It’s been another tumultuous week at the White House. In the aftermath of Michael Flynn’s resignation as national security adviser—just 24 days into his tenure—the administration confronts a storm of questions over the internal management of the White House and its inscrutable relationship with Russia.
This episode reveals an important truth, which all presidents learn sooner or later, namely that when it comes to policy, process matters. And the most important process of all is the national security process, since the issues it deals with are the safety and security of our country and of our citizens. As a student of the national security policymaking process (and author, with Mac Destler, of a detailed study of national security advisers, In the Shadow of the Oval Office), it was clear to me that some elemental truths were ignored in the way the White House organized the process.
First, to be effective, the national security adviser needs to be the president’s principal source of information and advice and sole go-to person on national security affairs within the White House. In this administration, Michael Flynn competed with at least two other persons with responsibility for national security: Steven Bannon (who received a seat on both the National Security Council and the cabinet-level Principals Committee) and Jared Kushner (who has been a key point of contact for foreign governments around the world). Moreover, when it comes to issues of homeland security and counterterrorism (issues that naturally affect national security policy writ large), a fourth White House voice enters the picture, that of Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert. Without clear lines of authority, the process is bound to fail.
Second, the interagency process that brings together representatives from the various departments—State, Defense, Treasury, Homeland Security, the Intelligence Community, and others—needs to operate effectively at all levels of government. While much of the focus on interagency coordination has been at the top level—of cabinet-level officers—the real business of coordination occurs at lower levels—at deputy, under, and assistant secretary levels. Yet, except for the NSC, there have been no appointments announced for deputies, undersecretaries, and assistant secretaries at the major departments. And since Senate confirmation of these positions can take many weeks or months, effective coordination will prove difficult.
“Process matters a lot in order to avoid mistakes, controversy,” James Baker tells Susan Glasser in a recent POLITICO interview. The new administration should take his advice seriously. The world is too dangerous and the stakes are too high to shoot policy from the hip. Every issue facing the United States—from Russian aggression and Chinese revisionism to counterterrorism and European populist nationalism—demands careful review and a rigorous process. This Week's Reads explore some of these challenges and provide some insights into the Trump administration’s approach to managing them.
Susan B. Glasser/POLITICO
Former White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III joined POLITICO’s Susan Glasser to discuss and critique the first days of the Trump administration. Baker has seen little pragmatism out of the administration thus far and suggested that perhaps this is due to growing pains—running a business and government are very different. Despite this he is optimistic and offered his personal motto, “prior preparation prevents poor performance.” To right the ship, Baker suggests that Trump must better understand the functions of institutions and work alongside Congress and the cabinet.
Max Fisher/The New York Times
Following the election of Donald Trump, German President-elect Frank-Walter Steinmeier proclaimed, “the old world of the 20th century is gone.” Politicians and experts warn that Germany’s reliance on soft power tools, namely its economic might, may no longer be adequate. European unity is wavering under the weight of populism, America’s European economic and security commitments appear uncertain, and Moscow has spearheaded cyber-attacks and aligned with populist movements across the continent. In response, as Max Fisher notes, Jana Puglierin of the German Council on Foreign Relations suggests that Germany must tackle several vital questions: “what role we should play, who Germany is, how dominant do we want to be.”
Jane Perlez/The New York Times
Last week, on a telephone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, President Trump reneged on an earlier controversial commitment to renegotiate the “One China” principle, reviewing the status of Taiwan. While his action will stave off potential conflict between China and the United States, the Chinese may view Trump’s future commitments with a healthy dose of skepticism. One commenter noted that “Trump lost his first fight with Xi, and he will be looked at as a paper tiger,” while another said that Trump’s reversal “has reinforced the impression in Beijing that Trump is not serious about managing the United States-China relationship.”
Carol A. Lee, Anton Troianovski, and Santiago Pérez/The Wall Street Journal
All eyes are on Trump. Following eight years in which President Obama’s leadership approach was often criticized as “too cautious,” early signs suggest that descriptor will not characterize Trump’s leadership style. From nation states to multinational organizations, the world is attempting to calculate the effects of reconfigured US policy—both domestic and foreign. As Joseph Nye, former chair of the National Intelligence Council, said, “If you have a slogan ‘America First,’ that means everybody else is second.”
Martin Wolf/The Financial Times
The United Kingdom and the European Union share many common values, including human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, as well as support for a powerful Europe on the global stage. Despite this, Britain’s yearning to take control of its immigration policy and to remove itself from the European Court of Justice has led the UK to sever ties with the single market and customs union. In doing so the United Kingdom faces “five daunting challenges,” says Martin Wolf, including a lack of time, divergent interests, divergent negotiating priorities, money, and complexity. As Wolf argues, “Article 50 was presumably designed to be unworkable.”
Donald Trump appears at odds with much of the American foreign-policy establishment—including individuals in his own cabinet. While many portray Russian President Vladimir Putin as a thug and even a “murderer,” Trump sees opportunities in the relationship. The Economist argues that there are three insurmountable obstacles to working together, however: likely damage to existing American alliances, power-politics underpinned by history and geography, and “wishful thinking.” As Nikolay Kozhanov of the European University at St. Petersburg has said, “The Russians have interests at stake that the Americans do not.” In addition, Trump appears to “overestimate Russian clout as well as its alignment with his goals.”
Robert Kagan/Foreign Policy
Robert Kagan suggests that China and Russia are set on restoring their “rightful destinies” as dominant regional hegemons. Hitherto, their greatest obstacle has been the military and strategic prowess of the United States, bolstered by a cast of “healthy and confident” European and Asian allies. However, “the increasing desire and capacity of the revisionist powers” to change the world order has been met with a “declining will and capacity” of the United States and its democratic allies. This spells trouble, Kagan warns, and naturally will lead to “brutal” costs in “lives and treasure, in lost freedoms and lost hope.”
Peggy Noonan/The Wall Street Journal
Peggy Noonan revisits the 1969 memoir, Present at the Creation, by Dean Acheson, the former secretary of state who was involved in the creation of the postwar order. She emerges with several poignant takeaways for the erosion of the “old order” today, including: “everyone’s in the dark looking for the switch;” “don’t mess things up at the beginning;” “be able to see your work soberly;” and “cheer up … even though you’ll wind up disappointed.” Still to be answered: What is America’s strategy now—our overarching vision, our big theme and intent? What are the priorities? How, now, to navigate the world?
George P. Schultz and James A. Baker III/The Wall Street Journal
George Schultz and James Baker III, both Republican former Secretaries of State, warn that the threats of climate change are too great to ignore and that it is time to “take out an insurance policy.” They propose a four-pillar solution. First, the establishment of a “gradually increasing carbon tax,” to reduce emissions. Second, distributing any tax proceeds to the American people via dividends, reducing the quantity of regulations. Third, the creation of “border carbon adjustments,” or rebates when exporting to nations devoid of similar carbon pricing, ensuring American competitiveness. Lastly, a reduction in government regulations, including the repeal of “almost all” of the Environmental Protection Agency’s carbon emission authority.
David A. Graham/The Atlantic
The United States is coming to resemble two separate countries, one rural and one urban. In most states, agriculture is no longer king. Rural areas are struggling while densely packed areas with highly educated workforces and socially liberal lifestyles flourish. In turn, writes David A. Graham, rural voters harbor growing resentment toward those in cities and object to the pace of cultural change. American cities want to create progressive havens, but they ultimately hold the weaker hand—states controlled by rural political powers will always be able to preempt their liberal cities’ efforts.