The most significant shock to the international order last week—amid the latest Brexit dustups, a North Korean missile test, protests in Hong Kong, and a hurricane in the Caribbean—might have been news of a meeting that did not happen. President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, was denied a briefing on the negotiations to end the Afghan War, The Washington Post reported. After Trump publicly sidelined Bolton earlier this summer, the latest indignity was further proof that national security adviser is not the job it used to be.
Yet Bolton’s humiliation also signals something more important: The United States is no longer capable of being the global leader it once claimed to be. The national security adviser, the official charged with organizing and integrating all discussions of U.S. foreign policies, has been an essential piece of how the United States has tried to lead the world for more than 70 years, and why the world was willing to be led at all. As a result, the breakdown in the way that Washington works could prove more destabilizing than any of the crises dominating the headlines today.
The U.S. national-security system was created in the aftermath of World War II. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who called himself a “juggler … perfectly willing to mislead and tell untruths it if helps win the war,” led that massive effort with a handful of aides and by the seat of his pants. But that ad hoc style worried many in Washington—and most of Congress, the military brass, and the rest of government agreed it was no way to govern in a postwar world. So Congress created the National Security Council in 1947, bringing everyone into one room for discussions, and a few years later, the White House established the position of national security adviser to coordinate the conversations.
That system evolved over seven decades, but its overarching aim remained consistent: providing a coherent policy-making process for a nuclear-armed superpower that could replace improvisation. Such policy integration did not ensure perfect order in Washington, much less that the choices it made were always right, as the minutes of National Security Council meetings about Vietnam, Iraq, and other crises make clear. But regular order, a predictable rhythm and rigor to how the government made decisions, brought some sanity to Washington—and stability to the world.
After all, the United States sat at the center of nearly every postwar global institution, including NATO, the Bretton Woods economic order, and the United Nations. Foreign nations may not have been able to pick who sat at the table in the Situation Room, but with such immense responsibility shouldered by one country, the American commitment to regularity in meetings and reasoned decision making allowed the rest of the world to sleep a little easier.
This has been especially true since the end of the Cold War, when few could doubt the United States was the most powerful nation on Earth. As the world looked toward Washington at every moment of terrorism, pandemic, financial crisis, and natural disaster, the national security adviser became a trusted intermediary, traffic cop, and triage responder, who knew whom to call, what to ask, and whether the United States could help. Some nations even emulated the American system: National security advisers now chair sessions in India, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.
President Trump, who lacks any prior experience with government or national security, struggled from the start to find a workable rhythm in this system. Still, leaders in foreign capitals took heart that—despite his ham-handed tweets and incendiary statements—the president was forced to sit in meetings and deal with the questions from his more experienced appointees and Cabinet secretaries. The departure of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and others aides, though, has left Trump less constrained: He has begun relying on a shadow National Security Council that includes senators, a retired general, and a television anchor, and his public and private suggestions that the national security adviser no longer speaks for the president have undermined any remaining sense of order.
Few should pity Bolton, who keeps showing up for work regardless of the latest indignity, but everyone should worry about what his downfall means. Though national security advisers have fallen out of favor before, no one’s time in the doghouse has been this public, this long, or this unlikely to change. Presidential juggling—of personalities, prerogatives, and policy initiatives—is back, but in hands far less nimble than Roosevelt’s.
That unprecedented situation represents a profound breakdown in how the United States has dealt with the world for 70 years. The costs of such a change are more consequential than any damage to Bolton’s professional reputation. The United States has been a legitimate world leader not just because of its power, but because the country took global leadership seriously enough to govern itself. The world the United States—and the national security adviser—helped lead has become richer, healthier, and more peaceful.
Perhaps even more important, the world feels out of control right now in part because no one is in control in Washington. The stability of American leadership was essential to any perception of global order: The world becomes a more frightening and chaotic place without a regular order in the most powerful nation’s government. Indeed, the breakdown at the heart of the U.S. government is a catastrophe unto itself, and one that risks making all the other unfolding global crises far worse than they otherwise might have been.
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