Dealing with Bolton: Appeasement is Not an Option

Photo: John Bolton (Donkey Hotey via Flickr).

by Eldar Mamedov

John Bolton, the newly appointed national security advisor to the President Donald Trump, summarized in his memoirs his experiences as the US ambassador to the United Nations by saying that “surrender is not an option.” Throughout his career, he treated “surrender” as a substitute word for “diplomacy.” He viewed engaging in any kind of give-and-take compromise as limiting American power, and therefore both unnecessary and harmful. More than any other member of George W. Bush’s foreign policy team, Bolton embodied the principle of “who is not with us is against us.” But there was never enough of “being with us.”

I had a chance to meet this reality up close in 2003 when I served at the legal department of the ministry of foreign affairs of Latvia. Alongside other Central and Eastern European nations, Latvia was and is staunchly pro-American and pro-Atlanticist in its foreign-policy orientation. At the time, Latvia hoped to join NATO and was very eager to curry favor with Washington. This is why it joined the US-led “coalition of willing” in Iraq.

From Latvia’s perspective, this decision carried significant political costs: the war in Iraq was not authorized by the UN Security Council, joining it met considerable opposition in the parliament and public opinion, and it was strongly opposed by France and Germany, two heavyweights of the European Union, which Latvia also aspired to join. The eagerness of the Central Europeans to please Washington even earned them a famous rebuke from the then-president of France Jacques Chirac to the effect that they “lost an excellent opportunity to remain silent.”

Yet, as it turned out, not even the readiness of a Baltic nation to bear these costs was enough to convince the Bush administration of its loyalty.

The US, reportedly at the initiative of John Bolton, launched a worldwide campaign to bully other countries to sign bilateral agreements that would grant Americans immunity from prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in case of suspicion of committing crimes under its jurisdiction. Latvia signed the Rome Statute, which made it a party to the ICC, while the US did not do so. At the time, Washington threatened to cut military aid to Latvia if it refused to sign a bilateral immunity agreement (BIA) with the US. The EU had agreed to a common position to reject the BIAs in order not to undermine the ICC. It also made it clear that it expected candidate countries, including Latvia, to adhere to that position.

The issue divided the Latvian government. The hawkish then-defence minister, representing a far-right nationalist party—which, disgracefully, is still part of the ruling coalition in Latvia—lobbied hard to convince the prime minister to acquiesce to American demands. On the other hand, the then-ambassador of Latvia to the EU warned that going against the EU common position would alienate Brussels and delay Latvia´s integration process to the EU. In the end, the pro-EU position prevailed, and Latvia refused to sign the BIA with the US. As a result, Washington delivered on its threat to cut its military aid to Latvia. That included withholding $2.7 million in funding to support Latvian troops in Iraq, fighting America´s war of choice.

In the end, this reprisal was only a temporary setback. Latvia joined both NATO and the EU in 2004. But the moral of the story is that for Bolton and his cohorts, there’s never enough appeasement when it comes to U.S. demands.

The EU in particular should take good note of the Latvian precedent as it grapples with the dilemma of how to deal with the Trump-Pompeo-Bolton team, for example, on the future of the Iran deal. There is a risk that whatever concessions the EU3 (France, Germany, United Kingdom) would consider making to keep the US committed to the deal, it will fall far short of securing a reciprocal commitment from the Trump administration. Therefore, the EU should be prepared to play tough, by leveraging its own, not insignificant, assets.

When dealing with the likes of Bolton or Trump, appeasement is not an option.

Photo: John Bolton (Donkey Hotey via Flickr). This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.

Eldar Mamedov

Eldar Mamedov has degrees from the University of Latvia and the Diplomatic School in Madrid, Spain. He has worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia and as a diplomat in Latvian embassies in Washington D.C. and Madrid. Since 2007, Mamedov has served as a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament (EP) and is in charge of the EP delegations for inter-parliamentary relations with Iran, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, and Mashreq.



  1. If there is no quid for a quo, there is no deal. Surrendering ones judgement to a third party – the ICC, or the EU – is supine. Either be a bilateral sovereign nation, or lower the flag to half mast, and be overtaken/overrun by other powers.

  2. Thank you, Eldar Mamedov, for that very relevant background on John Bolton. I absolutely agree – the Europeans need to stiffen their backs. If, as appears likely, the US reimposes secondary financial sanctions, the EU should nullify them for its members.
    Meanwhile in the U.S., the ‘Coalition against Iran nukes’ has issued an impressive statement signed by 50 leading Americans – will anybody in the White House take notice?

  3. Ah yes, the U.S. playbook. We twist a country’s army until it breaks and then use the official agreement of that country to claim that our actions are ‘lawful’.

    We were invited into Iraq to fight ISIS and Iraq’s right to self defense gives us the right to occupy and bomb Syria. Of course, we threaten to cut off all aid to Iraq unless they do things exactly our way and we do a lot of other things in Syria other than protect Iraq’s safety but that gives us the fig leaf. In any case, Bolton played the same game in Iraq 2003.

    I just say, this does prove that Bush Sr. got it right. He had a real coalition, with UN approval and gasp, he kept his word. Something we don’t do anymore.

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