But it’s also important to understand that today’s foreign-policy challenges— whether it’s Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East, North Korea’s breakneck nuclear breakout, China’s rise, Russia’s nihilism, Europe’s populism and fragmentation, Syria’s civil war, or transnational terrorism and cyber threats—did not start with Trump. This is the most challenging foreign-policy environment any White House has confronted in modern history.
Three swirling complexities explain why.
Take a look at any of the annual threat assessments issued by the Director of National Intelligence over the past few years. They will make your head spin. They are filled with rising states, declining states, weak states, rogue states, terrorists, hackers, and more. Bad actors don’t just threaten physical space these days. Adversaries are working on ways to cripple America in cyberspace and even outer space—by compromising all those satellite systems on which its digital society depends. In this threat landscape, the number, identity, magnitude, and velocity of dangers facing America are all wildly uncertain. Exactly how many principal adversaries does the United States have? Who are they and what do they want? What could they do to us? How are these threats changing and how can we keep up without spending ourselves into oblivion or leaving ourselves vulnerable to other nasty surprises? These are fundamental questions. There are no consensus answers. Uncertainty is what fuels America’s foreign-policy anxieties today.
The Cold War was different. Then, certainty was what fueled American foreign-policy anxieties. It was clear to all that the U.S. faced a single principal adversary. The Soviet Union had territory on a map and soldiers in uniforms. Thanks to U.S. intelligence, Soviet intentions and capabilities were fairly well understood. The threat landscape was deadly but slower-moving: Communists never met a five-year plan they didn’t like. And while superpower nuclear dangers were terrifying, they were also constraining in a helpful but insane sort of way. In 1961, President Kennedy invoked the specter of a “nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads” over the earth. Every American foreign-policy decision had to consider the question: What would Moscow think of that? Today, the nuclear sword of Damocles is still hanging—indeed, China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea have all successfully tested nuclear devices since 1961—but no singular threat guides U.S. foreign policy as the Soviet Union once did.
As threats have grown more complex, organizational arrangements to deal with them have, too. Coordinating Soviet policy was one thing. Developing coherent U.S. foreign policy in the face of so much uncertainty across so many issues is quite another. Little wonder special advisers, envoys, commissions, boards, initiatives, czars, and new agencies have been growing like mushrooms. This may not sound so bad. But it is. Every new agency or czar or special arrangement says, “the regular process here ain’t working.” The crux of the problem is that bureaucracies are notoriously hard to kill or change. Ronald Reagan famously quipped that bureaucracy is the closest thing to immortal life on earth. Whenever a crisis hits, the natural response is to add a new organization and stir. But if today’s chief challenge is developing coherent, coordinated policy in the face of complexity, creating more organizations to coordinate doesn’t get you very far. Over time, the whole bureaucratic universe just keeps growing bigger, filled with obsolete organizations alongside new organizations; fragmented jurisdictions, overlapping jurisdictions, and unclear jurisdictions; and silos so specialized that nobody can see across all the key issues easily.