Tackling the Dichotomy of Foreign Policy Vision and Implementation

By Irina Tsukerman


How do we explain that a particular presidential doctrine, articulated during the campaign or at the beginning of the presidency, ends up often being quite far from the initial articulation when implemented? This has been true for presidents across both the political and ideological spectrums, and remains a key factor in U.S. foreign policy under President Trump. The frequent disconnect between a president’s foreign policy framework and its execution can send mixed signals to allies and foes and lead to conflicting policies. There are a number of reasons for this dichotomy between vision and implementation, many of which are complicated by the provocative nature of the Trump administration.


For example, the separation of powers – though fundamental to American governance – often facilitate diversion from a president’s initial foreign policy vision. Though foreign policy is in the hands of the executive branch, Congress is involved in funding issues, certain types of sanctions, and reporting requirements associated with authorization of military force, though this has become largely pro forma in recent years. When President Trump recently decertified Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the issue was sent back to Congress to legislate and for the President to then sign back into law.  Despite initial results applauded by JCPOA opponents and Iran hardliners, including the freezing of certain European business deals, legislation has since then stalled in Congress.


The separation of powers is but one potential obstacle to a smooth implementation of an executive vision; agencies running interference is another factor. After a recent pronouncement from President Trump that recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and authorized preparations to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv – though Trump subsequently signed the waiver to keep the embassy in Tel Aviv –  the State Department issued a series of statements, seemingly in conflict with the president’s, that left U.S. policies in regards to Jerusalem’s status on passports and maps unchanged.


Agencies also frequently fight for resources, influence, and over differences in policy matters. Since the Clinton administration, there has been a power shift from the State Department to the National Security Council, and more recently, to the Pentagon, indicating both the shift in priorities and the growing connection between diplomacy and defense. Though agencies will continue to implement directives with different priorities, what can prevent deliberate misinterpretation of the intended policy is clear signals by the President himself: appointment of officials who give appropriate and unequivocal direction to the agencies; a clear sense of priorities in the agenda; and, a comprehensive foreign policy framework. Sometimes, however, the President may issue deliberately ambiguous statements, allowing various interests to interpret the policy as they will, as was the case with the Jerusalem announcement, as well as our relationship with China with regards to China’s failure to contain North Korea. This tactic can bring short-time satisfaction and support for the policy, but will sooner or later lead to confusion internationally, and tensions internally.


This is further complicated in the Trump administration as he has chosen not to appoint most of the State Department’s top officials, and has in fact pursued a policy of depopulating the agency. As of October 2017, only 21 percent of high-level State Department positions were filled, with 24 percent awaiting confirmation. Career State Department officials have been leaving in droves, and their positions remain unfilled. This is replicated in the Department of Defense, where 28 percent of positions are filled and 39 percent are awaiting confirmation. To further sideline the agency, Trump has outsourced much of his foreign policy to the Pentagon, indicating a priority for military over diplomacy.


The executive branch can be paralyzed by its own divisions and, along with Congress, faces a variety of pressures and influencers, including lobby groups, “independent” experts from non-profits – each with an agenda, affected by sources of funding –, media coverage, popular polling, and internal factions. Not a small part of this disparity has historically come from the distinction between campaign rhetoric and governance. Trump made a broad appeal to a wide spectrum of conflicting interests. Trump’s blue-collar supporters in Midwest and Appalachia, for instance, liked his isolationist approach, “America First” policy, and anti-immigration rhetoric. They eschewed long-term engagement in the Middle East, and wished to see cancellation or renegotiation of multilateral trade deals, such as NAFTA and TPP. On the other hand, Trump’s big business supporters were looking for corporate-friendly policies. So far, President Trump’s governance is significantly less like his economic nationalist campaign rhetoric and more like President George W. Bush’s devotion to engagement, albeit with a focus on cutting deals rather than nation-building. Thus, we find ourselves with few changes to U.S. foreign policy, surging troops in Afghanistan, going after ISIS in Iraq, Yemen, and Syria, engaging in a variety of clandestine counterterrorism operations in Africa, and prolonging our presence in the troubled Middle East, albeit having compromised with Turkey and Russia.


There are two ways to explain these differences. First, there are different sets of advisers with divergent skills before and after the elections. Second, once in office, the President has to deal with current events and the evolving reality on the ground. For that reason, although Trump’s advisers insisted on removing a provision for offering lethal aid to Ukraine, recently President Trump authorized precisely that action because he saw that agreement with Russia on that or other issues was not panning out, and further destabilization of Ukraine threatened the markets, European allies, our defense treaty with Ukraine, and other interests. This new approach is likewise highlighted in the understanding of the National Security Strategy (NSS), where Russia plays the role of a competitor and a threat to U.S. interests, whereas during the campaign, President Trump claimed that he was looking for a friendlier approach to Russia based in mutual understanding. While some experts believe the NSS is the foreign policy doctrine of the administration and critical to its strategy, others, such as Eliot Cohen, believe that it is no more than a glimpse into the worldview of the president. The recent release of the NSS was of particular interest given that President Trump’s views are unknown and often contradictory. The final product reflects the struggles between the remnants of Steve Bannon’s populist nationalists and Jared Kushner’s politically inexperienced and non-ideological backers.


Unfortunately, understanding the multiplicity of factors that fuel the dichotomy between a president’s foreign policy vision and implementation does not provide for a quick solution. Avoiding a harmful disconnect requires first, having constant flow of intelligence from a diversity of sources on the ground, as well as more grounded expert analysis, ensuring that the president gets a clear understanding of evolving circumstances, not merely what he wishes to hear. President Trump’s conflict with the intelligence agencies complicates the flow of accurate information. Further, angry agencies are prone to leaking potentially damaging information, while the President’s open distrust of his own intelligence endangers the sensitive processes of ensuring the nation’s security. Trustworthy appointees can ensure discipline and cooperation with the new administration’s agenda. The President should keep his rebukes to private conversations or specific wrongdoers, rather than run the risk of alienating the bipartisan career officers and analysts.


Depopulating the State Department completely in the effort to “Drain the Swamp” is not sufficient to carry out the useful functions of the agency as the lack of leadership leaves the remaining career officers with access to disproportionate power. Regular interaction between field officers, diplomats, and political appointees can break down stagnation. Desk officials should spend some time in the field on rotation to avoid bureaucratic calcification, miscommunications, and cultural divides. Sometimes the entire culture of an agency may have to change with targeted hiring process and clearly enforceable directives. Finally, eliminating duplicative functions of the overwhelming number of intelligence agencies often operating at cross-purpose, cutting out the unnecessary burdensome middlemen, such as the office of the Director of National Intelligence, and giving each agency a clear focus will prevent mission creep, confusion, waste of funding, and emergence of rogue factions, distracting internal disputes, and turf wars.


One of the most common misconceptions about the nature of the foreign policy is that the policy is defined and determined by the head of state, the U.S. president. In reality, in a democratic republic, the president merely sets the broad guidelines and the tone of the foreign policy. Even if the chief executive is a micro-manager, there are many factors that contribute to implementation and the ultimate outcomes of the policy. The president may define the foreign policy vision, but it is everyone who works on its execution that ultimately determine its execution.


Irina Tsukerman is a human rights and national security attorney based in New York. She works on issues involving political dissidents and minority groups. She has written extensively for a variety of American and international publications concerning geopolitics, the Middle East, and U.S. foreign policy.


The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.