In the end, Trumpism and Boltonism have produced an outcome that’s worse than either on its own. The summit is or maybe isn’t off, and the U.S. is back to threatening war but confusingly somehow seeking talks. None of this enhances Trump’s credibility as a negotiating partner. Meanwhile, North Korea still has its nuclear weapons, and could resume testing them. By confronting Beijing on trade, the U.S. has squandered some of the leverage it needs to convince China to keep imposing tough sanctions on Pyongyang. And with his initial letter cancelling the summit, Trump surprised and humiliated South Korean leader Moon Jae In, who may still pursue détente with the North whether or not Trump rescinds his cancellation, thus undermining Trump and Bolton’s maximum-pressure campaign. South Korea may also draw closer to China, which would leave the U.S. more isolated in Northeast Asia than it has been in decades.
Something similar has happened in Europe. First, the Trump administration’s threats of steel and aluminum tariffs infuriated European leaders. Then its Boltonesque maximalism led America to withdraw from the Iran deal, aggravating and humiliating the Europeans all over again.
The problem here isn’t merely personal. It’s structural. Trump won the Republican nomination, and the presidency, in part because he realized that, after the Iraq disaster, national-security maximalism was no longer a political winner. John McCain and Mitt Romney had pushed a hard line against Iran’s nuclear weapons and a soft line against China’s widgets and lost. Trump outperformed them in the upper Midwest because he ran as a trade hawk, and he knows that maintaining that image is crucial to his political fortunes.
Yet national-security maximalism still dominates the Republican foreign-policy and media ecosystem. There are no more Brent Scowcrofts, Colin Powells, and Richard Lugars. And so, as his national-security adviser, Trump chose Bolton, who had spent the previous years demanding on Fox News that North Korea and Iran capitulate.
We have seen the results this spring: An administration that, in both Asia and Europe, pursues geopolitical and geoeconomic confrontation at the same time. It demands that America’s economic partners impose sanctions on America’s political adversaries even as America threatens economic sanctions on them. Even George W. Bush, for all his hubris, didn’t try this. He didn’t hand over his military policy to Dick Cheney and his trade policy to Pat Buchanan at the same time.
It hasn’t worked. America doesn’t have the power to force China, Japan, South Korea, Germany, France, Britain, and others to capitulate on trade while it forces North Korea and Iran to capitulate on nukes. Instead, the combination of Trump and Bolton’s maximalism is alienating public opinion across the world—which will sooner or later produce populist anti-American leaders. And it’s exposing America as a paper tiger, a country that demands things it can’t compel. Trump may not be able to distinguish bluster from genuine power, but the rest of the world is catching on.