The Trump administration’s lack of structure or experience is hobbling its ability to conduct an effective foreign policy, argues Richard Haass, president of the Council of Foreign Relations. “I think it is a recipe for disaster to have multiple centers of authority, to have informal lines of authority,” he said. “I think this administration is doing itself a disservice.
“It’s a decentralized, improvisational administration,” Haass said; he dubbed it an “adhocracy.”
Haass, who served as a high-ranking State Department official in the administration of President George W. Bush, was sharply critical of the results of that organizational incoherence. “It’s very hard for the administration to have a single doctrine or policy,” he said, citing rival factions within the administration and widespread vacancies in its senior ranks.
Haass was speaking Monday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. His remarks amounted to a striking rebuke from a leading foreign-policy analyst, who was reportedly considered for the job of deputy secretary of state by the Trump transition team. “I respect Richard Haass, who’s on your show a lot,” Trump said on Morning Joe last year. “And I like him a lot. I have a few people that I really like and respect.”
Haass noted that the Trump administration could have built a disciplined process to compensate for its relative lack of experience. Trump instead modeled his administration on his decades of success in business, where he relied on a similarly improvisational style, Haass said. The result has been adhocracy.
“Virtually no one in the administration has any interagency experience,” he pointed out. “Some of them have never been in government before, including the president and the secretary of state. … If you know that going in, this ought to be the most tightly structured administration in history to compensate for it. Instead, it’s the most loosely structured I’ve seen.” He added that, to judge by its moves, the administration has not yet acknowledged the problems it faces. Indeed, hours after Haass spoke, the White House released a terse statement alleging Syrian preparations for another chemical-weapons attack. The New York Times reported that “several military officials were caught off guard” by the late-night announcement, though the White House said Tuesday morning it had coordinated with the relevant agencies.
That’s left America’s allies, as well as its rivals, unsettled. “It’s the number one, two, and three question I get around the world,” said Haass. World leaders, he said, are trying to figure out whether Trump represents a permanent shift in American policy, or a temporary aberration. “They are trying to get a fix on us.” The combination of inexperienced personnel and an incoherent structure makes that difficult.
And don’t look to well-established bureaucracies to compensate. For all the talk about an international community, domestic institutions, and established norms, Haass argued, the reality is that individual presidents still exercise tremendous discretion. That means that what Trump decides to do—or declines to pursue—remains enormously consequential. “There’s almost nothing that’s inevitable,” he said, citing the first President Bush’s resolute response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
“A couple of days before at the Cabinet meeting, that wasn’t obvious that that was going to be the outcome,” he recalled. He pointed to the magnitude of the military effort involved, and the widespread press predictions of thousands of American casualties. “If someone else had been president, it’s not axiomatic … that we were going to do what we did.”
And Trump’s decisions are having a similar impact today. In its early months, the Trump administration has been aggressive in remaking its foreign policy around interests, and not principles, reversing decades of U.S. positions in multiple realms.
“I’m a card-carrying realist,” Haass said, “but I think we’ve taken that way too far. We ought to stand up for things we believe.”