I have spent most of my adult life studying how modern governments work. Foreign policy in particular traditionally requires the coordination of various bureaucracies and their leaders, which in turn requires some kind of structure. I was fortunate to read a then-new book, Graham Allison's Essence of Decision, when I was in grad school, because it showed how that process and structure can change policy and effect outcomes. The same insight has governed a great deal of what I have written.
Exactly how policy is made varies a lot from one country and one era to another, and some governments have been far more organized than others. But from the 1930s through the 1990s, at least--the era in which I have the greatest expertise--decision-making in Washington generally followed one particular pattern, with variations. Various bureaucracies contributed to most major decisions, and no big decision was reached without some sort of meeting involving the President and his cabinet members. There were exceptions. Henry Kissinger appears to have carried on his negotiations with the North Vietnamese almost entirely on his own, and Colin Powell was not let into the decision to invade Iraq before it was made. Even more remarkably, the Bush II Administration, I gradually became convinced, embarked upon the Iraq without ever drawing up a document explaining what it was doing, what it hoped to accomplish, and how it planned to get there. (As time went on, it became clear to me that my War College colleagues and I would have known some one who had seen such a document had it existed.) No previous administration that I am aware of, however, made decisions like the Trump Administration.
A series of episodes have made clear that the President makes key decisions on his own, without a meeting to allow his cabinet members to have any input, and announces them publicly, often on Twitter, leaving his administration to scramble to implement or try to reverse them. This was brought home to me a week or two ago when he decided to cancel the Singapore summit with Kim Jong-Il. He may have consulted with John Bolton--whose own statements had provoked the negative comments from the North Koreans that prompted Trump's step--but Secretaries Mattis and Pompeo did not seem to have been consulted. Bolton's replacement of H. R. McMaster is bound to help continue this anarchic process, because McMaster was an old school type who would have tried to bring everyone into the picture, while Bolton, like Trump, is too convinced of his own genius to care about consulting anyone else. Trump made a similar unilateral move when he tried to ban transgendered people from the military, and he seems to have made some other quick decisions in response to things he has heard on Fox News. His announcement yesterday that the Summit is back on probably reflects the influence of a different subordinate, but I doubt that there was any meeting to get everyone fully on board with it, either. The drama over trade policy is playing out similarly, with various advisers trying to slant what the President is doing, without having any idea of what he might say or do next.
This style of Trump's, as I have said before, reminds me of the emperor William II of Germany (reigned 1888-1918), but William had many more constraints upon his behavior than Trump did. His Imperial Chancellor had to sign on to all major decisions and he, in turn, generally consulted the Foreign Secretary and the heads of the Army and Navy before moving on a question of war and peace. It is rather frightening to recall that one reason the First World War broke out in August 1914 was that the Emperor decided to back Austria-Hungary against Serbia, even at the risk of war, without a formal Crown Council to air the issues thoroughly, such as the one that had decided against war in similar circumstances in 1912. Secretary of Defense Mattis, in my opinion, would refuse to order the American military into a major conflict without a formal decision involving all the responsible members of government. But he is now the last establishment figure in Trump's senior foreign policy team. Meanwhile, today's New York Times informs me that the Department of Justice has adopted a new doctrine authorizing the President to use force, at least from the air, any time he deems it to be in the national interest.
Trump's style reflects his views and those of many of his supporters. He regards the Washington bureaucracies as a "deep state" that does not share his values and that needs to be tamed, and often ignored. So do many Republican legislators and so do Fox News pundits. And this view is not confined only to Trump supporters. A recent article in the New York Review of Books by Noah Feldman bluntly asks the career prosecutors in the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York's office to indict the President and force him out of office, and thereby to usurp, in my opinion, a role which the Founders clearly gave to Congress. But bureaucracy has played a critical role in modern government, including in the United States. It is supposed to provide an enduring perspective based on a rational approach to problems and issues. Bureaucratic processes of government are designed to give every involved party a fair hearing and to reach some kind of consensus. Although they were never free from conflict and could certainly make huge mistakes, they served us relatively well at key moments in our history from the 1930s at least into the 1990s.
The at least temporary abandonment of such practices goes hand in hand with the Trump Administration's broader attack on the principles of the Enlightenment and the idea of objective truth. It could have very serious consequences indeed.