March 29, 2018 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week's Reads - John Bolton's Balancing Act Goes Back to Ronald Reagan


With the appointment of John Bolton as National Security Adviser, President Trump will be on his third adviser in 15 months. That is a modern-day record. The only president to go through a larger number of national security advisers is Ronald Reagan, and there's a good reason why. In fact, the lesson from Reagan's NSC is one that both Trump and Bolton should take to heart.

Reagan went through four national security advisers before he got it right—because before that he had gotten it disastrously wrong. Instead of focusing on the detail of policy or policy making, Reagan relied on a succession of national security advisers to get things done. And so they did, taking on a growing operational role that had few prior parallels (Henry Kissinger’s tenure being the great exception). Ultimately, the lack of oversight and outright skullduggery by NSC officials led to the illegal arms-for-hostages deal, known as Iran-Contra scandal, which almost brought down Reagan’s presidency.

Reagan learned his lesson. After the scandal he first appointed Frank Carlucci and then Colin Powell as his national security advisers. Both saw their role first and foremost as process managers, rather than operational actors, to ensure the president was presented with the best possible options for policy and that all within the government with a stake on an issue were involved in helping to make decisions. Both had their views on specific policy, which they shared with the president and also with the other top national security players. But they saw their role as managing the process, not making, let alone executing policy.

Subsequent administrations followed the model established by Reagan. It was perfected by Brent Scowcroft, when he served as President George H.W. Bush’s national security adviser. (Indeed, Scowcroft had designed the model while serving on a commission looking into the Iran-Contra scandal for Reagan.) Scowcroft was one of Bush’s closest policy counselor—indeed, he coauthored the president’s memoirs. He had strong views, which he shared with the president. But he knew that his principal role was as process manager, and he made sure his own views in no way affected the management of the national security process. He also knew what he was not—he was not secretary of state or any other way responsible for policy implementation. That was the job of the State Department, the Pentagon, and other executive departments and agencies. Nor was he the principal spokesman on foreign policy.

Scowcroft’s success—and the successes of many of those who followed in his footsteps—was his ability to be both process manager and presidential counselor and to know where one started and the other ended. While Michael Flynn during his very brief tenure as Trump’s first national security adviser leaned firmly towards the latter, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster saw his role more as the former, especially since it soon became clear that he and the president didn’t necessarily see eye-to-eye on a host of policy issues.

John Bolton’s task will be to balance the two roles better than his predecessors did. He starts off by being more closely aligned with the president on some key policy areas, including Iran and North Korea, an America First preference for unilateral action, and a deep skepticism of traditional diplomacy and international agreements. But he will have to balance his policy counselor role with his process manager’s role. That may prove more challenging.

The keys to Bolton’s success as a process manager are three-fold. First, he needs to establish strong, open relationships with all the other national security players in the administration. McMaster ran into trouble with both James Mattis and Rex Tillerson early on. Bolton may find working with the new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, easier, but he will need to work hard to establish a constructive working relationship with Mattis.

Second, Bolton needs to have a professional staff, focused on process management, if he is to succeed. Early word that he expects to clean house, and replace all “Obama holdovers” (in fact, civil servants who have served presidents of both parties loyally), suggests that an ideological litmus test may be more important to him than experience and competence. That will make it more difficult to run an open, collegial interagency process.

Finally, Bolton needs to resist the temptation to take on an operational role in the execution of policy. Axios reports that Bolton will be focused on enforcement—making sure the president’s policy decisions are implemented. This is an important role for the NSC, but in the past national security advisers who focused on enforcement have too often decided that the best way to get things done is to do it themselves. And Reagan's record shows that an operational NSC can lead to disaster.

As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments.

The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First

John Bolton / The Wall Street Journal

At the end of last month, John Bolton, now President Trump’s incoming national security advisor, penned this opinion piece in which he argues the North Korea threat is imminent and that the case against a pre-emptive attack rests “on the misinterpretation of a standard that derives from pre-nuclear, pre-ballistic-missile times.” Bolton provides examples of presidents Roosevelt and Reagan acting unilaterally to adjust to new realities in modern warfare, and points to Israel’s strikes against nuclear facilities in Baghdad and Syria as a model of “how we should think today about the threat of nuclear warheads delivered by ballistic missiles.”

‘America First’ Bears a New Threat: Military Force

David E. Sanger and Gardiner Harris / The New York Times

President Trump’s recent picks for key foreign policy and national security posts, including Bolton, Pompeo, and Gina Haspel to head the CIA, have raised the stakes on what “America First” means to the rest of the world, according to Sanger and Harris. “Not since the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, have key national security leaders so publicly raised the threat of military confrontation if foreign adversaries do not meet America’s demands.” These leaders are about to face multiple, simultaneous tests of their past proclamations, with North Korea and Iran posing the most immediate challenges. The debate in Washington at the moment, write the authors, is over whether Trump’s new team plans to govern as far to the right as it talks.

Globalization’s Backlash Is Here, at Just the Wrong Time

Neil Irwin / The New York Times

Irwin argues that the anti-globalization drive spreading across the Western world comes just as billions of people who have integrated into the global economy the last three decades are becoming rich enough to be valuable consumers. Globalization is not a constant process, according to Irwin, but instead “moves in fits and starts, and occasional reversals.” Even though it may have seemed during the 1990s and early 2000s that globalization was a perpetual onslaught on American workers facing waves of more and more people willing to do the same job for lower wages, that has changed – now everyone is both a competitor and a consumer. “The open question is whether the United States and Europe…will stick with open trade long enough to enjoy its benefits.”

Trump Is About to Launch a Trade War with No Way Out

Shawn Donnan / The Financial Times

While there is broad consensus in Washington that the US needs to manage China’s rise, there is also concern that the Trump administration lacks a strategy for ending the trade war it is about to start, writes Donnan. All told, Trump is considering new tariffs on Chinese imports worth $60 billion a year, as well as imposing restrictions on investment and possibly limits on visas for Chinese nationals. Donnan questions whether the Trump administration is prepared to engage in the difficult negotiations to tackle the underlying issues. “And if it goes to war what is its real goal?”

Ireland’s Border Is a Problem It Can’t Afford to Leave Unsolved

Charles Grant / The Guardian

As part of Brexit, the UK government plans to leave EU’s single market and customs union, but says it wants to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. A joint report signed by the EU and the UK in December sketched out three ways this could happen, but no solution is perfect and in the end the need for some checks near the border are unavoidable. Could the Irish live with that? It remains to be seen.

How Russia and China Could Come Unhinged

Robert D. Kaplan / The Wall Street Journal

In December 1997, Kaplan published a cover story in the Atlantic called “Was Democracy Just a Moment”? He argued that the optimism among policy elites about the triumph of democracy would be short-lived as new forms of authoritarianism arose. Today, Russia and China most acutely represent these new forms, where explosions of middle-class wealth and technological advancement put pressure on their respective governments to be more tuned to the needs of their citizens. “As Russia and China strengthen militarily, even as they maintain and intensify internal repression, they will continue to clash with the West in the near term…and if their systems come undone, Eurasia will face extreme instability.”

What the West Doesn’t Get About Xi Jinping

Kevin Rudd / The New York Times

Rudd argues that for the last five years Western leaders and analysts have projected onto China an image of their preferred imaginings, rather than one reflecting the actual statements of China’s own leaders. Xi has not suddenly changed – since 2013 he has demonstrated an unmatched level of political skill in rapidly consolidating power. The West’s hope that Xi would want to sustain the liberal, international rules-based order has long been contradicted by China’s view that the system was one invented by and for the victors of World War II. China does not actually share the West’s perspective on human rights, nor has it dampened its hostility toward American military alliances in the Asia Pacific. “Over time Mr. Xi would like to turn the page on the liberal Western order and write a new chapter in world history.”

Cities Only Work If They Accommodate Rich and Poor

Sarah O’Connor / The Financial Times

Although many of the lower-skilled jobs of the future will be created in successful cities like New York, it will be increasingly hard to live a decent life in one of these cities on a low wage, argues O’Connor. This presents a problem not only for low-wage earners, but also for individuals across the socio-economic map and the economy itself. Workers need to live near their customers, but rising demand, compounded by planning rules, has pushed up housing costs in flourishing cities. “Policymakers need to make brave interventions on planning, building and tax to boost housing supply,” O’Connor concludes. “Affordable housing is not a ‘nice-to-have’ but a necessity.”

No Longer a Secret: How Israel Destroyed Syria’s Nuclear Reactor

Amos Harel and Aluf Benn / Haaretz

This piece tells the story of the 2007 Israeli operation that destroyed an atomic plant in northwestern Syria. It also reveals, as the authors write, “a story of a big intelligence failure – the worst since the Yom Kippur War.” The ramifications of the operation reached the top of the Israeli government and many of the details remained a secret until recently. Haaretz has done a remarkable job reporting this story, interviewing 25 individuals closely connected with the event, and I encourage you to take the time to peruse its contents.


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.


| By Ian Klaus

Did the UNSG Say “Revolution”?

While there is nothing convenient about 2020, the upcoming Pritzker Forum on Global Cities has been helpfully anticipated by a series of publications that speak to the high stakes currently in play in cities around the world and the urgent need - from the perspective of both efficacy and equity - to adapt governance practices.

| By Laurence Ralph, Thomas Abt, Brian Hanson

Deep Dish: Police Reform Lessons from Around the World

Princeton University’s Laurence Ralph and the Council on Criminal Justice’s Thomas Abt join Deep Dish to explain why police brutality is not a uniquely American phenomenon and argue the strongest examples of successful police reform come from outside the United States.

| By Pavin Chachavalpongpun, Brian Hanson

Deep Dish: Thailand’s Youth Demand Democratic Reforms

Political scientist Pavin Chachavalpongpun joins Deep Dish to explain how social media makes these Thailand's pro-democracy protests different than past movements and why the United States should see Thailand as a foreign policy priority when negotiating a rising China.

| By Maha Yahya, Emile Hokayem, Brian Hanson

Deep Dish: Can Lebanon Overcome Corruption and Crisis?

Carnegie Middle East Center Director Maha Yahya and the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Emile Hokayem join Deep Dish to examine the ongoing protest movement in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s role in the crisis, and how a system built on sectarian politics could be rebuilt.

| By Laura Rosenberger, Jacob Helberg, Brian Hanson

Deep Dish: Making Cyberspace Safe for Democracy

The Alliance for Security Democracy’s Laura Rosenberger and Stanford University’s Jacob Helberg join Deep Dish to discuss digital interference, misinformation, and data privacy within the lens of geopolitics.