Trump and Emergent Strategy: The First 100 Days

April 28, 2017

Tomorrow is the 100th day of the Trump presidency, and America’s foreign policy is in much better shape than most experts anticipated on Inauguration Day. After a rocky start, the administration appears to have embarked on a more promising and strategically sound course. This positive development is mostly owed to the “emergent strategy” model of decision-making often followed by President Donald Trump. Therefore, the future success of U.S. foreign policy depends on how well the administration will continue to apply the tenets of this paradigm to the realities of Washington and of international politics.

Two emerging optimistic narratives describe the evolution of both the process and the substance of the White House foreign and national security policies. First, the national security advisor, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, is earning praise for bringing more discipline and coherence to what was widely described as a dysfunctional and chaotic process that defined the brief tenure of Lt. Gen. (ret.) Michael Flynn. Second, the administration is gaining plaudits for moving away from its campaign-style promises to radically shift U.S. grand strategy towards an effectively isolationist position that abandons Washington’s global leadership role. As The New York Times put it, Trump learned valuable lessons from his short time in office, and he started to move ever closer to the Republican foreign policy mainstream, so much so that his approach is praised even by conservative experts who did not support him during the campaign.

Are these two “Trump has shifted course” narratives overdone? And if they are accurate, do they represent a harbinger of what we can expect from the Trump administration in the future? Some scholars critical of Trump remain skeptical of the administration’s ability and ideas. They  point to his impulsive tweeting, to the continuing influence of Trump’s worldview, and to the negative influence of some of his advisers on issues such as trade protectionism. They also deplore his embrace of some authoritarian leaders like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his lack of interest in pushing allies like Egypt’s President al-Sisi to improve their human rights record. Others are more optimistic that Trump is on a path to becoming a traditional successful center-right foreign policy president. They highlight a number of positive shifts, most important of which was the use of force in Syria in a “world-ordering” intervention marking a first step towards the reassertion of a U.S. global leadership role. We saw two other positive changes with his shift on rhetoric regarding NATO’s value and the administration’s support for the admittance of Montenegro as a new member of the alliance. Lastly, the administration also took positive steps in dealing with the two main great power rivals of the United States. Trump had a cordial first meeting with China’s Xi Jinping and began to engage in a Kissingerian “linkage” of trade and security considerations to convince Beijing to bring increasing pressure on North Korea’s nuclear program. At the same time, he moved away from a potentially dangerous rapprochement with Vladimir Putin that could have compromised key U.S. interests in Europe.

While the “optimist” camp appears in ascendance after the events of the past few weeks, it is hard to be confident in predicting the future course of U.S. foreign policy, to make much sense of the tumultuous first one hundred days, or to offer useful advice for improving the strategy-making process, without using the theoretical lens provided by the emergent strategy model. This paradigm, developed in the business world, explains this president’s modus operandi in a better way than traditional “grand strategic analysis” or foreign policy decision-making political science models.

The journalistic accounts regarding the president’s tenure as a CEO of the Trump Organization indicate that they he prefers to rely less on deliberate processes and long-term strategic designs, and more on ad-hoc improvisation and emergent learning. In short, scholars of “emergent strategy” regard successful strategy as a process of navigating through an unpredictable world by “trial and error” and continuous learning. Business theorist Henry Mintzberg describes this difference as follows:

Deliberate strategy focuses on control — making sure that managerial intentions are realized in action — while emergent strategy emphasizes learning — coming to understand through the taking of actions what those intentions should be in the first place.

Trump showed clear signs of favoring this approach both in business, and also in his short time in government. For example, Trump shifted his organization’s focus from owning large buildings to licensing his brand name without owning the physical construction when the market conditions shifted. As a biographer chronicling his CEO style remarked:

There was no formal business plan, no development strategy…Instead Donald would come up with ideas, do the preliminary calculations in his head, then tell someone to get moving on it.

And sure enough, just as he was preparing to shift course on Syria, Trump confirmed his adherence to this model:

I like to think of myself as a very flexible person. I don’t have to have one specific way, and if the world changes, I go the same way, I don’t change.  Well, I do change and I am flexible, and I’m proud of that flexibility.

This peculiar understanding of strategy and of decision-making developed in the corporate world by Trump will inescapably continue to impact the conduct of U.S. diplomacy and national security policy in this administration. In order for emergent strategy to produce positive results in Washington, however, as opposed to chaos and incoherence, it must take into account the differences between a CEO managing a business firm and a president conducting foreign and national security policy. And while the positive trends of the last few weeks are encouraging, there are nevertheless a few of important steps needed that would allow for more successful strategic performance.

Adapting “Emergent Strategy” to Washington Policymaking

The good news for the Trump administration is that an emergent strategy approach can be successful in the conduct foreign policy, and past administrations relied at times on improvisation and emergent learning as well. In my upcoming book, I conclude that U.S. presidents often reached successful outcomes when they adopt a more emergent approach to national security strategy. For example, the formation of the Truman Doctrine and NATO, Reagan’s diplomacy with Gorbachev leading to the peaceful conclusion of the Cold War, or the routing of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan represented strategic successes whose origins can be found in ad-hoc improvisations and emergent learning in pursuit of a larger strategic vision.

My conclusions mirror those of Lawrence Freedman’s latest work on this topic, Strategy: A History:

Strategy is often expected to start with a description of a desired end state, but in practice there is rarely an orderly movement to goals set in advance. Instead, the process evolves through a series of states, each not quite what was anticipated or hoped for, requiring a reappraisal and modification of the original strategy, including ultimate objectives.

The bad news for Trump is that, unlike when he was a CEO, as a president he is in charge of a vast government bureaucracy that is crucial in both informing, shaping, and later implementing his strategic ideas and priorities. Early on, the administration tried and failed to shortcut this process by relying on a very small number of aids while keeping the majority of the government in the dark. Unsurprisingly, this backfired and led to a series of early unforced errors such as the failed travel bans rollout. McMaster’s arrival, and the close relationship that developed between him, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Secretary of Defense  Jim Mattis allowed the administration to sharply improve the quality of the decision-making process, as witnessed by the rigorous preparation and execution of the Syria bombing. As Josh Rogin reported, there is a “structure” of decision-making emerging that was present not just in the case of the Syria decision, but also in the administration’s recent moves regarding NATO and North Korea.

Having said that, there is still a lot of work to be done. How could the national security decision-making process be improved to adapt to Trump’s preference for emergent strategies, while at the same time making sure that the foreign policy and national security professionals are involved in both shaping these strategies and therefore are able to successfully implementing them? I offer three recommendations:

1. Shift the focus of the National Security Council’s Strategic Planning Directorate away from a single National Security Strategy and towards multiple project-specific sub-strategies.

The process of developing and constantly adjusting emergent strategies can best be achieved by relying on two separate complementary directorates inside the NSC: a Strategic Planning Directorate and a new Adaptation and Learning Directorate (discussed more below).

The traditional role of the Strategic Planning Directorate is to take the lead in the writing of the congressionally-mandated National Security Strategy document, and this is the position and task for which McMaster recently hired foreign policy expert Nadia Schadlow. However, despite what some experts might say, it’s doubtful that the Trump administration really needs to spend thousands of man-hours (as was the case with previous administration) on formulating a long “grand strategy” document formulating a “Trump doctrine”  that will likely have little to no impact on Trump’s subsequent decisions, given his emergent strategy approach. As CNAS President Richard Fontaine recently argued along similar lines:

[F]oreign policy doctrines emerge from world events, after concrete national security decisions, and over a span of time long enough to leave a lasting mark on American foreign policy. So it will be with the Trump Doctrine. Or it won’t emerge at all, an outcome that would be just fine. The administration does not need a magic formulation that will somehow guide seamless choices in a complicated world.

Instead of a long grand strategy document, the directorate should focus on developing project-specific strategic designs for particular priorities of the administration and current threats, particularly cross-cutting ones such as the fight against ISIS or geopolitical competition with China and Russia. As a matter of fact, the Strategic Planning Directorate could perform most of the activities envisioned by the Trump team for the controversial Strategic Initiatives Group, such as prioritizing certain strategic initiatives the administration deems most critical for the accomplishment of its strategic vision. However, by performing the strategic analysis inside the National Security Council as opposed to outside of it, the quality of the product, and the ease of implementing it, are both going to be superior to the current arrangement. Therefore, any staffers that work on foreign policy should be reassigned to the National Security Council, leaving the Strategic Initiatives Group to focus exclusively on domestic policy matters.

2. Form an Adaptation and Learning Directorate inside the National Security Council

The key to successful emergent strategy is a continuous re-assessment of one’s performance, constant learning from one’s mistakes, and rapid adaptation to the unexpected changes in the external environment. Such an organization should conduct “red team” exercises for current policies, and scenario planning for possible crises similar to the exercises popularized by Shell and widely used in the oil industry and in the business world more broadly. This directorate will focus on institutionalizing dynamic learning and adaptation, as opposed to formulating designs, which would remain the task of the Strategic Planning unit. This is crucial, because often times it is how well they learn and adapt in office that eventually determines the foreign policy successes and failures of American presidents, not the soundness of their initial plans and policies.

3. Prioritize the accelerated hiring of experienced GOP foreign policy professionals who can manage the bureaucracy.

Unlike a CEO, a president cannot hire and fire the majority of the people working for him, so he needs to control them in other ways. Apocryphal or not, President Truman’s famous quote about the difficulties waiting for his successor (“Poor Ike. He’ll say do this and do that and nothing at all will happen.”) should serve as a warning for Donald Trump that there are some major differences between how a CEO (or a military general) commands his staff and how a president manages the government bureaucracy. Moreover, as long-term public servant Peter Rodman showed in his excellent book on Presidential Command, conservative Republican presidents in particular find it very frustrating to deal a predominantly-liberal government bureaucracy.

The most common way to ameliorate this problem is to appoint experienced Republican national security professionals both at the National Security Council in the higher echelons of various government departments. While, according to Politico, the administration in recent weeks finally moved past the campaign bitterness and started to hire more Republican experts who may not have supported Trump in the primary, they have yet to fill 475 of the 554 key positions that require Senate confirmation. As the old adage goes, in Washington “personnel is policy” and until Trump gets more experienced appointees in the crucial mid-level positions in the departments, his foreign policy will suffer.

None of these reforms could guarantee a successful foreign policy, of course, but adapting the U.S. government in small ways to the emergent strategy style preferred by Trump would at least give the administration a better chance to put together a successful foreign policy legacy. At the end of the day, it will be up to Trump and his top advisors to make the tough learning and adjusting decisions needed to succeed by using this emergent strategy style of leadership.


Ionut Popescu is Post-Doctoral Fellow, Clements Center for National Security, University of Texas at Austin. Follow him on Twitter @ICPopescu. This article partly draws on the upcoming book Emergent Strategy and Grand Strategy: How American Presidents Succeed in Foreign Policy (Johns Hopkins University Press, forthcoming November 2017).

Image: White House