John Bolton is in and H.R. McMaster is out as President Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser. It’s a long-rumored replacement that has America’s nuclear experts freaking out.
“This is a frighteningly reckless and dangerous choice,” Kingston Reif—the Director of Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy for Arms Control Association, an organization that pushes for better understanding policy around weapons of mass destruction—told me over the phone.
“It couldn’t come at a worse time given the critical decision facing president Trump on the future of the Iran Nuclear deal, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and the increasingly strained US- Russian Nuclear relationship,” he said.
Jeffrey Lewis—Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and founder of Arms Control Wonk—is less worried and more direct. “Bolton is an asshole,” he told me over the phone. “[He’s] a terrible person who gives terrible advice and treats people like shit. If I were in the White House, I would resign immediately rather than be subjected to his tirades.”
Bolton has been in Washington for decades and he’s been pushing for a more aggressive foreign policy during his entire career. He helped the Bush administration lie about weapons of mass destruction to justify the invasion of Iraq, wants to bomb Iran, called for a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, and said the US should assassinate deceased Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
“A lot of this stuff is deliberately inflammatory,” Lewis said. “The president likes him on TV. The President likes that he goes out and says these things. If that’s his main qualification—his triggering those of us who care about not dying in a nuclear war—will he actually be any good at this job?”
Reif doesn’t think so. “Bolton has a long record of hostility and disdain toward multilateral security and arms control agreements,” he said. “The major risk here is that, on the critical issue of nuclear policy and non-proliferation decisions facing the White House, Bolton’s very extreme and hawkish views could push Trump in the wrong direction.”
According to Reif, Bolton is one of the people responsible for allowing North Korea to get nuclear weapons in the first place. “Bolton was Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs When the George W. Bush administration decided to, in 2002, to walk away from the 1994 Agreed Framework,” Reif said.
The Clinton administration negotiated a nuclear deal with North Korea back in 1994. In exchange for an annual payment of 500,000 tons of heavy oil, help building power plants, and a promise that US wouldn’t nuke North Korea, the DPRK promised to halt its nuclear programs and stop enriching plutonium.
Just before Bush’s election, Washington learned North Korea was enriching uranium. The Bush White House had a choice, resume negotiations with the DPRK and add uranium to the list or back out of the agreement. “This was the hammer I had been looking for to shatter the Agreed Framework,” Bolton wrote of the discovery in his 2008 memoir Surrender Is Not an Option in a chapter titled “Driving a Stake Through the Agreed Framework.”
Now, North Korea is a nuclear power. “North Korea shares in plenty of the blame, obviously, but it was people like Bolton who pulled us out,” Reif said. “Had we stayed in the [Agreed Framework] I think we’d be in a better place than we are today.”
One of Reif’s biggest concerns is the New START treaty, an Obama-era agreement between Washington and Moscow that limits the number of strategic nuclear weapons deployed by each country. Both Trump and Bolton have repeatedly criticized the treaty. “[It’s] one of the few bright spots in the troubled relationship [between Washington and Moscow] and continues to enjoy strong support from the US military,” Reif said.
Bolton dogged the treaty in a 2017 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal. “From America’s perspective, New Start is an execrable deal, a product of Cold War nostrums about reducing nuclear tensions,” he wrote.
In the first phone call between Putin and Trump, Putin asked about New START and the possibility of renewing it. “Trump then told Putin the treaty was one of several bad deals negotiated by the Obama administration, saying that New START favored Russia,” Reuters reported at the time.
The agreement sets the limit of deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 for both countries and limits the number of submarine- and bomber-based nukes. Both Russia and the US met their obligations by the February 2018 deadline and the world has fewer deployed nukes in it than it has in decades. But the agreement will expire in 2021 unless Trump and Putin agree to extend it.
Reif isn’t hopeful that will happen, especially with Bolton whispering in Trump’s ear. “If that agreement is allowed to expire in 2021… there would be no verifiable limit on the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals for the first time in decades,” he said. “We can ill afford that, especially given the challenges that we’re facing with North Korea, to abandon a key brake on renewed U.S.- Russian nuclear competition.”
Lewis pointed out that high-profile national security advisors—and Bolton will probably be one—typically fail. “Bolton’s going to scream and yell and throw temper tantrums on TV,” Lewis said. “The President has cast someone like it’s a reality TV show.”