Bolton’s book is distinguished from many others by its cynical directness, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov. It can cause ethical rejection. But does this mean that it does not reflect reality? And is Machiavellian cynicism really that commonplace in politics and diplomacy?
The recently released memoir of John Bolton, a former national security adviser to the president of the United States, appeared immediately at the centre of a big scandal. In focus, we see Bolton’s extremely unflattering assessments of President Trump and accusations that the author himself violated state secrets, the details of confidential diplomatic negotiations revealed by Bolton, and the extreme cynicism of the political decision-making taking place behind the scenes during open diplomacy. On the one hand, we cannot say that Bolton’s book offers something completely new in the analysis of Trump’s decision-making. Bob Woodward’ book, “Fear”, published a couple of years ago, emphasised the same thing and the same chaos and unpredictability in Trump’s political kitchen. And Bolton, not in specific details, but in his general style and tonality, did not say anything new in comparison with Woodward. But if Woodward built his whole book on quoting unnamed anonymous sources and, accordingly, posed a dilemma for the reader to believe or not to believe in everything written, then Bolton speaks in the first person, and even if he does not possess the merit that would lead one to believe in him, it is necessary to accept his opinions and judgments as direct source, rather than a retelling of anecdotal evidence from anonymous sources. The cynical bluntness of the book, which reflects the relevant traits of Bolton’s character, sets it apart from other memoirs that have already appeared about the activities of the Trump administration, for example, in comparison with the book by Nikki Haley, who was the US ambassador to the United Nations in the early years of Trump’s presidency.
In the aforementioned context, particular nuances are acquired by the fact that the pdf file of Bolton’s book at the time of publication immediately appeared freely accessible on the Internet. We agree that there is an ethical irony that Bolton, who revealed the details of many confidential diplomatic negotiations, himself was the victim of “freedom-loving hackers” and experienced the same absolutely libertarian approach to freedom of information that he himself cynically used in relation to others. Everyone who is interested has already received and read Bolton’s new book. So why buy it now? If Bolton makes less money from this endeavour, then this is a significant asymmetric response to his own actions. Libertarian ethics in all their glory. After all, we agree that the destruction of diplomatic confidentiality and the destruction of intellectual property are actually caused by the same phenomenon: the real global demand for freedom of information.
This request of society is often played down, and even rejected in the mainstream political discourse. On the one hand, it’s postulated that in politics there should not be closed themes and that political decision-making should be open and transparent for society. On the other hand, the backstage of the political process (in this case we are not talking about conspiracy clichés) does not disappear anywhere, and a limited circle of people who traditionally prefer to work behind closed doors are involved in real political decision-making. Public attempts to cast doubt on this approach are also well-known.
This dilemma between closeness and openness in politics, by the way, has been clearly manifested in many countries during the coronavirus pandemic. The radical uncertainty associated with it and the extremely squeezed time factor became the dominant element influencing the adoption (or non-adoption) of political decisions on quarantines, etc., seriously affecting the whole society. Assessing the effectiveness and controversy of some of these decisions has become a serious topic of public discussion, not only in relation to the epidemic, but it has stirred up a civil discussion about the impact of society on political decision-making in general. It is no coincidence that it was during the pandemic that a new stimulus for discussion was the concept of “extended peer communities”, which, in the opinion of its supporters, should replace the traditional closed and narrowly limited model of developing political decisions. Another question is whether it is possible to physically involve the whole mechanism of “extended” expert and civil consultations when a decision needs to be taken within a few days, or even hours (as was in the case with the epidemic).
Nevertheless, the discussion raised the issue of openness in politics with renewed vigour, and politicians will have to react to this. John Bolton, in this context, is hardly calling for open diplomacy and foreign policy decisions. Bolton is unlikely to be ready to make his decision, for instance, on the US withdrawing from a nuclear deal with Iran through open civil consultations. Let’s not be naive. He only talks about closed political decisions post factum on a fresh track. But this was enough to make his publication a global information bomb. And it seems that Bolton’s book highlighted the problem of the openness of diplomacy with renewed vigour, and here its material could well be used in further public discussions.
The closed nature of politics and diplomacy is one topic for discussion. The second theme, found in Bolton’s book, is the cynicism of politics and diplomacy. According to him, there are no friends and enemies, but only interests (and his understanding of them). Furthermore, the goal almost always justifies the means. Existing diplomatic arrangements are just an unnecessary external screen. Very indicative, for example, is how Bolton ridicules the fixation of “traditional diplomats” on the mandatory need for a common communiqué following any diplomatic meeting. For him, this is pointless and unnecessary. As a teacher of international relations, it immediately struck me that so many fragments from Bolton’s book could become ready-made cases for students studying diplomacy. To some extent, I won’t be surprised if Bolton’s book is included among the classics used by students studying foreign policy decisions, such as, for example, Graham Allison’s book on the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, or anti-classics, if you like.
Again, Bolton’s book is distinguished from many others by its cynical directness. It can cause ethical rejection. But does this mean that it does not reflect reality? And is Machiavellian cynicism really that commonplace in politics and diplomacy? Is talking about morality and other high matters just a screen for a dirty game being played out behind closed doors? And can society fix this? In our opinion, perhaps this question is the key dilemma raised by the release of Bolton’s book.