Former U.S. national security adviser John Bolton discussed everything from the crisis in Ukraine to his time in the Trump administration in a recent campus visit.
Moderated by Penn Political Union President Lexi Boccuzzi, a sophomore majoring in philosophy, politics, and economics from Stamford, Connecticut, the talk was part of a series of speaker events that promote free expression of differing views and provide a forum for civil dialogue across the political divide.
For the first half of the two-hour event, Bolton and Boccuzzi addressed topics like the current state of American foreign policy, the role of NATO, and Bolton’s thoughts on whether China feels emboldened after seeing the war in Ukraine.
Bolton, who was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 2005-06, criticized President Biden’s response to Russia’s war on Ukraine and said much of the crisis at hand was “entirely predictable.
“Part of our problem is the United States has been walking through a dream, which is that, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, sweetness and light are going to break out, and the conflict among human societies was going to go away,” he said, adding that Vladimir Putin and the entire Russian regime “didn’t get the memo.”
For anyone who has listened to speeches by Putin over the years and witnessed his actions in 2014, this invasion shouldn’t be surprising, he said.
Asked whether Putin would have invaded if Trump was in office, he replied, “If Trump had been president, Russians would have been in the center of Kyiv long ago,” considering Trump’s disdain for NATO and his desire to take the U.S. out of the organization. He said Putin would have waited for that moment and then rolled into Ukraine, because “If you can get something for free, why spend resources on it?”
Bolton had a public falling out with Trump, and his 2020 book “The Room Where It Happened” offered a first-person and unflattering look behind the curtain of Trump’s foreign policy dealings.
The chat then shifted to questions from the in-person audience at Irvine Auditorium.
The questions covered a wide range of topics, including how the U.S. can deter China from invading Taiwan, what role the United Nations and the International Criminal Court should have in addressing any war crimes in Ukraine, and how the U.S. should approach peace in the Middle East.
The Penn Political Union, which is sponsored by the Andrea Mitchell Center, encourages participants to make heartfelt cases for policies to a politically diverse group of fellow students. Members can join one of five caucuses that span the political spectrum: Progressive, Liberal, Centrist, Conservative, and Libertarian. They then take active roles in formal debates on important issues. At a time of political polarization and social media bubbles, the group says its members take the opportunity to hone and challenge their own opinions, as well as make friendships “across the aisle” and cultivate the practices of civil discourse.
Similarly, SNF Paideia’s Red and Blue Exchange promotes viewpoint diversity and civil dialogue in the Penn community and beyond by holding speaker events. It’s all part of the SNF Paideia program’s efforts to provide a forum for the civil discourse critical to a healthy democratic society.
Boccuzzi ended the talk by asking Bolton what advice he had for young people interested in politics and foreign policy work.
“The most important thing I’ve learned is that everybody starts life in different positions, with different advantages. You have pluses and minuses in your own life. There’s one thing you alone have control over and that’s how hard you work,” he said, pointing to his friend, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, as an example of this.
“You don’t get to pick your father and your mother; you don’t get to pick the circumstances of when you come into the world,” Bolton said. “You get to pick how hard you work.”