John Bolton Did Not Get His Wars With Iran and North Korea. But He Still Did Real Damage as National Security Advisor

John Bolton resigned as National Security Advisor, having failed to convince President Trump to pursue Bolton’s preferred foreign policy goals, including wars with Iran and North Korea.

Still, in his short stint as National Security Advisor, Bolton was able to pursue some of his more peculiar foreign policy predilections. This includes an all out assault on some key global institutions that uphold and defend human rights around the world.

Bolton’s worldview never has much fondness for international institutions in general and human rights in particular. He used his power as National Security Advisor to put human rights defenders on the defensive.

His first major speech as US National Security Advisor was focused on the International Criminal Court, an institution he has longed opposed. As Under Secretary of State in the George W Bush administration he “unsigned” the US to the treaty that created the court, and then embarked on a years long effort to undermine it.

When he came to the White House in Spring of 2018, Bolton continued these efforts, which included placing a visa ban on the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. The prosecutor is now effectively barred from entering the United States, unless she is on official business at the United Nations headquarters in New York. This was done ostensibly because the ICC was considering an investigation in Afghanistan, even though so far the ICC declined to do so.

Another peculiar interest of Bolton’s is the UN Human Rights Council. This is an international human rights body that was created, incidentally, while Bolton was US Ambassador to the UN in 2005. He hated it then — the United States declined to run for a seat on the Human Rights Council during the Bush administration.

During the Obama administration, the US did run and serve on the Council for several years. This included during the last year of the Obama administration and into the first two years of the Trump administration. However, with time still left on its term in the Council, the United States — at Bolton’s urging — simply vacated its seat in June 2018. Bolton preferred to de-legitimize the organization by pulling the United States out rather than use American influence from within to steer outcomes to its preferred direction.

Then, later last summer, Bolton embarked on a bizarre effort to try and defund parts of the United Nations that focus on human rights. This included not only the Human Rights Council, but also the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Bolton sought to withhold the proportion of US dues payments to the regular UN budget that would be earmarked for these entities. This was in pursuit of his longstanding goal to shift how the world funds the UN from a dues-payment system to an a-la-carte method for funding the UN. The problem is, even though this is what Bolton wishes was how the UN  budget works, it’s not actually how the UN budget works.  So, he failed at that effort.

Meanwhile, unable to defund human rights in the UN system, the administration tried another bizarre tact: the US simply ignored emails, phone calls and other requests from UN human rights monitors. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Human Rights Council deploys special rapporteurs and other monitors to follow human rights issues around the world. The Guardian and other outlets reported that the State Department was directed to ignore requests from these monitors and cease all cooperation. This is the functional equivalent of how toddlers give the silent treatment when they are mad, but with much higher stakes.

One important goal Bolton was not able to accomplish was to put Donald Trump on a hostile footing with the United Nations more broadly. And here, some credit is due in part to Secretary General Antonio Guterres, whose political skill is evident in the fact that Donald Trump seems to rather enjoy his annual visits to the UN. In his previous two appearances at UNGA, Trump was hardly hostile to the institution in a way that could have pleased John Bolton. To the contrary, his actions and demeanor suggests that he relishes his time at UNGA (as opposed to other multi-lateral fora like the G-7.)

It would appear that Antonio Guterres has managed his relationship with Donald Trump far better than John Bolton.