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VOA Interview: John Bolton's Take on World's Hotspots

VOA Interview: John Bolton
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VOA Interview: John Bolton

VOA Contributor Greta Van Susteren interviews National Security Advisor John Bolton on topics including Venezuela sanctions, Russian and Chinese involvement in Venezuela, Hong Kong protests, North Korea, nuclear proliferation, Myanmar refugee crisis.

Q: “Voice of America reaches all over the world, including directly into Venezuela and the surrounding countries. A lot of chaos going on there. What’s the message that you want to get to the people of Venezuela. What do they need to know about American policy?”

National Security Advisor John Bolton: “Well that we are entirely behind their justifiable desire to be able to control their own government to get rid of this authoritarian military regime that’s basically ruined the economy of the country over the last twenty years. The nations of the Western Hemisphere are almost unanimously behind their desire to see a peaceful transfer of power. Fifty six governments have recognized Juan Guaido as the legitimate interim president, that’s the first time that there’s ever been that kind of rejection of the Maduro regime. So times are hard in Venezuela now, that’s because of twenty years of mismanagement of the economy. But our desire is to see this peaceful transfer of power and have really true free elections.”

Q: “Alright, in terms of the economic hardship. Part of it is due to sanctions. And the President has just upped the sanctions. So how do you respond to that? People in Venezuela may say that, yes, our country is on hard times, but these sanctions don’t help us.”

Bolton: “Well the sanctions have been in place for roughly the last six months. Twenty years of economic mismanagement are really responsible for the country coming to a halt economically. When Chavez took power 20 years ago Venezuela pumped an average of three point three million barrels of oil per day. When the sanctions started they were down to one point one million barrels of oil per day. Two thirds reduction of drilling in oil in the country with the largest petroleum reserves in the world. This should be a very wealthy country. But 20 years have really destroyed the economy. The pressure we're putting on is on the regime, on the military, and on the leadership of the country that's basically stolen its revenues for 20 years.”

Q: “The new sanctions are broader and I don’t want to misquote you, but you basically said, correct me if I'm wrong, that countries who do business with Venezuela are on notice that they better be careful. What does that mean? Am I right in that quote?”

Bolton: “That's right. And that says to the government that we are going to prevent them from getting revenues that they've benefited from these last 20 years. We're also going to increase our effort to stop their trafficking and illegal narcotics out of Colombia and other places. And it's to say to everybody else that does deal with the regime that if you want to deal with a Democratic Venezuelan government, which is coming in the future, stop dealing with Maduro.”

Q: “Well dealing with Maduro now includes Russia China and Cuba so what’s the message they should get from that?”

Bolton: “Well they should stop interfering in Venezuela's internal affairs. You know the Opposition estimates there are between 20,000 and 25000 Cubans in Venezuela. They're really paramilitary and military functionaries. They may not wear uniforms but they're there not simply to support the Maduro regime, but to run it. And I would make this prediction if those 20,000 to 25000 Cubans went home at noon today, by midnight Maduro would no longer be in power. So if you're a Venezuelan you should be asking yourself why is our country going through all this turmoil to help support Cuba?”

Q: “But the sanctions, I suppose, are meant to put the squeeze on Maduro perhaps getting people turned against him, his military. So far, with the earlier sanctions, we haven't seen the effect of the more recent ones, the military hasn't turned against him. What's your explanation for that?”

Bolton: “Well I think that the rank and file in the military, the enlisted personnel, the junior officers, are overwhelmingly anti-Maduro. I think it's some of the top officers who have benefited from the corruption that the Maduro regime has perpetrated that are keeping the military together. But you know if the military were really loyal to Maduro, they could have been called out to stop the opposition long ago. I think Maduro and his cronies are afraid of giving a direct order to the military, because they might not obey it. The military if it had the right leadership would support the people. Instead Maduro relies on the Cubans. He relies on these collectivos, which are motorcycle gangs of thugs paid for and organized by the Cubans. This is not a legitimate regime. This is not a regime that complies with the Constitution that Hugo Chávez wrote for Venezuela.”

Q: “How long do you think it will last, can Maduro last in your mind? Because I know you believe in the sanctions, but what is your sort of prediction on a timeline?”

Bolton: “Well I don't think within the regime itself you see much stability. I think the top officials of the Maduro regime are like scorpions in a bottle. They don't trust each other. They know that they're all talking to the opposition to see what kind of deal they can cut. So I wouldn't be surprised if that instability plays out even before the government is actually turned over to Juan Guaido and the National Assembly. And I think it could come at any time. It's lasted longer than we wanted. The opposition did make a nearly successful effort back in April, and it's too bad because the suffering the people are undergoing now would be alleviated beginning as soon as we get rid of this regime.”

Q: “I don’t see any sign that Maduro’s caving, that he feels in any way that he’s in trouble.”

Bolton: “Well I think he knows he's in trouble. That's why he's afraid to walk the streets of Caracas or other major Venezuelan cities. Juan Guaido and the opposition do it all the time. Despite the threat of arrest, despite the torture and murder of some of his supporters. We know from the U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights who did an investigation that in the last few years somewhere between seven and nine thousand Venezuelans have been killed by the regime for political reasons. Just recently they arrested a Navy captain for purportedly plotting against the government, and they tortured and killed him. This is the sort of thing. The people of Venezuela know this, and that's why ultimately the regime cannot survive.”

Q: “Do you see any military involvement by the U.S. or will this simply be a sanctions, economic approach?”

Bolton: “Well President Trump has said from the outset that all options are on the table. We have one hundred thousand, perhaps American citizens, many with dual citizenship in Venezuela. There are tens of thousands of Europeans and other foreign citizens there. It's certainly not our desire to see any military intervention. We want a peaceful transfer of power. We hope the regime doesn't cause even more havoc than it has already. But nobody should think that we're going to allow this to continue. Let me let me give you another example. There are probably now 5 million refugees from Venezuela and other countries around the hemisphere in Colombia, Peru, Brazil, and other countries. It's the worst humanitarian disaster in the history of this hemisphere.”

Q: “I have been actually down on the border of Colombia and Venezuela and I’ve seen lines of people strolling out of Venezuela. I mean it is quite a humanitarian crisis. Is the US motive an economic one, a national security one, or a humanitarian one?”

Bolton: “Well it's all of the above. I mean we feel very strongly that countries external to this hemisphere like Russia, China, Iran, their surrogates in this hemisphere like Cuba, really need to conduct their business in a very different way. This is for the people of Venezuela to be sure. The most significant aspect of the opposition to the Maduro regime is how widespread it is among the governments of this hemisphere. I was just in Lima a few weeks back to attend a meeting of the Lima Group. Some of the leading countries that oppose the Maduro regime. And what was striking was, so there was the United States in the hall filled with the leaders of Latin American countries speaking in Spanish to the people of Venezuela. This is not an issue made in Washington. It's made by the people of Venezuela and supported by others in the hemisphere.”

Q: “With your warning to the other countries that do business with Venezuela, post the second round of sanctions, are you in communication with Russia or China? Are they saying anything to you about Venezuela? Is Venezuela becoming sort of a political football or national security football with them?”

Bolton: “Well we've spoken, both to Russia and to China. The President spoken specifically to Vladimir Putin about it, I thought one of the most interesting things that Putin said was- you know they can't make economic decisions in Venezuela, he was basically saying the Maduro regime has taken this oil rich company and impoverished it. I think the Russians and the Chinese need to be very careful how they proceed here, they are owed billions of dollars by the government of Venezuela and if a new government comes in and decides that that debt was illegally contracted, they could repudiate it. So if you want to take advantage of drilling Venezuelan oil, I think you need to look long and hard at what a new democratically elected government would think of anybody that supported the Maduro regime. “

Q: “Well they are already owed the money so, whether a new government comes in and may be that China and Russia those- that money that's owed will never get back to them.”

Bolton: “Well that's why they need to hedge their bets and not support Maduro but look to the possibility in the near future there will be a new government.”

Q: “Hong Kong. Protests going on in Hong Kong. What is the US’s position or what does the US intend to do or not do?”

Bolton: “Well you know the Chinese have accused the United States of being the cause of all these demonstrations. They’ve said we're the Black Hand that's gotten all this started and they've done things like published private information about diplomats, US diplomats, in Hong Kong. That's the kind of thing that needs to stop. The Chinese have to look very carefully at the steps they take because people in America remember- Tiananmen Square, they remember the picture of the man standing in front of the line of tanks, they remember the statue of Lady Liberty, they remember voices of the Chinese people asking for freedom and democracy, and they remember the repression of the Chinese government in 1989, it would be a big mistake to create a new memory like that in Hong Kong.”

Q: “What’s the cost though to China? I mean, those horrible memories that you just recited, I remember them I remember watching them but China's done fine, in spite of that.”

Bolton: “Well, that's one reason-“

Q: “Well why not take another round at it?”

Bolton: “One reason is that we're engaged in a very difficult economic contest with China now. One reason that they did well after that was by stealing American intellectual property, engaging in forced technology transfer, and not just from the United States but from Europe and Japan as well. Something like 60% of the investment in mainland China goes through Hong Kong. Why? Because it has a judicial system that's trustworthy, based on the English model that we know in this country, the courts are thought to be impartial. If Hong Kong loses that reputation because of a bad decision by the Chinese government, they'll have significant economic consequences in China this time, and I can tell you from what I've heard, just in the past few weeks, the mood in Congress is very volatile at this point, and a misstep by the Chinese government I think would cause an explosion on Capitol Hill.”

Q: “What do you think President Xi is thinking about what's going on in Hong Kong. “

Bolton: “Well I think if he's worried he's worried about the steps that he might take in the future. He's also worried about the spirit that everybody else in China can see about Hong Kong, they want their freedom. And I think what the United States expects, at a minimum, is that China will uphold the treaty agreement it made with the United Kingdom when Hong Kong was handed back to China. The commitment for one country, but two systems. That for 50 years, after the handover, Hong Kong would maintain its unique system and the freedoms that were left to it by the British. If that treaty is violated that's a significant credibility problem for Beijing.”

Q: “North Korea, Kim Jong Un. Will there be another summit? Number one. I assume that there will be, but you tell me. And secondly, is there any progress being made with the negotiations?”

Bolton: “Well we haven't had really any substantive negotiations, at the working level with North Korea since the president met with Kim Jong Un at the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. We're hoping those begin again soon. The real issue is whether North Korea will make the clear strategic decision to give up its nuclear weapons and its delivery systems. President Trump showed a movie to Kim Jong Un in Singapore when they met for the first time of what North Korea's economic future could look like they gave up their nuclear weapons program. It was a very impressive film, I think, I could watch the North Korean side of the table watching it. The door is open for them to get to that kind of life for the people of North Korea, but they need to walk through it and they haven't done that yet.”

Q: “Why though? What’s the problem? They have pride? They don't want the big United States to tell them what to do? How do you get them to walk through that door? Because there are many people in North Korea think that you and I are training seven days a week, when we might be ordering pizza or going to the movies or something, they think we're trying to get them.”

Bolton: “Yeah, well look the pattern of North Korea leadership before Kim Jong Un is that they would make modest concessions on their nuclear program in exchange for tangible economic benefits. And then once they had use those economic benefits rescued their economy, stabilized leadership, they would fail to honor their own commitments on the nuclear side. If they think that they can do that again I think they're making a big mistake. So what we're looking for, what President Trump called the big deal, when he met with Kim Jong on in Hanoi, is to make that strategic decision to give up nuclear weapons, and then implement it and then all kinds of things are possible after that.”

Q: “But that is the whole problem, is getting them to that point. You know?”

Bolton: “Right. Well, we've all seen what's happened before and I think one thing you can be sure of is President Trump's not going to make the mistakes of prior administrations here. That succumbed to the idea that if you give them economic benefits you can automatically count on them following through with their commitments. Every time it's happened before, in the Six Party Talks, in the Agreed Framework that came from the Clinton administration, North Korea has not honored its commitment so we're very interested in making sure that happens we want to clear, adequate verification and compliance mechanism, all that still remains to be negotiated “

Q: “It’s always been batted around that China was sort of the big brother that could convince North Korea to do something, it’s been talked about for at least a decade. Do you have a sense that President Xi or the Chinese government really does have that influence and could get President- or not President- Chairman Kim- Kim Jong Un to go through that door or not?”

Bolton: “Well I think- I think they could. I think the question now, in the middle of this trade dispute with China, with Hong Kong very much in the news, is whether Xi Jinping is prepared to strictly enforce the UN sanctions against North Korea whether he really is putting the pressure, that China uniquely can put on North Korea, to make them make the strategic decision and then carry through on it. I completely agree, if China really wanted North Korea to give up nuclear weapons, it would happen. “

Q: “Is there anything to China's advantage, in its mind, having North Korea have weapons and not make a deal with the United States or the world?”

Bolton: “No, I think China has said for many years, they don't want North Korea have nuclear weapons because they believe it would cause ‘instability in Northeast Asia’, and ‘instability in Northeast Asia’ would harm Chinese economic growth, I think that analysis is absolutely right. And what they mean by ‘instability in Northeast Asia’, is Japan getting nuclear weapons. The longer that Japan looks at a nuclear North Korea, the greater the incentive, and it would be a huge change in policy for Japan, but the greater the incentive for Japan to get its own nuclear weapons. And by the way as China becomes a larger and larger nuclear weapons state, that's also an incentive for Japan. So a lot rides on this for China, and if they really wanted to, because they supply 90% plus of North Korea's energy, substantial amounts of food and other basic human needs, they would have a very strong influence on North Korea.”

Q: “How distressed is South Korea and Japan now with the recent short range testing by North Korea?”

Bolton: “Well they're quite concerned about it. The latest test of a missile we denominate the KN 23, we think the range could probably hit all of South Korea and parts of Japan. That of course would endanger our deployed forces as well. These resolutions violate UN Security Council sanctions, and they don't violate the pledge that Kim Jong Un made to President Trump, that's true, but they are troubling for everybody watching the peninsula.”

Q: “You know everyone is watching the nuclear weapons but along, if my memory is correct, along the DMZ is that the North Koreans have an incredible amount of artillery pointing right at South Korea. I mean there's a huge danger in that so even if you address the nuclear weapons problem you've still got that issue, do you not? “

Bolton: “Right, and North Korea has, not only nuclear weapons programs, but chemical and biological weapons programs as well and it would be a significant step forward for the North Koreans to get to this new kind of society they could have to give up those capabilities to as the United States and other countries have renounced chemical and biological weapons.”

Q: “So, at this point, there's no talking going on, at least that I'm aware of, and they've got biological, chemical weapons, they're testing short range, I don't know what they're doing with their nuclear program, and you've got China not helping a whole lot with it, although China now might have nuclear weapons; you've got Japan being distressed, you've got South Korea being distressed, and we've got Venezuela. And the Chinese are doing business with Venezuela.”

Bolton: “Right. Well let’s not forget Iran, too, where China has been a major purchaser of Iranian oil and is still, despite the elimination of the waiver that we've given China, we think still smuggling of Iranian oil is going on. There are a lot of issues out there, it's an insecure world, and it's important, I think, for America to remain strong to minimize the chance that any of these threats will grow worse.”

Q: “Russia has had some sort of nuclear incident. Can you tell me what the latest on that is?”

Bolton: “Well, we know more than I’m going to tell you, I’ll put it that way.”

Q: “Okay, fair enough. What can you tell me?”

Bolton: “But this is this is an example of Russia trying to make technological advances in their ability to deliver nuclear weapons. Something obviously has gone badly wrong here, but it demonstrates that although Russia's economy is roughly the size of the Netherlands, it's still spending enough on defense to not only modernize their nuclear arsenal to build new kinds of delivery vehicles, hypersonic glide vehicles, hypersonic cruise missiles, largely stolen from American technology. So dealing with this capability and the possibility that other countries would get it too, remains a real challenge for the United States and its allies. No doubt about it.”

Q: “What’s the relationship with Putin and the United States right now?”

Bolton: “Well I think President Trump thinks he's got a very good personal relationship with President Putin. We've had a number of meetings with him on a range of subjects. Just a couple of weeks ago, really, I met with my Russian counterpart and our Israeli counterpart in Jerusalem to have a three way national security advisors meeting on Syria, the presence of Iran in Syria. So, we're talking to them, we have a counterterrorism dialogue with them. There are a lot of issues that we have in disagreement, no doubt about it.”

Q: “But how’s having a good relationship with them if they’re doing something, testing nuclear weapons of some sort? I think perhaps they're dealing with Venezuela, which is mischief to the world. How does having a good relationship make us any safer while these things are going on?”

Bolton: “Well, I think the President hopes that the personal relationship he has will translate into something more. And we had negotiations with them over getting out of the INF Treaty, which they understood. We said they were violating the treaty, which they were, but we had other reasons to get out of it as well because of the threat of China's intermediate range missiles, which also threatened Russia much more than they threaten the United States. So I do think there are common strategic interests, particularly dealing with the rising military power of China, and I've had conversations with the Russians on that score. I think there are more to come.”

Q: “Iran, moving forward with the nuclear program?”

Bolton: “Well, I think that Iran is another example. It's a country that never really made the key decision to give up nuclear weapons. They have not modified their widespread support for international terrorism. They've not given up their troublemaking in the Middle East, in Iraq and Syria and Yemen. They’re still a threat in the Persian Gulf to oil, they’re a threat to our forces, not just in Iraq and Syria, but now in Afghanistan. This is a regime really that needs a fundamental change in its behavior.”

Q: “It seems like, as we've gone around the world, there's certainly a big appetite among many for nuclear weapons.”

Bolton: “Well, I think, if you ask President Trump what’s the single greatest threat he sees in the world, its nuclear proliferation, and I certainly agree with that. That's why we've got to find a solution to North Korea and Iran. We've got to prevent other countries from thinking that, if those countries are able to get nuclear weapons, so can we. That's one of the issues with proliferation, is each new nation gets a nuclear capability, it's an incentive to others. And let's be clear, nobody else is going to stop countries for getting nuclear weapons beside the United States. If we're not able, by diplomacy or other means, to stop it, we're going to see a world in 30 or 40 years with many, many countries having nuclear weapons. That would be a substantial threat.”

Q: “What about Myanmar and the genocide of the Rohingya? Do you expect sanctions on the Myanmar military to be increased because of the horrible genocide? And for the most part the media in the world has ignored it; it's far away, but it’s a million people.”

Bolton: “Yeah, well we have pressed the government of Burma very directly. Vice President Pence, some months back, met with Aung San Suu Kyi in Singapore and ASEAN summit meeting and was very clear about what our policy is. It’s really something that, as we've tried to see Burma emerge out of a military dictatorship to run into this problem has been just extremely unfortunate, and as I say we've made our view very clear as have other countries. It hasn't produced the right result yet.”

Q: “It’s hard to decide where, when there's a humanitarian crisis, what is the role of the United States if it's not a direct national security issue. Where do you draw that line?”

Bolton: “Well, I think fundamentally you have to pursue American national interest, and even in crises where there's great human tragedy involved, we simply don't have the resources to be involved everywhere. We've pressed the ASEAN countries that Burma is a member of, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. This is the kind of thing that, in regions like that, they really need to be involved. That's why, in Venezuela, to come back to that, the pressure that countries like Brazil and Colombia and Peru feel from the refugee crisis has really led them to the conclusion that the way to solve it is to remove the Maduro regime. So we'd like to see more regional countries taking that kind of leadership in their own affairs. And I think that would increase the effectiveness of our ability to try and resolve some of these crises.”

Q: “Mr. Bolton it’s always nice to see you, it’s been a long time since we've sat down and talked about the whole world.”

Bolton: “I'm glad to do it again.”

Q: “It's a big world, a lot going on.”

Bolton: “Anytime.”

Q: “Thank you, sir.”

Bolton: “Thank you.”