John Bolton’s appointment as White House national security adviser has produced an avalanche of angry and fearful media coverage; not since Groucho Marx’s heyday has an American mustache enjoyed this much attention.
The panicked response to Mr. Bolton’s arrival reflects the inflammatory nature of today’s most urgent foreign-policy problem: the spread of weapons of mass destruction. It was Saddam Hussein’s alleged pursuit of WMDs that launched the Iraq war; the North Korea standoff involves Kim Jong Un’s steadily advancing nuclear and ballistic-missile technology; and the Iran deal Mr. Bolton wants to kill was the Obama administration’s response to that country’s nuclear aspirations.
The basic problem is an old one. Since 1945, the world’s leading statesmen have pondered how to stop potentially planet-killing superweapons from being used. During the Cold War, it was mostly about preventing an all-out nuclear exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. After 1989 the focus shifted to the problem of “rogue states” like Iran and North Korea. Advancements in chemical and biological WMDs added another layer of complexity.
There are two schools of thought for how to deal with proliferation. Multilateralists believe that a global threat like WMDs can be addressed only through a cooperative effort. In this view, international accords—like the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which now includes most of the countries on Earth—can be enforced successfully by the United Nations Security Council.
Unilateralists like Mr. Bolton disagree. They believe the treaties are too weak and the “international community” is too cynical and divided to summon the determination needed to confront bad actors who defy the treaty’s limits. The U.S. must be prepared to act alone, they insist, even if that means war.
Unilateralists see multilateralism as a policy of graceful surrender. They note that despite decades of sanctions and talks, North Korea has become a nuclear power; similarly, the sunset clauses in the Obama administration’s Iran deal will soon make its path to the bomb relatively easy.
Multilateralists retort that the only alternative is to embroil the U.S. in destructive wars that would diminish American power and undermine international stability. Mr. Bolton, they point out, was a strong supporter of the Iraq war. That unfortunate quagmire, they say, could have been avoided had the U.S. listened to the U.N. and abided by the multilateral regime.
Since 1945 both multilateralists and unilateralists have had a voice in shaping American nonproliferation policy, and today both sides are partly right. The trouble is that the clock is running out. North Korea and Iran represent tipping points in their regions. A failure to decommission Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and halt its missile development would likely prompt East Asian countries including Japan and South Korea to build their own bombs. Likewise, a nuclear Iran would almost certainly lead to a nuclear Saudi Arabia, a nuclear Turkey and perhaps a nuclear Egypt.
Americans instinctively look to technological progress to solve the most difficult human problems, but in this case it is working against us. During World War II, the world’s greatest economic power created a consortium of brilliant scientists to build the first primitive nuclear bombs; today, third-rate countries and undistinguished engineers can do the same on relatively tight budgets.
At the same time, technological progress is opening the door to new superweapons that may be even harder to control. Policy makers now need to weigh the prospect of cyberattacks on everything from banks to the electric grid, as well as bio-weapons. Weapons programs of this kind are much harder to detect than those aimed at developing nuclear capabilities. The problem of proliferation seems destined to grow.
Messrs. Trump and Bolton may well get nonproliferation policy wrong, but they are right that the conventional methods are not working. Something in American policy needs to change.
Does Mr. Bolton’s appointment mean the Trump administration is moving toward war with North Korea or Iran? Perhaps, but it won’t be the mustachioed national security adviser who makes that call. On the evidence of his presidency so far, nobody tells The Donald what to do: not lawyers, not generals, not cabinet officers, not diplomats, not congressional leaders, not relatives, not even talking heads on cable TV.
Mr. Bolton didn’t plunge American WMD policy into its current state of crisis and uncertainty, and he won’t be the one who decides what to do about it. Meanwhile, Mr. Trump, whose ears are finely attuned to the sentiments of his base, knows that they like tough talk but hate long wars.