Evan Katz

In my global simulation course, we were tasked with reading The Theory and Practice of Foreign Policy Decision Making by Jonathan and Stanley Renshon. According to their work, three key factors erode leaders’ capacities to make good foreign policy decisions. The first is stress, understood as an excess of demands over capacity. In a position of leadership, particularly in a foreign policy realm, individuals face multiple stressors on a regular basis; this is even truer during times of crisis. Though some debate exists between scholars over the true effect of stress, Alexander George cites four negative impacts of stress on leaders: impaired attention and perception, increased cognitive rigidity, shortened and narrow perspective, and burden shifting to the opponent. Time pressure can contribute greatly to stress, as shorter timeframes to make decisions decrease the amount of time available to decision-makers. Threats can increase rigidity, causing decision-makers to rely on heuristics to make decisions and seek a centralization of power. Other factors, such as complexity in situations and political realities, also induce stress.

Evaluating tradeoffs also erodes the decision-making capability of leaders. Rationally speaking, decision-makers seek to maximize gains while minimizing costs when making decisions. Decision-makers in a foreign policy context must rely on “political rationality,” which incorporates traditional notions of analytical rationality and applies them to political situations, forcing them to consider tradeoffs in time, resources, and political support. Tradeoffs complicate decision-making for multiple reasons: first, inter-dimensional comparisons required to effectively evaluate costs and benefits—i.e. comparing qualitatively different values—prove very difficult. Second, emotions distort rationality, especially when values important to the decision-maker can be compromised to achieve a proper tradeoff. Third is the problem of “constitutive incommensurability,” the issue of making inter-dimensional tradeoffs that carry with them some sort of taboo—i.e. compromising intrinsically sacred or protected values; when faced with compromising ethics for security, decision-makers may waver.

Decision structure and process also affects good foreign policy decision-making capacity. Bureaucratic politics plays a major role in this: when presenting options to an executive, individuals have an incentive to negotiate among each other first in order to artificially decrease the number of options available to the executive. Naturally, the executive will prefer decisions that more individuals in the bureaucracy support, and selecting the most preferred option confers on them more legitimacy and greater status in the organization. Organizational processes and incentives also distort decision-making: organizations may artificially exclude relevant pieces of information during research to generate more support for a preferred policy position. As Graham Allison argues in his second model described in Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis, those organizations may then compete among one another to get the executive to prefer their decisions, prompting interagency disputes and “turf wars.”

Discussing these factors got me thinking about how they might apply to President-elect Donald Trump. Of the three aforementioned factors, bureaucratic and organizational politics will probably affect the Trump administration’s decision-making most significantly. Because of his lack of experience or expertise in foreign policy, Trump will likely defer to experts in his Cabinet to make crucial decisions. Cabinet members may discuss options among themselves before coming to conclusions about particular courses of action, presenting Trump with as few options as possible in order to exert a check on how much he can ultimately influence foreign policy. The desire to seek status in the administration may motivate Cabinet members to compete with one another to get their preferred policy decision chosen.

But it would be misguided and dangerous to dismiss Trump’s lack of experience just because he will have advisors; as Sam points out, experience definitely matters with regard to foreign policy. While individual Cabinet members and advisors definitely play a role in decision-making, presidential experience helps with overseeing and managing those advisors. With more experienced presidents, proposals by advisors face strict scrutiny, which encourages greater assiduity. With less experienced presidents, advisors can functionally take control of all aspects of foreign policy decisions without oversight. Sam cites a favorite article of mine by Elizabeth N. Saunders, a political science professor at George Washington University, which contrasts the administrations of presidents with ample foreign policy experience—e.g. George H.W. Bush—with those of presidents with little foreign policy experience—e.g. George W. Bush:

[P]residents require some degree of experience in order to effectively oversee and manage their advisors. For example, she contrasts the First Gulf War with the Second Gulf War. Both wars involved many of the same foreign policy decision makers, with Cheney and Powell serving in prominent positions during both conflicts. What was different, however, was the president. George H. W. Bush had arguably the most foreign policy experience of any modern president. Thus, he had deep and intimate knowledge of the workings of the military and the potential costs of intervention. This, according to Saunders, provided him three major advantages. First, it meant that he was able to effectively vet and critique proposals drawn up by his staff at the DoD, NSC, and State Department. Second, it forced underlings to be more thorough and diligent because they understood that their ideas wouldn’t simply receive a rubber stamp of approval. Finally, it meant that Bush was able to take controversial positions that differed from his party’s orthodoxy because he had sufficient credibility as a foreign policy expert to ignore certain political pressures.

His son, George W. Bush, did not have the same degree of foreign policy experience, and that became readily apparent during the Iraq War debacle. Instead of drawing up detailed plans and acting in a subservient, advisory role, Cheney and Rumsfeld effectively managed the entire conflict without much input from George W. Bush at all. Even more concerning than the usurpation of Bush’s power was the alienation of Colin Powell during the second Bush’s presidency. Powell has always been very cautious about intervention, and this was an asset during the First Gulf War, where Powell acted as a moderating voice against the more hawkish members of the George H. W. Bush administration. During the lead up to the Iraq War, however, he was totally ostracized, and American foreign policy suffered because of it. Clearly, then, foreign policy experience is a major asset that has an impact on American foreign policy even when the advisory staffs are kept largely constant. Trump can have the smartest people in the world, but unless he knows enough to vet their plans and hold them accountable, there is no guarantee that he will be able to effectively manage U.S. foreign policy.

Additionally, questions still exist over exactly who will advise President Trump. Sam has noted that Trump had not even started constructing a foreign policy team of advisors until well into March, and that team really only consisted of Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions. We will understand more about how the Trump administration will operate as he selects more members of his new Cabinet, namely a Secretary of State, but the lack of experience and expertise among his current advisors should raise plenty of concerns.