In This Review

Difficult Transitions: Foreign Policy Troubles at the Outset of Presidential Power
Difficult Transitions: Foreign Policy Troubles at the Outset of Presidential Power
By Kurt M. Campbell and James B. Steinberg
Brookings Institution Press, 2008, 225 pp

The extended transition of power between presidential administrations is a unique feature of the U.S. political system -- and, Campbell and Steinberg argue in this comprehensive and useful guide, a serious vulnerability. The period of transition begins during the long presidential campaign, as power ebbs away from a lame-duck incumbent, and it continues well past inauguration day, as the new administration struggles to make key appointments, get them confirmed, and get its policies and procedures in order. The authors attribute the length of the process to two features of the U.S. political system: the length of the campaign and the unusually large number of political policy jobs that change hands from one administration to the next. (In most democracies, turnover in foreign policy staff is restricted -- perhaps the foreign minister and one or two top posts change when the government changes, but otherwise the bureaucracy carries on as before.) It is unlikely that this situation will change; Campbell and Steinberg offer suggestions on how incoming administrations can make it work better. Some of the suggestions seem utopian: make fewer dramatic campaign commitments in foreign policy, the authors urge, noting the degree to which such pledges often come back to haunt new presidents and their staffs. But others seem quite practical and helpful. One hopes that several copies of this book are circulating among senior Obama appointees -- among whom both Campbell and Steinberg are now included.