In several tweets midday Tuesday, President Trump announced that he had requested the resignation of his national security adviser, John Bolton. The hawkish Bolton had clashed with the president on a number of issues, most recently over the president’s plan to bring Taliban representatives to Camp David for a peace summit.
Though Bolton’s departure may have been dramatic, the Trump administration’s record and studies of White House foreign policymaking suggest that it might not matter very much. The administration’s foreign policy process is likely to remain undisciplined, uncoordinated and volatile.
A hawk leaves, but don’t expect rapid policy shifts.
News reports suggest that Bolton repeatedly and strenuously opposed the president’s tilt toward negotiations with North Korea and Iran in addition to his objections to the president’s Camp David plan. With Bolton gone, some analysts see an opening for more dovish approaches, including diplomacy. MIT security studies professor Vipin Narang tweeted, “Odds of a potentially meaningful deal and process with North Korea just tripled.”
To be sure, in an ordinary administration, the policy preferences of the national security adviser would matter a great deal. National security advisers serve as the president’s coordinator — or enforcer — of policies throughout the bureaucracy. Removing a hawkish staff member might be seen as a signal that the president has adopted a different policy line.
Yet the Trump administration has not followed that playbook. The president dismissed his previous national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, in large part because they disagreed substantively. McMaster wanted to focus on competing with China and Russia and strengthening traditional alliances, while the president prioritized issues such as restricting immigration, pursuing aggressively zero-sum trade policies even toward traditional trade partners, and striking a deal with North Korea over its nuclear program. But Trump then replaced McMaster with the far more hawkish Bolton, with whom the president was familiar in part from Bolton’s regular appearances on Fox News.
This history suggests that personnel changes in the Trump White House may have less to do with the president’s desired policy direction and more with the president’s personal familiarity and comfort with potential advisers — which may be why personally close advisers such as Stephen Miller and Jared Kushner have outlasted McMaster and former secretary of state Rex Tillerson. Moreover, news reports suggest that Trump has been sidelining Bolton for weeks if not months by this point, suggesting it is unlikely that this portends any serious policy change.
Even with Bolton gone, there’s more instability ahead.
Bolton’s tenure and departure shows clearly that, three years into its term, the Trump administration has not yet developed a foreign policy process. It is unclear whether this instability comes from an inability to reconcile conflicting viewpoints or whether the president actively prefers a less structured approach.
The president has said that relying on “acting” officials in nominally Senate-approved positions “gives me more flexibility.” He may similarly believe that eschewing traditional, slow policy processes lets him make policy without enduring laborious vetting by underlings.
But the president probably underestimates the importance of stability and staff in accomplishing his policy objectives. Declaring a policy objective, whether in a formal presidential address or a tweet, is only the first step in implementing it. Usually, such declarations result from a process of gathering information, coordinating staff work and developing and vetting options from which the president can choose.
Ideally, a national security adviser runs that process. The path is rarely smooth. Former White House official Peter W. Rodman described in “Presidential Command,” a study of presidents and their foreign policy staffs, how even the most congenial administrations involve conflicting agendas and interpretations, as well as obstinacy and outright opposition. All of that can thwart a president’s will.
But the Trump administration is far from that ideal. To give just one example, think of reports that an adviser stole paperwork from Trump’s desk to stop him from withdrawing the United States from trade agreements. No process seems to be in place.
Bolton’s firing is a symptom, not a cure.
The Trump administration’s volatile foreign policy process was clear before Bolton’s arrival and will probably persist after Bolton’s departure.
For example, as political scientist Mira Rapp-Hooper wrote here at TMC after the first U.S.-North Korea summit in June 2018, the administration did not put in the staff work to generate the kind of agreement that could have been a useful building block for restraining North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. Bolton contributed to that disorder — but his departure doesn’t mean Trump will suddenly become enamored of careful process.
As TMC editor and political scientist Elizabeth Saunders wrote in “International Organization,” the degree of a president’s foreign policy experience matters, and “a seasoned team cannot substitute for an experienced leader.” An inexperienced president “may enable or underwrite risky behavior by advisers.” Given that Trump is the only U.S. president in history with no prior political or military experience, her theory thus predicts that the Trump administration should be a jumble of initiatives by a team of officials each jockeying for their favored policies subject only to the occasional, blunt and transient intervention of the president.
That sort of confusion is exactly what we observe, from the resignation of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis over Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria — one he later reversed — to the sudden cancellation of U.S. airstrikes against Iran in retaliation for downing a U.S. drone.
These sorts of rushed and confusing decisions reflect a policymaking process in which neither the president nor his team coordinate their actions in a structured way. Ironically, the national security adviser is supposed to provide exactly that management. In a normal administration, Bolton would have either been told to swallow his pride and act as an honest broker — or more likely, never would have been appointed to the role.
Paul Musgrave (@ProfMusgrave) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.