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Transatlantic Gains and Strains

An interview with Ambassador John Bolton

Ambassador John R. Bolton Winter 2007

On October 17, 2007, inFOCUS editor Jonathan Schanzer interviewed Ambassador John Bolton at the American Enterprise Institute, where he currently serves as a senior fellow. Ambassador Bolton served as the United States' permanent representative to the United Nations from August 2005 to December 2006. Prior to serving at the U.N., Ambassador Bolton was Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security (2001-2005). He has also held positions at the Department of State, Department of Justice, and USAID.

iF: What is Europe’s role in the U.N., and how might that prevent the United States from reaching its foreign policy goals?

JB: There are too many people in Europe who think they have passed beyond history and that they are in a world beyond nation states and, really, beyond threats. They believe there is no challenge that can’t be negotiated away, and that every threat is really a benign opportunity misunderstood. If you live in this bubble, where you don’t see threats as significant, then negotiation always looks like the solution. I wish that the world were that way, but the fact is that it’s not. And when too many European governments are under the sway of that idea, it’s very hard to get them to cooperate effectively.

The most prominent case is the Middle East. There are too many people in Europe who think if only we solve the Arab-Israeli problem all the other problems would disappear. That’s simply wrong. If we did solve the Arab-Israeli problem, which isn’t going to happen anytime soon, many of these other problems, which existed from the beginning of Islam, would still exist in the region.

iF: The Quartet (a Middle East diplomacy body represented by the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations), in my estimation, has been a failure. Can the Europeans revive their role in the quartet and help push things in the right direction?

JB: I don’t think so. I’d abolish the Quartet. It’s an unnatural institution. I’ve never understood how the U.N. can be part of something that involves its own member governments. The fact is, the European Union comes to these Quartet meetings and they’ve got the European presidency and the European commission, and they’ve got Javier Solana. There are more Europeans in the room then all three other parties combined. It’s just a very unwieldy process. Ultimately, it’s the U.S. that makes the difference in the Arab-Israeli question. If you want others involved, and you want buy-in from the others, the Quartet is the wrong mechanism.

iF: What would be the right European mechanism if you were to reshape the system in your own image?

JB: I would have a hub and spokes approach, where the U.S. is the hub, and I’d have a spoke to Russia, a spoke to various European countries, a spoke to Japan, and a spoke to China. But, just as it was in the post-Madrid process of the George H.W. Bush administration, it has to be the U.S. running the process. Although the Madrid process had everybody present sitting at the dais, everybody knew that it was a U.S. process. I’d return to a model like that.

iF: The Europeans were on the fence about sanctioning Hamas for some time. After the Gaza coup in June 2007, they finally backed U.S. policy. What was the problem?

JB: I think they are always unwilling to take a major step that would represent a discontinuity in their policy. They were willing to fund the P.A. because they had no alternative. Colin Powell always said that he had to deal with Arafat because he had no alternative. I wouldn’t put it beyond the realm of the possible that they will return to saying, “We must finance Hamas. How else do you get humanitarian supplies into Gaza?”

Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice is saying that, now more than ever, we need a Palestinian state. I think this is pursuing an illusion. But that is the direction we are going in. We are pressing ahead for an Annapolis conference. And the Europeans are more than willing to follow. What we should be doing is analyzing alternatives to the two-state solution.

iF: Do you think it might be more realistic to see a three state solution?

JB: I don’t see a Palestinian entity capable of making and carrying through on commitments. I’d like to see Jordan assume greater responsibility over the West Bank and Egypt over Gaza, which they once governed, although never claimed it, since it was part of the League of Nations mandate. Let’s be realistic, I think the Palestinians would have better lives as citizens of Egypt instead of pursuing the notion of a Palestinian state. They’d have a better economic and political life.

iF: There should be a fair amount of transatlantic agreement on trying to prevent Iran from going nuclear and to prevent Iran from sponsoring terrorism. But we don’t see everyone singing off the same sheet of music. What is the reason for that?

JB: One reason is that the whole EU3 (France, England, and Germany) effort to negotiate with Iran started as a counterpoint to the Coalition overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The decision-makers in Germany and France wanted to show they could handle a proliferation problem differently than the Bush administration, which they viewed as “unilateralist cowboys.” The Brits went along with them in some respects, in my opinion, to prove their EU credentials. So, what the EU3 have invested in their process of negotiation are equities that have nothing to do with stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons. That has acted as an inhibitor. It prevents them from understanding that the Iranians are not going to be negotiated out of their nuclear weapons program voluntarily.

Again, the election of President Sarkozy has brought a new tone of realism in French diplomacy, but the chance for diplomacy or sanctions to work may be gone after four years or more of failed European diplomacy. The Iranians have essentially solved the technological and scientific problems that stand between them and a completely indigenous nuclear capability. So, at this point, partially because we have relied on European diplomacy for four years, which has failed, our options are very constrained.

iF: What can we learn about the European approach to the Iraq war as we weigh our options with regard to Iran?

JB: Europe was fragmented on the Iraq war, which I think demonstrates why waiting for them to get their act together and get a common foreign and security policy acts as a drag on the United States. Even if you favored greater European integration, the process of them making up their minds is a costly operation. It is costly in terms of lost opportunity, delay, and indecision. On some of these big issues, they’re not going to have a common foreign policy. If you look at the way the United Kingdom or France operated in the Security Council, even when there was a European position, they pursued their own national policies, as well. Part of the problem of Europe deciding what it wants to be when it grows up is reflected in the Security Council.

iF: What are the prospects of our working together with the Europeans if things get more complicated? Will they be with us if we need to take preventive military action?

JB: We’re currently in a potential state of flux as to where Europe comes out. Because we spent all this time deferring to the Europeans, relying on their diplomacy, there are only two possible ways of preventing Iran from getting a nuclear capability. One is a regime change. The other, as a last resort, is a use of force. I don’t think the Europeans are prepared for either of those options. They don’t understand that the course they have been pursuing for four years has not only not solved the problem, but in every material respect has made it worse. It has given Iran what they could not purchase for love or money, which is time. Time works in favor of the proliferators. Time has worked in favor of Iran. Time has given Iran a chance here to resolve the problems they had in their nuclear program. Now, it’s essentially just a question of how many resources they pour into it. Europe has to confront that reality, and I don’t think they are quite ready to do that yet.

iF: At what point do you think the E.U. will wake up to its domestic threats?

JB: Some appreciate it now, some don’t. I would have thought they would have come to that point long ago. In England, the attacks in 2005 on the transportation system were carried out by second and third generation British citizens. This is the most frightening thing. These are not people who just came off the boat. These are people who have seen all the advantages of a free and open political and economic system, and they have rejected it consciously. That to me is chilling. It means they don’t disagree within the bounds of acceptable political discourse. They reject the entire structure. Once you are at that point, that brings to mind the oath in our Constitution, where the president swears to defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. There are some who don’t believe there are domestic enemies anymore. In Europe I think they’ve got domestic enemies. If they don’t wake up to it, they are powerless to defend against it. If they can’t acknowledge they’ve got a problem, how are they going to deal with it?

iF: If Europe does not acknowledge its problems, how can America get anything accomplished at the United Nations? Do you think there will always be gridlock?

JB: I think there are signs of encouragement. I’m most optimistic about France under President Sarkozy. I think he brings a better attitude, but I don’t think France’s fundamental approach has changed. I think a more cooperative attitude could be important. I look forward to France rejoining the NATO military command. In Germany, Chancellor Merkel has been an extraordinary improvement over her predecessor, but I think part of the gridlock of any coalition government is still being manifested. In Britain, I think Mr. Brown remains a question mark, but I think our fundamental interests are aligned very closely. The prospects of elections in Italy also give us reason to hope there is a more realistic attitude in Europe and not the airy-fairy view.

But other European leaders have been unwilling to recognize the threats they face. Look at the Netherlands and their decision to pull the protection for Ayaan Hirsi Ali. It’s just incomprehensible to me. Spain has dealt itself out of problems that extend outside Europe since Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar left.

I think we ought to be talking about extending NATO outside Europe, inviting countries such as Japan, Israel, and Australia. We should have a military alliance with democracies. I don’t want to be promiscuous about who we invite in, but we ought to have that debate within NATO. I think some Europeans are fully prepared to consider that.

iF: Thank you for your time, Mr. Ambassador.