Of all the criticisms raised against the foreign policy of U.S. President Donald Trump, the most predictable is to deplore his lack of a grand strategy. For instance, Rebecca Friedman Lissner and Micah Zenko have criticized Trump’s “anti-strategic” foreign policy and inability to “develop and execute a purposive course of action over time.” Others concede that although Trump does indeed have a grand strategy, it is ill conceived and insufficient. Colin Kahl and Hal Brands write that Trump’s “America first” platform, though recognizably strategic, is “plagued by internal tensions and dilemmas that will make it difficult to achieve the president’s stated objectives.”
These criticisms share a crucial assumption: that a grand strategy—a coherent, long-term plan for ordering national objectives and devising realistic methods to achieve them—is the key to a successful foreign policy. But as I argue in my new book, this assumption is unwarranted. In a complex world where leaders’ knowledge is always inadequate, foreign policy victories are often won through improvisation, incrementalism, and adaptation to changing circumstances—an approach that I call “emergent strategy,” since its contours emerge over time instead of being planned in advance. Although the wisdom of Trump’s specific decisions remains to be seen, critics are wrong to suggest that his lack of a grand strategy, or pursuit of an ill-conceived one, is necessarily fatal. In fact, U.S. presidents from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan have often used an emergent strategy to improvise their way to success.
DRIVING IN THE DARK
In theory, the case for grand strategy appears strong. In What Good Is Grand Strategy?, Hal Brands argues that grand strategy forms a “conceptual framework that helps nations determine where they want to go and how they ought to get there.” The alternative is usually said to consist of ad hoc, incoherent, and ultimately unsuccessful decision-making. According to Josef Joffe of the Hoover Institute, “Great powers . . . don’t formulate strategy on the fly. They must have a strategy beforehand, one based on power and purpose that tells challengers what to expect.”
Grand strategy’s weaknesses, on the other hand, are almost entirely practical. The major obstacle to designing a successful grand strategy lies in the difficulty of accurately assessing the threats and opportunities presented by the international security environment and predicting how these will change in the future. Successful strategies can form without being fully formulated in advance.
Such confidence in strategic foresight is unsupported by the social science research on the accuracy of expert predictions. In his book Expert Political Judgment, the University of Pennsylvania professor Philip Tetlock famously observed that “when we pit experts against minimalist performance benchmarks—dilettantes, dart-throwing chimps, and assorted extrapolation algorithms—we find few signs that expertise translates into greater ability to make either ‘well calibrated’ or ‘discriminating’ forecasts.” When it comes to long-range strategic planning, that is, policymakers are usually “driving in the dark.”
Emergent strategy, on the other hand, assumes the ends as well as the means should change based on circumstances. Successful strategies, that is, can form without being fully formulated in advance—and indeed, the complexity of the world often makes such formulations impossible. The important thing is not to plan but to learn.
Much of the literature on emergent strategy today comes from the business world, where strategists have begun to shift their focus from long-term planning to a more incremental and adaptive method of decision-making. One of the most influential proponents of this shift, the management theorist Henry Mintzberg, describes the difference between emergent strategy and what he calls “deliberate strategy” as follows: “Deliberate strategy focuses on control—making sure that managerial intentions are realized in action—while emergent strategy emphasizes learning—coming to understand through the taking of actions what those intentions should be in the first place.” In other words, one’s goals could change during the strategy-making process based on the lessons learned while pursuing the initial goals.
The growing popularity of emergent strategy in the business world, however, has not bled over into the national security community. This despite the fact that some of the greatest success stories of U.S. strategy during the Cold War can be much better explained by the emergent strategy paradigm than by the grand strategy one.
One such success was the formation of the so-called containment doctrine in the 1940s, when the United States committed itself to opposing Soviet expansionism and global communism. The dominant narrative credits the U.S. diplomat George Kennan with designing containment as a grand strategy, famously laid out in Kennan’s 1946 “long telegram” (later published as an article in Foreign Affairs). In it, Kennan argued that “Soviet pressure” could be “contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy.”
Yet the view that containment was a grand strategy is grounded more on myth than on historical evidence. Although Kennan’s ideas contributed in some ways to the formation of U.S. strategy in the 1940s, many of the most successful elements of Truman’s actual containment policy, such as NATO, the Marshall Plan, and the Truman Doctrine, came out of an emergent process and were in fact at odds with Kennan’s grand designs.
The Truman administration arrived at these different elements between 1947 and 1950 through a process of incremental decision-making and emergent learning. Take the formation of NATO. In a 1948 report, Kennan argued that U.S. policy should be directed “toward the eventual peaceful withdrawal of both the United States and the U.S.S.R. from the heart of Europe.” Bringing the European countries already participating in the Marshall Plan into the alliance, Kennan feared, would mean “a final militarization of the present dividing-line through Europe.” Kennan and his Policy Planning Staff therefore argued that the United States should merely offer a “unilateral guarantee in the form of a presidential declaration similar to the Monroe Doctrine.”
Even as Kennan advocated against the formation of a permanent military treaty, NATO came about as a result of the efforts of British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin to find a way to “stem the further encroachment of the Soviet tide” in Western Europe. Although he never proposed directly to his American counterparts a formal treaty or military alliance, Bevin’s request for “an understanding backed by power, money and resolution” to oppose “Soviet infiltration” set in motion the series of negotiations, led by the U.S. diplomat John D. Hickerson and his allies inside the State Department, between the United States, Canada, and Europe over the next year that led to the adoption of the North Atlantic Treaty.
In short, the creation of NATO took place despite, not because of, the planning done inside the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, and the treaty itself contravened many of Kennan’s state aims. Kennan focused on narrowly containing the Soviet Union, while Truman decided to oppose communist ideology itself; Kennan wanted a primarily psychological cold war (won through propaganda and influencing elections), while Truman militarized it through NATO; Kennan thought it was worth protecting Eurasia and Japan only to maintain the balance of power, while Truman had a universalist outlook based on the ideological threat to free societies worldwide; and Kennan wanted to foster the emergence of a neutral Western Europe, not, as Truman decided, for Washington to lead the West in a bipolar struggle against Moscow.
The formation of NATO is not the only foreign policy decision to have its origin in a process of emergent learning—so too did the creation of the Marshall Plan and Reagan’s negotiations with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev at the 1986 Reykjavik Summit, which led to the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union. In each of these instances, grand strategic designs were subordinated to what made sense in the moment.
AN EMERGENT TRUMP DOCTRINE?
Over the last year, Trump has been criticized both for pursuing the wrong grand strategy and for lacking one altogether. The administration’s defenders have pointed in turn to some promising policy outcomes and argued that Trump might be following a more traditional Republican script than his critics contend. Some believe he has simply gotten lucky.
A better explanation for the administration’s more successful decisions, such as his softening of the rhetoric and diplomatic initiative with North Korea and his stronger than expected policy vis-à-vis Russian interests in Ukraine and Syria, is that Trump’s improvisational style is in line with the tenets of the emergent strategy model. Do these shifts on North Korea and Russia show the administration is learning and adapting, as opposed to simply engaging in ad hoc guesswork?
Maybe. The key test for the Trump administration’s strategic performance is not whether it is pursuing some long-term plan behind the scenes but whether it is capable of allowing a successful strategy to develop incrementally. In other words, to the extent that the administration can pursue an emergent strategy, its deviations from the tenets of the grand strategy school should not preclude it from succeeding on the world stage.