If Trump’s “opponent” is the foreign-policy bureaucracy that has safeguarded this tradition, it’s fair to say that Trump’s acceptance of a congratulatory phone call from Tsai Ing-wen, the president of Taiwan (note that the preferred U.S. diplomatic nomenclature is, convolutedly, “president on Taiwan”) “differ[ed] significantly from the ... expected method of operations.” No president-elect has done that since before 1979. The call certainly created some “shock and confusion” and certainly employed a “nontraditional tactic.” It exploited the vulnerability of complexity and, depending on how various parties react, could constrain “freedom of action” for U.S. policymakers regarding Taiwan and China going forward.
And yet complexity needn’t always be a vulnerability—it can, perhaps, stymie impulsiveness—and there’s a way in which the bureaucracy itself may be poised for an asymmetric approach of its own once Trump takes office.
Friedman: That last point raises two related questions that we can’t really answer yet. First, will Trump persist with his asymmetric approach once he’s running government agencies led by his appointees—once he is the establishment? Is asymmetry his signature style, or is it a style tailored to his current circumstances?
Second, we’re at the very beginning of the story of Donald Trump’s presidency. Could the plot twist be the triumph of institutions over the individual? That Trump ultimately fails to bend the bureaucracy to his will? Insurgents don’t always succeed with their insurgencies. Trump, for instance, recently sowed shock and confusion around the world by floating the idea of a nuclear-arms race, tweeting that the United States should “greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability.” But that costs a ton of money, and some officials in the Defense Department—including Trump’s own nominee for secretary of defense—have questioned whether building up the U.S. nuclear arsenal is a wise investment of limited resources. In other words, there’s a vast distance between a tweet and a policy.
Similarly, Trump’s asymmetric approach could backfire in international affairs. To cite just one example: Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, is something of an asymmetric thinker himself. As Joshua Yaffa wrote last year in The New Yorker:
Putin rules a country that, on paper, is no superpower. His advantage has been his boldness as the unpredictable rule-breaker in a club of rule-followers—he did what he felt like doing, while Obama and European leaders were boxed in by their quaint notions of norms in international relations and concerns over global stability. He may soon lose his singular claim to that title.
What happens when there are two unpredictable, rule-breaking risk-takers in town? Does the asymmetric approach retain its power?
Gilsinan: I’m extremely curious about that question of whether, in the end, the bureaucracy will have its revenge. Certainly it has had its revenge on many other presidential ambitions for policy transformation—see Guantanamo Bay. Lawfare has been grappling with this issue in a series of posts recently; in one of them, the former Bush administration lawyer Jack Goldsmith offered this anecdote:
“He’ll sit here,” Truman said of Eisenhower, “and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike—it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.” Richard Neustadt famously built on this story to illustrate that hard power does not by itself translate into effective power. It is a lesson Trump is about to learn.
Indeed, the very complexity of the system, which can be a weakness, can also favor policy continuity. Bureaucrats are loath to overturn complex deals they’ve spent careers working on. That’s a barrier to change within the executive branch itself, of which Trump will be the head, before you even start talking about checks and balances in Congress and the courts. Longstanding practices create vested interests in the status quo—the jobs that depend on trade with China, say—and it’s harder politically to withdraw benefits from a given constituency than never to offer them in the first place.