's post-1945 political cycles. What has changed over time is not mainly the nature of America but rather the nature of the world: unlike during the Cold War against the Soviet Union or even during the Clinton era of the 1990s, economic and political power is now far more dispersed and, most particularly, a large share of that power is now in the hands of China.
The result is that today's world is one in which the potential for America to act alone, following its own narrow interests, has much diminished, for its power relative to others is insufficient even as it retains the world's most vibrant economy and has by far the strongest military. A network of allies has become more important, not less. And it is in his attitude to that network that Trump's true aberrance or exceptionalism lies.
What we really mean by U.S. leadership is less a matter of the U.S. exerting its power than Washington standing at the head of the world's largest network of friends and allies. And that is where the most profound rift occurred between Ambassador Bolton and his boss. While Bolton has long hated multilateral institutions such as the United Nations because he believes they impinge upon U.S. sovereignty, he is at pains to work with allies and understands their value. Trump's uniqueness is that he treats allies as if they were rivals, as if they diminish American power rather than enhancing it.
What Bolton's book tells us, and the Trump presidency should have taught us, is that America faces a basic choice, now and in coming decades: the choice is whether it wants to act with the help of allies or prefers to go it alone. For the real contest for future world leadership will not be that between two countries, the U.S. and China, but rather one between two networks of friends and allies, the U.S.-led network and what will become the China-led network. At present, the U.S. network is far, far bigger. But that cannot and should not be taken for granted.
(Bill Emmott is an independent writer, lecturer and consultant on international affairs)