Shadow Government

What the Next President Should Learn From This One: Process Matters

Good policy won't fix anything if the system is broken.


What should the next president do to deal with the foreign policy mess they will inherit from the current president?

That is the question a group of foreign policy and national security thinkers associated with the John Hay Initiative (JHI) set out to answer in a new ebook, Choosing to Lead. The JHI is a group of Republican advisors who have worked to elevate the foreign policy debate over the past couple years. The idea is to be an A-to-Z collection of specialists who can brief leaders on a range of topics and at whatever level of granularity is required.

Will Inboden, my Shadow Government co-conspirator, and I head up the Strategic Planning team of JHI and in that capacity have coordinated the efforts of about 20 other folks examining cross-cutting themes and the larger strategic considerations of foreign policy.

Will and I also wrote one of the chapters in Choosing to Lead: the one addressing the organizational structure of foreign policy and national security policymaking, “Implementing an Effective Foreign Policy.” The premise of our chapter is that it is not enough for the next president to settle on the right policies — he or she must also be able to implement them more effectively than the current administration has.

The short version? Process and structure matter. Good process can help lead to good policy. Good process can ensure that good policies are actually implemented. Bad process can undermine good policy. Bad process can greatly exacerbate bad policy.

We explore various lessons learned from recent administrations, and recommend some changes, including: going to greater lengths to avoid the politicization of national security policy; improving civil-military relations by more effectively integrating military advice into the decision-making process and resisting the temptation to hide behind the political popularity of the uniformed military; ensuring that the president’s closest circle of advisors includes more national security expertise and that those without such expertise are not loose cannons in the process; and so on.

Every administration’s policymaking structure adapts first to conform to the personality and style of the president and second to adjust as the president develops more experience.

Effective structures are those that do more than merely conform to the president’s style, however. They also, and more importantly, are designed to mitigate the downsides of that presidential style. If the president is inclined to insularity and over-confidence in his or her own judgments, a good process can bring alternative viewpoints into the room, making sure that the valid critiques of the policies that suit the president’s reflexes are fully aired and understood. If the president is inclined to excessive delay and indecision, a good process can tee up decisions in a timelier manner and ensure that the president is fully aware of the costs of inaction as well as action.

Of greatest importance, a good process can help a president learn from his mistakes. By most accounts, President George W. Bush was precisely such a “learning president” and did have both better process and better policy in the second term than in the first. Not so with President Barack Obama.

In fact, in what reads almost like an Onion parody, when President Obama does stop to reflect on how his policies are failing, he tells the press that the lesson he learns from them is that he has been right all along. This is a clear sign of dysfunctional process: that the president is inside a bubble and not being obliged to wrestle with well-argued, thoughtful critiques.

We do not argue that better process would have avoided all of the manifold problems this administration will bequeath to the next. But we do argue that the next president will need to have a better process in order to get the country out of the foreign policy ditch we have landed in.

As they say, read the whole thing and tell us what you think.

Anthony Behar-Pool/Getty Images

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.

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