Donald Trump recently marked the hundredth day of his presidency. And while the forty-fifth president is right about the arbitrary nature of that date, it does provide a useful point to assess how the early stages of a new administration are playing out. As such, a cottage industry has sprung up over the past several weeks to provide a variety of assessments of Trump’s tenure in the Oval Office to date.
Ionut Popescu, a political scientist and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas at Austin, recently provided an entry in this genre with an essay at War on the Rocks. Popescu argues that reversals President Trump has made on a number of foreign policy positions demonstrate that he is following an “emergent” decision-making model he used in the business world. He also argues that, due his use of this model, “After a rocky start, the administration appears to have embarked on a more promising and strategically sound course.”
An excellent essay Popescu wrote for Armed Forces Journal on strategic planning at the Department of Defense provided the foundation for my own critique of defense planning. Drawing on work by management scholar Henry Mintzberg, Popescu argues that the Pentagon’s planning system falls victim to Mintzberg’s three “fallacies of planning”: the “fallacy of predetermination,” the “fallacy of detachment,” and the “fallacy of formalization.” More recently, in an article for the Journal of Strategic Studies, he discusses the relative merits of two models of strategic planning, a “grand strategy” model that focuses on long term designs and an “emergent strategy” that focuses on short-term improvisation. And in a forthcoming book based on his PhD dissertation, Popescu effectively applies lessons from the corporate world to punch holes in the notion that American grand strategy proceeds according to a “design” where the tools of statecraft rationally follow from stated foreign policy objectives.
But where is the evidence that Trump is following Popescu’s emergent model?
As an example that Trump is practicing emergent learning, Popescu cites the dismissal of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn after three weeks and his replacement with Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster. According to Popescu, McMaster’s appointment was a necessary corrective to Flynn’s “chaotic” and “dysfunctional” management of the National Security Council (NSC). But Trump did not really “learn” anything about Flynn’s dysfunctional NSC process. He was more or less forced to fire the former director of the Defense of Intelligence Agency (DIA) after it was revealed in the media that Flynn lied to Vice President Mike Pence about the content of his call with the Russian ambassador.
Or take Syria. According to Popescu, Trump’s professed “flexibility” in his willingness to become militarily involved in that country’s civil war after saying during the campaign that he would not, “confirmed his adherence to [the emergent] model.” But did Trump offer any new policy goal to accompany his willingness to use military means in Syria? Statements from his foreign policy team subsequent to the strike earlier this month have been contradictory at best.
And yes, as Popescu notes, Trump did approve Montenegro’s membership to NATO. But how much of that had to do with path dependence, seeing as Montenegrin accession to the alliance has been in the works for a decade and the U.S. Senate approved the treaty concerning the Balkan republic’s membership by a vote of 97 to 2?
Moreover, what if any of the learning Trump has done in his first 100 days in office is simply a product of his appalling foreign policy ignorance? Take, for example, Trump’s 180 degree turn on NATO. During the campaign, Trump referred to the alliance repeatedly as “obsolete.” In an interview with the Associated Press, expounding on why he recently reversed course and claimed the alliance was no longer obsolete, Trump stated:
I was on Wolf Blitzer, very fair interview, the first time I was ever asked about NATO, because I wasn’t in government. People don’t go around asking about NATO if I’m building a building in Manhattan, right? So they asked me, Wolf … asked me about NATO, and I said two things. NATO’s obsolete — not knowing much about NATO, now I know a lot about NATO — NATO is obsolete, and I said, “And the reason it’s obsolete is because of the fact they don’t focus on terrorism.”
That Trump knows enough about the alliance now to suggest his views have changed does suggest progress. However, other statements from his AP interview suggest that he has not learned all that much about it. For example, in the same paragraph in which he explained why he previously thought NATO was obsolete, he claimed that the alliance’s supposed lack of focus on terrorism stemmed from the fact that “back when they did NATO there was no such thing as terrorism.” He also claimed that the reason NATO countries persistently fail to meet their minimum requirements for defense spending is because no other president thought to ask. According to Trump, “I took such heat for about three days… because nobody ever criticized NATO.” These statements are utterly at odds with the entire history of terrorism and the U.S. relationship with its European allies.
Trump also once again showed his pre-presidential tendency to alienate U.S. allies with recent statements he made about jettisoning a U.S.-South Korea trade agreement and making Seoul pay for the deployment of an American missile defense system. General McMaster apparently took the initiative to call his counterpart in South Korea to confirm that Washington would pay for the system as previously agreed, which reportedly left Trump infuriated with a national security advisor he only appointed after he was forced to accept the resignation of his first choice.
Additionally, to return to Popescu’s argument that Trump’s firing of Michael Flynn as national security advisor reflects learning, should the forty-fifth president’s judgment not be questioned for Flynn’s hiring in the first place? The former DIA director was known to be volatile and frequently indulged in conspiracy theories and retweeted anti-Semites during the campaign. A recent story in the Washington Post has also shown that others in the Trump administration were worried about Flynn’s contacts with the Russian ambassador. There is also the fact that Flynn failed to disclose that he took money from Russia and Turkey. Yet, according to a recent report, Trump remains fond of Flynn and has publicly defended him. It seems less likely that Trump learned about Flynn’s poor management skills and replaced him with somebody more competent than it is that Flynn became a political albatross that Trump reluctantly allowed to resign.
While it is possible that Trump is updating prior assumptions, there are also other possible explanations for the changed positions Popescu identifies. Flexibility may be a virtue, but it is also possible that the former real estate mogul is simply erratic. As historian and foreign policy scholar Hal Brands argues in an essay that also recently appeared at War on the Rocks, the defining feature of Trump’s foreign policy in his first one hundred days has been incompetence. Brands writes,
Yet the story of his presidency so far has been one of a leader who is veering incoherently, and often incompetently, between the irresponsible promises he made on the campaign trail and the hard realities he cannot escape now that he is in office.
Also worth considering is that all of Popescu’s examples of Trump’s emergent learning, as well as the examples provided of his continued ignorance, focus on what can be seen. As political scientists Elizabeth Saunders and James Goldgeier argued in a recent essay for Foreign Affairs, much of the activity in foreign policy is “invisible.” And as Saunders wrote in a recent post on Trump’s first 100 days at the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog,
Things like alliances, diplomacy (the boring, day-to-day kind, not the splashy deal-making kind), and even free trade agreements bring benefits that are hard to see but pay off in the long run.
Unfortunately, a lot of bad foreign policy is invisible, too. In particular, inaction can leave a country unprepared and isolated when a crisis hits. Trump’s failure to appoint staff — which he says is partly a deliberate policy — can “hollow out” foreign policy, as William Burns has put it. Consider the Trump budget proposal, which includes dramatic funding cuts to the State Department and foreign aid. Such cuts would take away important diplomatic levers for handling crises. Even if these cuts are not as draconian in the end, the proposal signals that the White House doesn’t value non-military policy tools and probably won’t rely on them much.
All this is like deferred maintenance: If you don’t fix up your house, when a big storm blows in, the roof is more likely to leak. There are still excellent people in the government’s foreign policy community, including some of Trump’s own appointments. But the appearance of competence or continuity here and there may be masking a lot of rot or termite damage.
Assuming Trump’s adherence to the emergent learning model, Popescu makes three recommendations. The first two are related, reasonable, and in line with his longstanding critique of formal planning. First, Popescu argues that the NSC’s Planning Directorate should eschew a single, overarching National Security Strategy to focus on shorter-term, “project specific sub-strategies” and to establish an “Adaptation and Learning Directorate” at the NSC to complement the Planning Directorate. The NSS is an exemplar of Mintzberg’s fallacies and with, the rare exception, is filled with clichés of little strategic value. It is entirely reasonable to suggest it be discarded.
Popescu’s third recommendation, however, demonstrates the limits of whatever learning President Trump might be doing. He argues that Trump should “Prioritize the accelerated hiring of experienced GOP foreign policy professionals who can manage the bureaucracy.” There is a problem with that: Trump has already rejected that course. Large numbers of Republican foreign policy professionals signed “anti-Trump” letters due to their worries about his ignorance and temperament. So even if Trump were overcoming his pre-presidential ignorance of foreign policy, as Popescu argues, his personal pettiness makes it unlikely he will staff his administration with people who can implement his policies.