PRESIDENT TRUMP is guaranteed to face a crisis within the first months of taking office. How he and his team respond may define whether he is perceived as a successful chief executive or as an outsider who failed to translate a stunning electoral victory into effective governance.
Consider this scenario. It’s March 2017. A Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force vessel clashes with a Chinese fishing trawler in the waters surrounding the disputed Senkaku Islands. Several Japanese personnel are killed. The Chinese ship sinks. In response, Beijing announces plans to send naval and air assets into the area to assert its territorial claims. The Japanese government declares its intent to “repel” any Chinese incursion—and seeks the reassurance from the United States that Tokyo enjoys Washington’s unstinting support.
As the news reaches Washington, the president is preparing to return to the capital from the West Coast, where he was announcing a new small-business and infrastructure-redevelopment initiative. Yet problems immediately emerge as the national-security team works to develop options for the president’s consideration. The haphazard selection process for the deputies’ positions in the key national-security departments, combined with the lack of effective direction from the White House, has made it difficult for information and options to be summarized and presented to the principals. The decision to adopt a “team of rivals” approach to the cabinet means that each principal has very different answers about how to address the emerging crisis. Already, each key secretary—defense, state and treasury—has issued contradictory statements about how the United States will respond, with the secretary of state breathing fire about coming to the aid of Japan, defense calling for caution, and treasury worried about the impact of a clash for world financial markets and the U.S. economy. Lingering disputes over whether the vice president or the national security advisor chairs the National Security Council (NSC) in the president’s absence continues to add needless tension to their deliberations and prevents the meeting from reaching any sort of consensus. Arguments erupt across the table as different principals accuse each other of cherry-picking or withholding information and trying to steer the discussion in favor of their preferred option. Distrust as to whether each cabinet principal is truly bringing all options and information to the table leads the NSC staff to bypass the normal chains of command and communication. They reach down to mid-levels of the intelligence community and directly to Pacific Command to gain raw intelligence and different operational plans, so as to be able to formulate a parallel set of options for the president, which exacerbates simmering tensions between the cabinet secretaries and the White House staff.
The president returns to the Situation Room to face not only a brewing crisis in the Pacific but also bickering within his national-security team. As the meeting breaks up to allow the president a chance to consider his choices, different cabinet secretaries jostle for the opportunity to speak to the president in private to sell him on their specific plan. Meanwhile, White House aides attempt to block these efforts in order to safeguard the president’s time. Pressured to respond, and beset by a chaotic process, the president runs the risk of making bad decisions. Over the next several days, he either arbitrarily excludes people from his circle in order to have a coherent decisionmaking process, but then is deprived of valuable perspectives and information; or he accepts a series of compromises that win acceptance around the wider table, but cannot achieve American objectives in the field. As press reports depict a U.S. national-security process in disarray, Russian president Vladimir Putin offers to use Russia’s partnership with Xi Jinping and Putin’s close ties to Shinzo Abe to broker a temporary agreement that defuses the immediate crisis. Once again, as during the 2013 crisis over Syrian chemical weapons, the diplomatic initiative is shifted to the Kremlin—and Putin’s image as a responsible statesman is enhanced at America’s expense.
GIVEN THE history of U.S. foreign-policy failures over the last several decades, this scenario is not as improbable as it might appear. All of the problems outlined in the above narrative have flared up in recent administrations: whether the national security advisor or the vice president, for instance, chairs the National Security Council in the president’s absence; whether the cabinet secretaries have at-will access to the Oval Office or must receive clearance (either from the national security advisor or the chief of staff) to see the president; whether decisions are taken in the presence or absence of the cabinet secretaries; and the most critical one: the delicate issue of people who enjoy immediate proximity to the commander in chief but are legally outside the chain of command being able to directly issue orders while bypassing the senior departmental officials. We have seen foreign governments unclear as to whether, in the absence of a presidential statement, the comments of the vice president, national security advisor, chief of staff, secretary of state or secretary of defense reflect the actual position of the U.S. government—and who has the authority to make commitments and offer deals.
The United States’ position as a global superpower means that the sheer number of geographic and functional issues are far beyond the capacity of any one person (the president) or even his immediate circle to supervise. The so-called “rule of ten and fifty” applies here: that at any given moment, the president can effectively concentrate on ten issues or so, while his senior national-security team (the national security advisor, the chief of staff, the secretaries of defense and state and treasury, etc.) can handle another fifty. Some of those issues will be enduring, while others rise and fall in importance depending on the quotidian mix of crises and opportunities that the United States faces. The national-security system that Trump creates must be agile enough to focus on what needs his personal attention while not overwhelming him with picayune matters that do not. It must also be flexible enough to allow for hundreds of other issues to be delegated to lower levels for day-to-day supervision and execution. He must have confidence that his general direction is understood and carried out by the national-security bureaucracy, without resorting to time-consuming micromanagement from the top. He must also not be seduced into creating a bloated White House operation that is too small to run U.S. national security all on its own, but big enough to cause gridlock and unnecessary turf wars.
How does the new chief executive determine what issues he will personally handle and which he wants his senior team to oversee? Most likely, drawing on his past business experience, Trump will make clear what calls he wants connected directly to the Oval Office, and which ones he expects others to handle—but be given routine updates—and which ones he expects will be solved without requiring his intervention. So how will this gatekeeper function be set up? And how will new and pressing issues not on his original list be brought to his attention?
In addition, for issues that are brought to his attention, he will have to make clear his preferences. Does he want to be presented with “the solution” to the problem? Does he want an individual to summarize the different perspectives and options and offer a list of different courses of action? Does he want a larger group to come before him, with each person given time to offer his or her perspective? And when it comes to matters requiring detailed expertise that resides in the lower echelons of government, does he want those people brought directly to him—or does he trust that senior aides who likewise may not possess sufficient background will be able to understand, process and accurately represent the situation to him?
President Trump inherits a national-security system that consists of a hodgepodge of legal requirements (e.g., to have cabinet officers who are confirmed by the Senate to administer the executive-branch departments, and to have a formal National Security Council that has statutory members like the vice president and the secretaries of state and defense and statutory advisers such as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence) and long-standing traditions that he should have a national security advisor and a White House staff that act as foreign-policy coordinators. The extensive policy role of the vice president is also a matter of recent practice, not law. Thus, the president has a great deal of flexibility to restructure the national-security system. He is not required to follow the model of his immediate predecessors, especially if he does not believe it will help him achieve his objectives while in office.
Yet it is worthwhile to consider past precedents and assess whether any of them appeal to his preferred style of executive management.
ONE OPTION is to appoint as national security advisor someone who will serve as his vicar for national-security affairs and who could credibly be seen as the president’s alter ego in international policy—who then oversees an ambitious foreign-policy agenda and ensures that the departments and agencies of government carry out the president’s will—the Nixon-Kissinger model, in other words. This approach works best when the cabinet secretaries and their deputies are prepared to focus primarily on implementation rather than on policy formulation.
Another is for him to select cabinet officers (and either select their deputies or trust the judgment of his appointees to select their subordinates) who he feels share his vision and outlook, empower them to run their departments, and utilize them as his principal advisors, counselors and confidants. In this approach, best exemplified in recent years by Ronald Reagan’s administration, the president’s instincts on policy were transmitted to the cabinet officers who were expected and trusted to translate this guidance into detailed plans of action. The White House staff served to coordinate and to keep open the lines of communication between the Oval Office and the departments—and primarily to provide support to the president rather than to supersede or overshadow the departments and their secretaries. Under such a model, the national security advisor serves primarily as a tutor and aide to the president rather than his emissary to the rest of the government.
Finally, there is the hybrid model. In the George H. W. Bush administration, the White House staff and the cabinet secretaries had shared responsibilities for both policy formulation and execution. The national security advisor and the key secretaries reinforced each other’s position and enjoyed coequal access to the president. It worked because a handful of key figures—both cabinet secretaries and White House staff—collaborated and found consensus on the key issues.
The Reagan and George H. W. Bush approaches are less effective if the president makes cabinet choices not based solely on his personal preferences but out of political necessity (such as selecting people with support of key constituencies in Congress) and therefore may have less confidence in their dedication to his agenda. It also breaks down if the president believes it important to use his cabinet choices to achieve balances between competing policy perspectives—say, between a secretary of defense who is a proponent of engagement with a particular country or believes in a strategy of offshore balancing versus a secretary of state who is a skeptic of engagement or prefers a more interventionist approach. In such conditions, the importance of the White House staff rises, particularly that of the national security advisor, who can emerge as the “honest broker” or as the chief coordinator. The White House staff thus becomes the “synthesizer” of policy and assumes a greater supervisory role to ensure that whatever compromises are made are in fact being carried out. In such conditions, the national security advisor as well as other White House officials must be able to guarantee that all views and options will be heard, but there must also be a clear understanding that when the president has made a decision, it will be carried out even if it goes against the preferences of some of the team. This, however, can create conditions for the expansion of the size in the staff assigned to the White House, if a president believes that, in the absence of effective monitoring by people directly loyal to him, his decisions will be slow-rolled or even quietly opposed.
THERE ARE a number of factors that have contributed in the last two decades to presidents favoring a White House–centric national-security structure: a president and his team of advisors may believe that their policy preferences will be resisted by the bureaucracy; or that cabinet appointees will be “captured” by their departments; or that the Senate is not prepared to confirm the president’s preferred choices. When faced with the latter reality, it is easy for a president to want to house his “actual” people he would want to see in charge of the country’s defense, diplomacy, development and intelligence in the environs of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and to transfer more operational responsibilities to them, at the expense of the departments and agencies.
Moreover, given the legal reality that cabinet officers can be required to testify before Congress, White House staff, in contrast, are cloaked under presidential privilege, giving chief executives the ability to plan, test out ideas and freely discuss options without having to reveal the content of those conversations to congressional committees. Presidents also enjoy the privilege of appointing special envoys and “czars” who can be tasked with cutting across bureaucratic lines to coordinate policy and pursue specific objectives and to report directly back to the Oval Office. While in the short run this offers the sense of direct control, it ends up creating bloat and paradoxically reduces the overall effectiveness of the president in achieving his foreign-policy objectives.
President-elect Trump faces a number of unique challenges as he creates his national-security team and prepares to hit the ground running come January 2017. Unlike Richard Nixon, for instance, foreign policy has not been a long-standing interest or career focus where he has a deep reservoir of experience and comfort in addressing the issues. Unlike his Democratic rival, whom he bested in this election, he does not have the benefit of large numbers of trusted personal staff who served in Senate and State Department positions who he could then easily deploy into the higher echelons of the U.S. national-security establishment. He has expressed positions on national-security issues that resonate with a majority of the voters who elected him to office, but put him at odds with the so-called “bipartisan consensus” that has served to define the foreign-policy positions of presidents of both parties over the last two decades, yet which are shared by many who seek to serve in his administration and by those in the Senate who will hold the fate of his nominees in their hands.
This may be an opportune moment for the president-elect to draw on lessons from the business world—namely, the experience of corporations that utilize both an executive board or board of directors and a supervisory or management board for governance. Both are the “teams” of the CEO, but their composition differs with one selected by shareholders and the other selected solely by the chief executive. While the analogy does not entirely hold—since both cabinet officials and White House staff serve at the pleasure of the president—it takes into account the constitutional position of cabinet secretaries vis-à-vis the Congress versus the personal nature of the White House staff. If one conceived of “two boards” for national security, the cabinet officers might best be seen as the executive board—tasked with developing strategies and policy recommendations to present to the president and charged by him with execution, while the White House staff would serve as his advisors, counselors and experts—but also be dispatched to liaise with the departments. Just as corporations form smaller audit committees, the president could direct combinations of presidential staff and cabinet appointees to closely interact on specific, defined issues—such as reexamining the Iran nuclear deal or testing the prospects for improving relations with Russia—and for these committees to physically visit and check in with those segments of the agencies and departments, which may be charged with carrying out pieces of the overall mission. That would be in keeping with Trump’s own business philosophy that e-mail and phone contact are never enough, and that on-site face-to-face interaction is required.
In the business world, the rights, duties and obligations of board members are spelled out. As the cabinet, subcabinet and White House staff appointments are made, it might prove useful to define how these people will relate to each other and to the president and to the vice president, the conditions of their access to the Oval Office, and how different portfolios are distributed. These understandings would eliminate what Trump, in the past, has identified as the three factors for the failure of business projects by defining lines of communication, lines of leadership and accountability, and marrying expertise and executive experience.
America has not run its foreign policy on business principles—at least since the days of Secretary of State James Baker within the George H. W. Bush administration, whose tenure saw a whole host of diplomatic and national-security successes buttressed by successful deal making. Perhaps it is time to make the Situation Room more like the boardroom.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a contributing editor at the National Interest, is coauthor of U.S. Foreign Policy and Defense Strategy: The Evolution of an Incidental Superpower.
Image: Empty boardroom in Hong Kong. Flickr/Creative Commons/@ricardo