Skip to main content

Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia.

John Bolton is best known for his walrus mustache and shockingly bellicose statements. Outside of the United States, the general view is that his appointment as national security adviser has made the world a more dangerous place.

I disagree. Having Mr. Bolton alongside Donald Trump could actually be a good thing.

Mr. Bolton and I were on the same conference circuit from 1999-2001, when he was a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and I was a professor at Duke University. We crossed swords in public and had respectful conversations in private. I cannot claim to know the man well, but I did learn some important things about him.

Bolton is smart: When I complained that the United States ratifies far fewer treaties than other Western countries, Mr. Bolton replied that the United States takes its commitments seriously. It was a fair point, made more pointed by the fact that my country, Canada, was already notorious for ratifying treaties and then failing to implement them fully. A superb international lawyer, Mr. Bolton led the creation of the Proliferation Security Initiative in 2003, which brought dozens of countries together to prevent the trafficking of weapons of mass destruction on the high seas. Most observers assumed the United States would wield the blunt instrument of naval power to board and search foreign ships. But Mr. Bolton, the U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control, found every existing legal basis for jurisdiction, ranging from “flag-state authority” to “port-state authority,” to enable searches to take place without controversy. He negotiated dozens of bilateral “ship-rider” agreements, whereby foreign officials are deployed on U.S. naval vessels, enabling them to “command” the vessel when it interdicts a ship sailing under the flag of their own country.

Bolton is organized: It took great organizational skill to build an international coalition for the Proliferation Security Initiative, to negotiate the ship-rider agreements and to bring the U.S. and foreign navies on board. Mr. Bolton’s organizational chops have also been demonstrated at the political level. The “John Bolton Super PAC” raised more than $10-million to help Republican candidates in 2014 and 2016, earning gratitude and therefore influence for its namesake.

Bolton is tenacious: Washington’s elites fixated on their TV screens in November and December of 2000, as the drama of “hanging chads” played out in Florida. Not Mr. Bolton, who lacks pretensions. He hopped on a plane to Florida, volunteering 18 hours a day for six weeks to help deliver victory to George W. Bush. In what should have been a crushing blow, Mr. Bolton was then overlooked for a senior appointment in the Bush administration. I remember seeing him shuffling to the State Department early one Saturday morning, alone and seemingly dejected. But Mr. Bolton was just putting the hours in, waiting for the eventual call. It came four years later, in the form of a recess appointment as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Mr. Bolton exhibited the same tenacity after he was initially passed over for a senior appointment by Mr. Trump, reportedly because of the mustache. He just kept hammering away on Fox News, shifting even further to the right and becoming an uncompromising Trump booster.

Bolton is a pragmatist: Much has been made of Mr. Bolton’s “America first” attitude, which mirrors that of Mr. Trump. But Mr. Bolton’s position is intellectually grounded. He believes the U.S. Constitution prevails over international law, including the United Nations Charter, because the Constitution is based on the will of the American people, while international law involves agreements between states, many of which are undemocratic. And make no mistake: Mr. Bolton is willing to co-operate with other countries, if doing so serves the interests of the United States.

Bolton opens hard but is willing to compromise: Mr. Bolton takes a shock-and-awe approach to negotiations. On arriving at the UN, he took a red pen to the draft “World Summit Declaration.” Other ambassadors were horrified to see many of their carefully negotiated provisions rudely crossed out. By opening hard, Mr. Bolton reset the negotiations in favour of the United States. He then made a series of compromises. For example, Mr. Bolton allowed the language of “Responsibility to Protect” to remain in the World Summit Declaration, while confining that Canadian-made doctrine to Security Council decision-making, where it can only be implemented through force if all five permanent members agree.

Bolton is ambitious: Mr. Bolton came close to running for president on two occasions. He now has a position of enormous influence, meeting daily with a president who is ignorant of foreign affairs and therefore easily led. Mr. Bolton can only maintain this influence, and aspire to higher office, by surviving in his current position. This explains why he bit his tongue when Mr. Trump promised to end military exercises on the Korean peninsula, in return for a vague commitment to denuclearize. Mr. Bolton’s strategy is already paying off. Last month, he achieved foreign-policy dominance over Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, by being dispatched to Moscow to meet with Vladimir Putin.

We can work with Bolton: Mr. Bolton is the farthest thing from crazy. Foreign governments just need to understand where he is coming from, and where he aims to go. A protégé of Jesse Helms, a long-time chair of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. Bolton does not want to destroy the international system. He wants to make it work better, much better, for the United States.

John Bolton is smart, tough and highly strategic. Forget the caricatures. We can work with him.