John Bolton is not a Neocon


America’s probable new ambassador to the UN, whilst he deserves credit for enduring an especially sanctimonious confirmation process in the Senate (see anything said by Senator Biden), does not deserve to be called a ‘neocon’. In the label-obsession of American political discourse he is, in that awkward epithet, a paelo-con, a traditional conservative who thinks that the national interest takes precedence over schemes to make the world anew. He is a prototypical foreign policy realist. He found the 1999 Kosovo war ‘very troubling’. His exclusion from the seminal works of pre-Iraq war neoconservatism suggests he was not seen as one of them – and vice versa. His work does not inform the growing neoconservative canon. He does not write and did not write significantly for any of the small, influential magazines that frame the neoconservative debate.

Because the term itself is the invention of the political left, its deployment has become ubiquitous. Any official, thinker or writer who is especially offensive to liberals transcends conservatism and becomes a neoconservative. Even ‘old’ conservatives distrust them. The British Spectator magazine (Mark Steyn excepted) is the preserve of anti-neocon paleocons: British Tories (who, along with eighty percent of the British electorate, have even managed to alienate the Bush White House).

The New York Times (09th January 2005) recently ascribed to the neocon school the best-selling, Southern Confederacy-leaning, Politically Incorrect Guide to American History. A less neocon appreciation of American history is hard to find (see Max Boot). But because the work offends liberal orthodoxies it transmogrifies into neoconservatism. Bolton is suffering the same fate. He is sceptical of the UN’s logistical efficacy and moral superiority, ipso facto he is a neoconservative. He thinks the Iraq war was the right thing to do – he’s a neocon. He does not suffer fools gladly (the basic charge he faced, as far as I can tell, in his Senate trial), he must be a neocon because neocons are incapable of human compassion.

This will not do. It stretches the semantics of the foreign policy debate to the point where they capture crude distinctions at the price of reality. I repeat, Bolton is not a neocon and here’s why.

He has maintained an often heated argument with self-identifying neoconservatives over the appropriate American role in world affairs. Anyone who has seen him debate Joshua Muravchek would concur.

Bolton’s policy prescriptions, certainly before 11th September 2001 and essentially afterwards too, are grounded in a realist reading of international relations: security depends on the calibrated application of hard power by powerful governments. His 1994 contribution to Foreign Affairs, questioning Clinton’s ‘nation-building’ in Somalia, is indicative of the basic posture that continues to animate his diplomacy: intervention on behalf of human rights is not enough. If the violation of such rights retards international or, even better, American security then intervention may be justified. This is good, honest realism. States are obliged to act when their power but especially their security is threatened. Indeed, in Bolton’s conception, this is the only rational basis for an interventionist foreign policy. Anything else is likely ultimately to reduce America’s room for manoeuvre. ‘For virtually every area of public policy’, said Bolton, ‘there is a globalist proposal, consistent with the overall objective of reducing individual nation-state autonomy, particularly that of the United States’.

Of course, there is some neoconservative reasoning here. The Bolton approach is similar to the ‘democratic realism’ advocated by Charles Krauthammer: American war only on behalf of America’s existence, intervention when the survival of the United States is at stake. This is the central justification, says Krauthammer, for the war on terror, and the only one most neocons need. But neoconservatism is much more than this; its church is broader. Whilst Krauthammer and Bolton share some obvious positions they are at odds with those neocons who embrace a foreign policy of moral expansion. Bolton has little truck with this. Iraq, for the expansive neocons (Krauthammer calls them ‘democratic globalists’), was a project to spread good things to a bad region. Tony Blair’s ‘ethical foreign policy’ is very much in tune with this way of thinking. Power must be deployed to good ends.

For Bolton, the liberation of Iraq was coincidently about universal moral concerns, usually a ruinous basis for any state’s foreign policy (look at Somalia, he says). Fundamentally, Saddam was destroyed because he posed an unacceptable risk to U.S. security – a risk that could be lessened. The democratisation of his one, long-time fiefdom is undertaken because the odds of a democracy threatening U.S. security are far less. The enfranchisement of women across the Middle East may well be a happy consequence of his removal but it is not an issue that keeps Bolton awake at night. William Kristol, on the other hand, a far more eager intervener, wants us to believe that women’s rights are basic to America’s global mission. For sure, Kristol likes Bolton, but this does not make Bolton a neocon.

Bolton’s rhetorically moral line on China, casually interpreted as neoconservatism, is better explained through the realist prism: big states are wary of the rise of other big states; foreign policy realists endorse a diplomacy which checks such states. This captures the centrality of the Bolton thesis.

He didn’t like Clinton’s bombing of Serbia in 1999 because the action was ruinous of NATO unity – a security alliance central to, well, American security. For Bolton, and this seems perfectly laudable but not exclusively neoconservative, everything is right or wrong if security, and the demands of security, make it so. This is not neoconservatism. John Bolton is not a neoconservative.

Dr. Lynch is lecturer in American foreign policy at the Institute for the Study of the Americas, University of London (beginning September 2005). He is currently a lecturer at the University of Leicester: Tim Lynch.


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