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Eight questions about Donald Trump’s decision-making in a foreign policy crisis

- December 21, 2016
A man buys a newspaper featuring a photo of President-elect Donald Trump at a newsstand in Beijing on Nov. 10. The headline reads, “Outsider strikes back.” (Greg Baker/AFP)

Donald Trump’s foreign policy and national security team has taken shape amid a series of foreign policy crises big and small — including the assault on Aleppo, Syria; the Chinese seizure of a U.S. drone in the South China Sea; and the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey.

For now, those crises are the purview of the Obama administration. But in less than a month, that will change. So it is important to take stock of what we have learned about how Trump and his team will react when crises happen.

So imagine Trump’s first international crisis. Here are eight important questions:

  1. Where is Trump, physically? He might be in New York City, since he has said he will spend significant time there. Of course, presidents travel with a sophisticated communications apparatus, and presumably there will be a good communication setup in New York eventually. But it may take time to get it up and running, and the bulk of his staff will be based in Washington regardless. So, it is worth thinking through the consequences of a president whose home base could be somewhere other than the White House on a regular basis.
  2. What is the state of Trump’s relationship with the intelligence community? Is he taking regular daily briefings? More generally, how much does he trust the intelligence he gets? What does he know about the country or crisis. How much homework has he done?
  3. Who wakes him up and brings him the information about this hypothetical crisis? Is it Michael Flynn, Trump’s appointee as national security adviser? What sources has Flynn drawn on? How long does evaluation of that information take? What questions does Trump ask Flynn? Has anyone said, “It’s early, there is a lot we don’t know, our assessment may change?” My research suggests that inexperienced presidents are less able to monitor advisers and assess the information and proposals that are brought to them. This gives advisers greater power. Flynn appears to have functioned very differently when overseen by a strong and experienced boss at the military’s Joint Special Operations Command than when he was in charge of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
  4. Who deliberates about what to do? We still know very little about the process Trump plans to put in place, or who will have his ear. But from what we have learned, it will be a limited group drawing on limited sources.
  5. How many options are presented to Trump, and how are they framed? In a forthcoming paper, I find that inexperienced presidents are less likely to diversify the advice they receive, and they prefer policy recommendations that are framed as more certain. In other words, they are averse to ambiguity. Will Trump be more likely to listen to an adviser who tells him that a policy will get him what he wants? Will any adviser remind him that policy choices inherently involve uncertainty? Will an adviser assess and voice the possibility of taking no action and treat that as an option to be considered (recognizing, of course, that doing nothing may have its own risks)?
  6. Will anyone with serious concerns speak out or, in the extreme, resign in protest? My research suggests that cues from dissenting advisers can affect how policies are perceived. We know that some of Trump’s appointees have views that seem to diverge from his (for example, James Mattis, Trump’s nominee for defense secretary, opposes torture). But we still don’t know how much influence any of the major appointees will have, how they will balance each other, or how willing they will be to voice concerns.
  7. Who will execute Trump’s decision? What will they be told about the answers to these questions, especially if they did not participate in the deliberations? Will appropriate communications be issued within the bureaucracy, to the public and even to those who may be in harm’s way on the ground? And perhaps crucially: Who controls Trump’s Twitter account?
  8. Is there a record, and who writes it down? The record will be important to political scientists, historians, journalists and many others who follow presidential decisions.  But the record also matters for staff follow-up as the decision is carried out (see No. 7), for adjudicating disputes over what was said, and perhaps even for the credibility of any dissenters.

Much of this discussion speaks to concerns many others have expressed. And it doesn’t mean that there will be a calamitous decision. Many excellent professionals remain in the government, and bureaucrats will have an important role to play, assuming they stay.

But the research on foreign policy decision-making suggests that there will be a significant increase in risk — and not just risk associated with any policy moves Trump makes, which are, for better or for worse, his prerogative. Instead, the risks will stem from the White House decision-making apparatus itself — how it takes in and processes information, makes decisions and implements them.

Even if crises come out “okay,” dangerous things can happen behind the scenes. Many of these risky or dangerous moves may not be visible to the public, or even to government officials outside the inner circle. In other words, no matter what happens in this hypothetical crisis, we may not know just how risky Trump’s handling of it actually was, at least initially.

And the risks will not necessarily end with the first crisis. The risks may be even greater if Trump is disinclined to learn — as his comments on the daily briefing imply — or gains false confidence from a good outcome that may have involved some good luck (as crises often do, even when presidents try hard to act carefully and manage risks). This is why continued scrutiny of appointments, process and even logistics will remain important.

One fact everyone can agree on: All presidents face crises. Some day, or some night, these questions will cease to be hypothetical.

For more, see this recent podcast discussion that I did with Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Elizabeth N. Saunders is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and a visiting fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is the author of “Leaders at War: How Presidents Shape Military Interventions.”