Entry 72: A Scary Development

March 23, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the 72nd installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?

I’m trying very hard to not freak out right now that McMaster was pushed out and John Bolton is now the national security adviser. Deep breaths. I’ve decried Bolton’s policy views and demeanor on multiple occasions the past few months. Today I even gave a quick interview explaining the not-hard-to-see problem with a guy who thinks bombs are the solution to every foreign policy challenge.

If I look for the bright side, it’s that McMaster was also an advocate for the use of force against Pyongyang, and the role of national security adviser is supposedly to be that of a process shepherd for national security policy rather than an advocate. But we all know that, in practice, the national security adviser role is whatever the president wants it to be—especially this president—and in government, everyone is a policy entrepreneur. And while McMaster was a war hawk on North Korea, he was less so on Iran. That stands in stark contrast to Bolton, who seems to view Iran and North Korea as equally irredeemable. Plus, Bolton will have the ear of the president to a far greater degree than McMaster did; the personal chemistry difference with Trump is a night and day switch from McMaster to Bolton.

Bolton’s views are extremely well documented, and extremely consistent over time. We know what we’re getting with him. That’s scary on a number of issues, but uniquely so on North Korea. As far as I know, North Korea is the only nuclear-armed adversary that Bolton thinks we should bomb.

I wrote just under 400 words today, which isn’t great, but the Bolton thing has got me very concerned. It’s sort of consuming me because it’s easy to see how U.S. policy going into a summit with Kim Jong Un would sabotage the whole thing and strengthen the case for war—which I was already worried about.

These continuous developments in Trump’s national security saga are making it really hard to nail down how the concluding chapter of the book should play out. It’s clear where the risks and dangers are, and it’s clear how they came about—that’s like the first 75 percent of the book. But it’s less clear if anyone is going to actually ignite the highly combustible situation or not. For the book, it’s the difference of writing a how-to guide for managing the risk of nuclear war or a World War I-esque history of how we marched right into a catastrophe.


Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks and an associate editor of the Texas National Security Review. He is also a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington, and the Defence & Strategy Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies.