Trump Doesn't Need a Grand Strategy

Why Planning Is Overrated

Trump at the White House, May 2018. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

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.


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

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