Defending his decision to write what the media likes to call “a tell-all tale”, the former national security advisor to US President Donald Trump, John Bolton, told The New York Times, “I just think it’s important to tell the story”. That is as good a defence by any writer of any piece of writing. In writing his account of his time in the White House in 2018-19, The Room Where it Happened: A White House Memoir, Bolton has only followed a rich tradition in American democracy of those walking out of the corridors of power sharing with the public information that they believe ought to be shared in the national interest. The national interest in this case, Bolton believes, lies in preventing a second term for President Trump.
In the very feudal and self-serving culture of the Delhi Darbar, few are ready to call it a day and speak truth to power, though more and more are now willing to do so. Conscious of the fact that even in the US he would be criticised by partisan elements for speaking up, that too in the run-up to the elections, Bolton derived inspiration from Robert Gates, the US defence secretary in the Bush and Obama administrations, who wrote without hesitation about US misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. At that time, Bolton had defended Gates saying, “I believe former senior officials have virtually an obligation to explain what they did while in government”.
The surprising thing about Bolton’s book is not what it says but who says it. An ideological fellow traveller of the American right and a true blue establishment man, with a long career in US diplomatic service that culminated in his posting as US ambassador to the United Nations, Bolton believes Trump betrayed the cause and the nation with his whimsical style of governance and fanciful views on public policy and national security.
Bolton only confirms the widely held view that Trump is a charlatan. Worse, an ignoramus. The problem, however, does not lie in the fact that Trump knows so little about the complexities of the world and national security. That could be said for most elected politicians anywhere. But that ought to be compensated by recourse to professional policy advice, rather than policy based on “whim and fancy”. Politicians may win elections on narrow ideological platforms, but that cannot become the basis of policy in a complex polity and an even more complex world. Bolton laments the lack of informed and intelligent policy-making in the Trump administration.
It is only natural that Bolton’s book would focus on issues impacting US national security, especially in the period he was in office. So it is not surprising that the countries mentioned most often, several hundred references to be precise, include China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Japan, Britain and the European Union. For an Indian reader, it is sobering to note that India is mentioned on precisely 10 pages — twice along with China, twice along with Pakistan, twice with reference to Iran’s oil sales, once with reference to trade, once with reference to nuclear non-proliferation, once with reference to Russian sale of S-400 missiles and once in the context of a comment by Trump on Narendra Modi.
Clearly, India was a marginal concern of the US national security advisor during his term in office. Bolton does not take the India-Pakistan border clash of 2019 very seriously, but his views on the Afghan Taliban will be welcomed in New Delhi. Bolton was disapproving of Trump’s decision to talk to the Taliban, as he was of Trump playing ducks and drakes with the Chinese.
For an Indian reader of Bolton, the worrying conclusion is that for all the hype about a special relationship between the world’s oldest and largest democracies, India figures in the mind space of successive US administrations mostly in relation to America’s enduring security concerns — nuclear non-proliferation, Afghanistan-Pakistan, China and Russia. On the one purely bilateral issue of trade relations, Bolton is sympathetic to the hawkish views of the US trade representative Robert Lighthizer. All this does not contribute to greater confidence-building between Trump’s US and Modi’s India.
Read from a purely Indian perspective, Bolton’s book raises questions about US interest in, if not commitment to, Indian national security. India hardly figures in the book. One can take comfort from the fact that Trump’s “America First” approach has warped US commitment to all friends and allies and so India is no exception. The question does arise, given Bolton’s criticism of Trump, as to how much of Trump’s “America First” approach is about Trump and how much of it is about the US. In other words, will a change of guard at the White House herald a change of US policy or will there be more continuity than change?
Perhaps China has taken a proper measure of Trump’s America and has concluded that there is a window of opportunity for it to exert pressure on most of its neighbours — from Japan to India. Perhaps it is such a reading of Bolton’s book that has encouraged the Indian ministers of external affairs and defence to participate in trilaterals with China even as India moves closer to Japan and Australia.
Bolton’s portrayal of chaotic decision-making in Washington DC in matters of global and national security is, of course, aimed at strengthening the case against Trump. However, it also serves as a warning to policy-makers in India. The US-India relationship was built on foundations that Trump has brought into question, without creating an alternative basis for the relationship. It remains to be seen whether political change in the US will make a difference and, if so, what kind of difference to the bilateral relationship.
India’s priorities and national security concerns have not changed in these past two decades. The elements that shaped the US-India relationship in the first decade of this century remain the defining ones even today. US priorities too have not changed. However, how the US views India and its concerns keeps changing. Bolton’s book is a reminder.
The writer is a policy analyst and former media advisor to Prime Minister of India
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