President Donald Trump speaks on the phone with Prime Minister of Australia Malcolm Turnbull, with National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, center, and chief strategist Steve Bannon, right, in the Oval Office of the White House, Jan. 28, 2017.

President Donald Trump speaks on the phone with Prime Minister of Australia Malcolm Turnbull, with National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, center, and chief strategist Steve Bannon, right, in the Oval Office of the White House, Jan. 28, 2017. Alex Brandon/AP

There's No One At the Helm of White House Foreign Policy

Flynn’s departure won’t solve the Trump administration’s central dysfunction.

There are two theories of the future of President Trump’s foreign policy and the National Security Council. In one, the good ship NSC, like a Nantucket whaler of old, has had a hard shakedown cruise, but is coming to. A couple of misfits have been tossed overboard, and the captain has given up trying to run the ship. He periodically shows up on deck to shake his fist at the moon and order a summary flogging, but for the most part he stays in his cabin emitting strange barks while competent mates and petty officers sail the NSC. It’s not pretty—the ship rolls and lurches alarmingly—but it gets where it needs to go.

This could happen. Trump, overwhelmed by a leadership task far beyond his experience and personality, will focus his efforts on infrastructure projects and the like, and quietly concede the direction of foreign policy to his sober secretaries of state and defense, with a retired general or admiral to reassemble something like an orderly White House process. He is erratic but not stupid: he knows he is in over his head, hates the bad publicity his first few weeks bought him, and has family members nudging him in this direction.

Unfortunately, another possibility is more likely: The ship is in serious trouble. The first reason is that the system cannot function with an absent commander in chief. Since World War II, the United States has evolved a system for making foreign policy that depends on an effective White House operation in the form of the National Security Council staff. (The NSC itself consists of Cabinet secretaries and the like, not aides and bureaucrats.) The elaborate hierarchy of interagency committees that evolved actually works rather well most of the time, but it depends critically on the ability of a competent staff working directly for the president to orchestrate it.

At the apex is the national security adviser, who bears the quadruple burden of directly staffing the president (with memoranda, talking points, briefings and the like); supervising the elaborate plumbing of interagency coordination; monitoring the implementation of foreign policy; and serving as the president’s chief conceptualizer. It is an awesome, nearly impossible task—and it cannot be delegated. And it only works if the national-security adviser enjoys a rapport with a president who at some level understands the need for disciplined process and teamwork across agencies. A couple of Cabinet secretaries, even with the collaboration of a docile if lower-profile national security adviser, cannot substitute for a president who is ready to listen, weigh, and decide, and do so constantly. Working around the president practically guarantees that the rigging will go slack.

The second problem has to do with this president specifically. His management model is competition among key staffers: It is how he has done business his entire life, and he is unlikely to change in his 70s. He has allowed the creation of at least three foreign-policy centers in the White House: The paralyzed NSC staff; a shadow operation run by Steve Bannon; a powerful family counselor in the person of Jared Kushner; and perhaps another in the offices of Vice President Pence and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, despairing representatives of the Republican establishment.

Trump seems to like this arrangement, which is not only confusing but built for serious conflict. Bannon’s views on foreign policy seem to diverge sharply from the establishment norm: scorn for multilateral institutions and arrangements, an apocalyptic view of Islam, a strong preference for inward looking nationalism as a creed over world leadership and norm-setting, a desire to smash and upset rather than steward and preserve. They will run headlong into the far more conventional views of the secretaries of state and defense, and the kinds of people they would like to bring into government.

The Kushner phenomenon is different. It is not clear that he has any views, although one may suppose a kind of non-ideological pragmatism to be expected of this 36-year-old businessman. But if he becomes foreign governments’ chief conduit into the administration, it undermines the bureaucracies and—because one may doubt that he is surrounded by State Department notetakers—opens the way for more miscommunication and failed coordination. There is a good reason for those pesky protocols and routines, and for the discipline of good order. Maybe a Nixon and a Kissinger could run foreign policy cutting everyone else out, but Trump is no Nixon, and there is no Kissinger in the offing.

Then there is Trump himself. He is not a tabula rasa. There is a reason why he has not merely kept Steve Bannon around, but given him a seat at the Principals Committee, composed of everyone immediately below the president. He shares many of Bannon’s views, though perhaps without the fervor and the conviction born of an autodidact’s eclectic but assiduous reading of European authoritarian writers of an earlier age. And yet, Trump will not wish to go full Bannon, either because he wants to look good rather than blow things up, or because, shallow and uninformed as he is, he can be swayed by more pragmatic advisers like Pence, Kushner, and Priebus.

The optimistic theory could prove true, if Trump appoints a forceful national security adviser and diminishes Bannon’s and Kushner’s roles. It is more likely, however, that the White House will be the scene of knife fights below decks and shouted orders and counterorders on the quarterdeck. And at the end of the day, Trump, like Captain Ahab, will probably remain topside, pursuing whatever Moby Dick his imagination has just conjured up.  That story did not end particularly well for all aboard.