AuthorSteff, Reuben


Author: John Bolton

Published by: Simon & Schuster, New York, 2020, 593pp, US$32.50.

In The Room Where it Happened, John Bolton recounts his time as national security advisor to President Donald Trump from April 2018 to September 2019. During this period, he had the unenviable task of providing advice to a president for whom chaos was a way of life. Notable issues that arose included heightened tensions with China and Russia, separate crises involving Venezuela, Iran and Turkey, an out-of-date international arms control regime, Trump's determination to accelerate US withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, tensions with NATO and a delicate and ultimately doomed diplomatic dance with North Korea.

The book is lengthy and details a story of immense disruption emerging from the White House, as officials attempted to contain Trump, distract him and/or undertake palliative measures when their efforts failed. Trump, for his part, comes across as a mad king for our time: full of power, blinding self-confidence and a hyper-awareness for how media (social and traditional) could magnify his message as he sought to enforce his will irrespective of norms, institutional barriers and decorum.

Through the text, it becomes clear that Bolton is knowledgeable about the workings of Washington, as well as global affairs and American history. He is also an unapologetic hardliner: to Bolton, America should pursue primacy and act unilaterally --including militarily --when it must; true power comes from America's material assets and a credible willingness to use it. In this worldview everything else is secondary. As such, Washington's State Department (a 'permanent class' requiring, Bolton believed, 'a cultural revolution' because of their desire to run foreign policy on their own) is portrayed as a self-serving cadre of bureaucrats, and international institutions their talk shops that reflect 'theology masquerading as policy'.

Despite drastically different temperaments and operating styles, Trump and Bolton are natural bedfellows on many issues. Bolton makes this clear by speaking favourably --and acting to facilitate during his tenure--a number of Trump's controversial decisions. This included leaving the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), the Paris climate agreement ('a charade' according to Bolton, while leaving it was an 'important victory against global governance'), the Intermediate-Range...

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