Ambassador John Bolton, who worked as national security adviser to President Trump from 2018 to 2019, told NPR's All Things Considered that he does not believe the United States is safer today than it was four years ago.
"I think unfortunately it's not safer, which is not to say that there haven't been some important positive decisions made and some important accomplishments," he said, including withdrawing from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and from a Cold War-era nuclear arms control treaty with Russia.
"The trouble is, there has been no overarching strategy in the Trump administration," Bolton told NPR on Friday. "So that the series of decisions that have been made really have not followed a pattern that leads us over a sustained period of time to a stronger position internationally. And I think that is a fundamental failing in the administration's approach that contributes to the general conclusion, netted out across all the different issue areas, that we're not in a stronger position today than we were when the administration took office."
Bolton added that there are "two main threats" to the U.S.: China and Russia, because of "their nuclear capabilities, among other things."
"With respect to both of those countries," Bolton said, "we have no strategy."
"These are all problems that are accentuated by the president's ad hoc, almost random decision-making," he said. "As I say, it produces decisions that I do agree with from time to time, but it does not produce a coherent, effective, sustained policy, which is what you need to be successful in national security."
As national security adviser, Bolton also shifted how the nation would prepare for biological threats. In 2018, long before COVID-19, The Washington Post reported that Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer, the NSC official in charge of the country's pandemic response, left under his watch as part of a restructuring that Bolton organized. Ziemer's departure meant that no senior administration official was focused solely on global health security, but Bolton argues that his decision was made "precisely because I saw biological threats as a priority."
"I combined that directorate with the director dealing with weapons of mass destruction, which include nuclear and chemical weapons and biological weapons," Bolton said. "I felt that would actually strengthen the NSC's ability to deal with potential pandemics."
The Justice Department has launched a criminal investigation into the publication process surrounding Bolton's book. It published in June despite Trump administration efforts to stop it. Bolton could also be forced to hand over money he's made from the book.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Are we better off than we were four years ago? That is the question we normally ask ourselves when a president seeks reelection, so we've been asking people with deep expertise in different subjects and different perspectives to answer this question. And we're going to begin today's program by putting it to Ambassador John Bolton.
He served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, among other high-level posts in Republican administrations. Then, in 2018 to 2019, he served as national security adviser to President Donald Trump. But his departure from this White House came, as did that of many others, with unpleasantness, which he recounts along with his broader perspective on how the Trump administration operates in his memoir, "The Room Where It Happened," which came out earlier this year.
We want to mention that we caught up with Ambassador Bolton yesterday. We were expecting to discuss a wide range of issues with him. However, due to technical issues and limited time, Ambassador Bolton abruptly ended the interview before I could pose follow-up questions. So we're airing what we could cover, beginning with the central question driving this segment - is America safer than it was four years ago?
JOHN BOLTON: I think, unfortunately, it's not safer - which is not to say that there haven't been some important positive decisions made and some important accomplishments, like a dramatic increase in the budget for the Department of Defense over the painfully low levels of the Obama years. And there have been a number of decisions that I think have been entirely correct - getting out of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, getting out of the INF treaty.
The trouble is, there has been no overarching strategy in the Trump administration so that the series of decisions that have been made really have not followed a pattern that leads us over a sustained period of time to a stronger position internationally. And I think that is a fundamental failing in the administration's approach that contributes to the general conclusion, netted out across all the different issue areas, that we're not in a stronger position today than we were when the administration took office.
MARTIN: I want to dig into Iran a bit more. But what would you say is the chief area of weakness? What is the area that stands out to you as an example of why we are not safer? Is it the general lack of coherence? Is it the inability of, say, allies to sort of trust where the U.S. is going to rely on their support and - traditional allies? Would it be that? Or is it something else, something specific?
BOLTON: Well, at the strategic level, there are two main threats to the United States. One is China, the other's Russia - because of their nuclear capabilities, among other things, but in China's case, because it is the existential question that faces the United States in the 21st century. And with respect to both of those countries, we have no strategy. Just to take China as an example, for three years, the president tried to make a trade deal with China. With the advent of the coronavirus, he's taken a harder line because China's concealed what the origins of the disease were and what its effects were. But after the election, if the president prevails, he could easily junk the sanctions and the tariffs, go right back to looking for the big trade deal all purely based on his own gut instinct.
There are other examples of this. Our non-proliferation strategy, for example, with respect to Iran and North Korea, have produced positive results in neither of those cases. The threat of international terrorism not only remains but, with the president's failed agreement in Afghanistan, liable to bring the Taliban back to power. I think we're actually regressing there. So these are all problems that are accentuated by the president's ad hoc, almost random decision-making.
As I say, it produces decisions that I do agree with from time to time, but it does not produce a coherent, effective, sustained policy, which is what you need to be successful in national security.
MARTIN: I mean, I'd love to talk more about China, but I do want to talk about the current pandemic. In 2018, The Washington Post reported that Rear Admiral Timothy Ziemer, the NSC official in charge of the country's pandemic response, left under your watch. This was part of a restructuring that you organized. And his departure, quote, according to the Post reporting and other subsequent reporting, "meant that no senior administration official is now focused solely on global health security."
What was your vision for that? I mean, did you not see biological threats as a priority? What was meant to replace it?
BOLTON: It was precisely because I saw biological threats as a priority that I combined that directorate with the directorate dealing with weapons of mass destruction, which include nuclear and chemical weapons and biological weapons. I felt that would actually strengthen the NSC's ability to deal with potential pandemics.
And in fact, as was reported later by The New York Times in April of this year, it was in early January that NSC staff first raised the threat of the coronavirus pandemic. And as Bob Woodward reported in his book, it was my successor as national security adviser and his deputy who raised with Trump in late January of this year the threat of the coronavirus pandemic. So, in fact, I would say, with all due modesty, I think the streamlining reform worked. And it was the NSC, along with the Centers for Disease Control, very early on - very early on - that raised the potential danger of the pandemic.
The problem was not the boxes and lines in the staff of the National Security Council. The problem was the empty chair behind the Resolute desk in the Oval Office. The president didn't want to hear anything bad about his friend Xi Jinping, anything that might adversely affect the trade deal he was trying to negotiate with China, or most importantly of all, anything that might adversely affect the U.S. economy, his ticket to reelection.
MARTIN: That was Ambassador John Bolton, former national security adviser under President Donald Trump. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.