As President Donald Trump’s third national security adviser, John Bolton will help shape America’s response to conflicts around the globe, including those in Africa. He’ll have the President’s ear and the autonomy to work outside the United Nations, an organization Bolton has often criticized.
In 2005 and 2006, Bolton was U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and spent some of his time on conflicts in Africa, but appeared to have little impact. His efforts to change the international organization were largely unsuccessful. He left the post with no more faith in the U.N.’s ability to shape the world than when he began, and his statements and writing since then continue to reflect the belief that the U.S. must deal with threats unilaterally.
Conflict in Africa has morphed since Bolton’s last stint in government. When he was ambassador, al-Shabab hadn’t yet formed, and Boko Haram was still in its infancy. But entrenched conflicts persist throughout the continent, and Bolton’s time at the U.N. holds some clues for what his new appointment could mean for Africa.
New players, old conflicts
In his year and half as ambassador to the U.N., Bolton dealt with a border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea, a violent insurgency in Somalia, and a years-long war in Darfur that spiraled into a full-blown humanitarian crisis, with hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths.
Those conflicts continue to reverberate, and terrorism deaths have spiked in the intervening years.
The U.S. also had a less formal military presence on the continent during Bolton’s ambassadorship. The U.S. Africa Command, which works with African partners to strengthen security and stability, had not been established. Overall, thousands of U.S. troops are now deployed across the continent, mostly in the Horn of Africa.
Bolton has expressed frustration at the U.N.’s approach to solving conflicts in Africa, which he characterized as inattentive and ineffective in his 2007 book, “Surrender Is Not An Option: Defending America at the United Nations.”
His efforts as ambassador produced, by his own account, mixed results. At the end of his tenure, some conflicts in Africa were contained but unresolved, and others had festered.
Bolton attributes these shortcomings to flawed interventions. U.N. missions, Bolton said, linger long after their purpose has been fulfilled.
Bolton framed these issues in terms of African autonomy. “Africa needs a concept for ‘graduation’ from peacekeeping operations, which many African diplomats recognize, to reassert its abilities to resolve its own problems,” Bolton wrote.
He blames Europe for a preoccupation with moral righteousness.
“Former European colonial powers are all too willing to lead a new interventionism in their former colonies, helpfully financed largely by others, to show their High Minded ‘concern,’ and to maintain at least some of their past influence,” Bolton wrote in “Surrender Is Not An Option.”
The Trump administration has also been eager to pull back from engagement with the U.N., according to Paul Williams, an associate professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. The U.S. makes mandatory assessed contributions of about $2 billion a year to the U.N.’s peacekeeping budget, Williams said.
Bolton has long advocated replacing assessed contributions with voluntary contributions, but that would require legal changes. The workaround, Williams said, is to shrink the overall budget.
“The current administration and Nikki Haley at the U.N. have said that’s what they want to do — they want to reduce the overall U.N. peacekeeping expenditure by closing up some missions,” Williams said.
Bolton’s experiences dealing with the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) in Somalia – a confederation of Sharia courts that formed a rival legal authority to that country’s government — are indicative of much of his work across Africa.
In early December 2006, in one of Bolton’s last acts as ambassador, the U.S. introduced a resolution to deploy an Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) peacekeeping force to Somalia and lift some sanctions against the country to help the government fight the ICU, which Bolton said threatened the country’s stability.
Bolton characterized the force as “a key element in preventing conflict.”
Some questioned the merits of the plan. In response, Bolton said, “People criticize us when we take action on the ground, that our taking action makes the situation worse. Okay, so what is the answer, not to take action?”
Ultimately, the resolution passed, but little changed in the days that followed — until Ethiopia, with U.S. air support, mounted a decisive offensive that decimated the ICU, giving the transitional government room to coalesce.
The ICU rapidly lost ground in the ensuing weeks, and its leaders conceded defeat by the end of the month. Some members went into hiding but others splintered off into even more hard-line groups, including al-Shabab.
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More US involvement
While Bolton may not have much faith in the U.N.’s capacity to mitigate terrorism and other conflict in Africa and elsewhere, he does see a role for the U.S., especially as China and a resurgent Russia attempt to assert more global influence.
In an opinion column published in The Hill early this year, he warned that Latin America and Africa are two regions with “simmering controversies” that could erupt in the next year. While neither region has ranked high as U.S. foreign policy priorities, Bolton said, such eruptions could threaten American security interests.
“In both of these critical regions,” Bolton wrote, “we need greater U.S. involvement, hopefully guided by more comprehensive thinking rather than ad hoc responses to erupting crises.”
But unilateral moves have limitations. If Bolton seeks to resolve conflicts in Africa and elsewhere without the U.N., long-term solutions may prove more elusive.
That’s because U.N. peacekeeping isn’t just about troops on the ground, said Aditi Gorur, the director of the Protecting Civilians in Conflict program at the Stimson Center, a think tank that focuses on international efforts to make peace.
“There are other parts of the U.N. that are working on trying to address some of those root causes, so it’s really about trying to contain the violence and creating the space for political dialogue to happen,” Gorur said.