The American Interest

Rumors of War

By the seventh month of Donald Trump’s presidency a surreal quality to U.S. foreign policy decision-making had become evident.  It is at odds with both the theoretical model and historical practice.

When we talk of the “behavior” of states, what we have in mind is the process of decision-makers defining objectives, selecting specific courses of action conducive to their attainment, and allocating resources proportionate to the perceived value of those objectives.  All along it is assumed that the state—especially a great power—is a rational and unitary actor.  Decisions and their implementation may be on the whole good (the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, defending Korea, the Cuban missile crisis) or bad (the Bay of Pigs, Tonkin/Vietnam, interventions in the Balkans and the Middle East), but the process of framing problems, reaching decisions, and implementing them had been based on a standard mechanism, known and accepted as both legal and legitimate.

In today’s Washington, the foreign policy decision-making process has become arguably more diffuse than ever before in this nation’s history.   Last July, Congress enacted legislation imposing new sanctions on Russia and limiting Trump’s authority to lift them on his own.  This was done despite objections from the White House.  On a key foreign-policy issue, the President was thus barred from...

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