Pity the professionals. In the past month, President Trump has sideswiped certification of the Iran nuclear deal, sandbagged his own secretary of state’s diplomatic efforts with North Korea, and even provoked the ever-careful Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, Bob Corker, to uncork his deepest fears in a series of bombshell interviews. “The volatility, is you know, to anyone who has been around, is to a degree alarming,” Corker told the Times earlier this month, revealing that many in the administration were working overtime to keep the president from “the path to World War III.” He doubled down on those comments a few weeks later, declaring that Trump, among other things, was “taking us on a path to combat” with North Korea and should “leave it to the professionals for a while.”
The professionals sure have their hands full. So far, the Trump Doctrine in foreign policy appears to consist of three elements: baiting adversaries, rattling allies, and scaring the crap out of Congress. The administration has injected strategic instability into world politics, undermining alliances and institutions, hastening bad trends, and igniting festering crises across the globe. “America first” looks increasingly like “America alone.” The indispensable nation is becoming the unreliable one. Even without a nuclear disaster, the damage inflicted by the Trump presidency won’t be undone for years, if ever.
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.
Humans are not superhuman. Research finds that most people can remember at most seven items at a time, fewer as they grow older. Even the biggest brains have limits. In 2001, Peter Pronovost of Johns Hopkins noticed that highly trained medical teams at the university’s medical center were screwing up insertions of central line catheters, causing infections in critically ill patients at alarming rates. Why? Because they often forgot one of just five simple steps (like washing their hands) before starting the procedure. (Pronovost instituted a checklist that has since become widely used and is credited with saving thousands of lives.)
In foreign policy, too, the stakes are high and humans are frequently overloaded by complexity, resulting in catastrophic errors that nobody ever intended. One of the chief findings of the 9/11 Commission, for example, was that many inside the FBI simply didn’t know or couldn’t remember all the legal requirements and rules for sharing intelligence and law-enforcement information. Even the Bureau’s own 1995 guidelines were “almost immediately misunderstood and misapplied,” the commission concluded. As a result, clues to the terror plot emerged weeks before 9/11 but were marooned in different parts of the bureaucracy.
In 1935, an advanced bomber nicknamed “the Flying Fortress” crashed during a test flight. The Army Air Corps investigation found that the machine worked fine. The problem was the human. The airplane was so sophisticated, flying required the pilot to remember too many things, and he forgot one of them: unlocking the rudder and elevator controls during takeoff. It was “too much airplane for one man to fly,” one reporter later wrote. That crash sparked the invention of pilot checklists which have been used for nearly a century, transforming global aviation.
U.S. foreign policy is becoming too much airplane for one person to fly. “The professionals” surrounding Trump—Secretaries James Mattis and Rex Tillerson, Chief of Staff John Kelly, National-Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, and others—are trying to keep the whole thing from crashing with a pilot who has never flown before. Let’s hope they can.
America’s approach to the world is a complicated mess, for reasons that predate the current president.
Amy Zegart is co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation and professor of political science, by courtesy. She is also the Davies Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and directs the Cyber Policy Program. She wrote this essay as a contributing editor to The Atlantic.