Trump needs a national security adviser who ‘speaks softly’
Last Tuesday, I was haranguing a group of Indian diplomats about Indo-Pacific geopolitics when one wiseacre among them stopped me to ask about the job longevity of a U.S. national security adviser. The punchline was quick in coming: John Bolton was history, having either resigned or been invited to resign by his boss, President Donald Trump. Although sudden, the turn of events was scarcely a shocker. National security advisers come and go nowadays. Job security clearly is fleeting in an age when an icon such as Secretary of Defense James Mattis can be summarily shown the door.
Two quick points, one from a research psychologist and another from a war hero-turned-American president. The psychologist is Irving Janis, late of Yale and University of California-Berkeley. Janis wrote his masterwork, “Groupthink,” back in the 1970s. In its pages he observes that holdouts on any team confront social pressure from their peers to go along with the dominant opinion within the team, or simply remain mute rather than utter dissent. But outlying views hold value. They might be partly true; they might be entirely true; even if false, they compel purveyors of the prevailing wisdom to take a hard look at their reasoning and fix any fallacies. Janis urges top leadership in any group to appoint a “devil’s advocate” to beat back these social headwinds.
The medieval church originated the practice of consciously fanning dissent. Doing so helped the leadership evaluate candidates for sainthood. Elevating someone to this lofty status was a serious move. Accordingly, church fathers wanted the fullest possible roster of facts and opinions about any candidate to inform their deliberations. They would recruit a devil’s advocate, a jurist, to argue against the candidacy by fair means or foul. Janis likewise sees designating a red team as an invaluable function. It forced the authorities to consider arguments and counterarguments, pros and cons, before making a fateful decision. It mattered not a whit whether the devil’s advocate was right. It mattered that even zany ideas or facts of doubtful provenance enriched thinking.
So Janis exhorts group leaders to emulate church magnates from centuries past, conscripting contrary voices to widen the range of views and bolster collective deliberations and decision-making. Not only should they choose a devil’s advocate, they should make that person’s promotions, awards or bonuses contingent on playing the antagonist’s part with zeal. Set up the right incentive structure and watch the contrarian work wonders.
Back to Bolton. One well-aimed critique of the Bolton resignation/firing is that it narrows the range of foreign-policy opinion within the Trump administration, denying the president access to some views. Potentially, as Janis might prophesy, myopia might impoverish decision-making within the administration. Advisers should not speak with one voice. A cacophony of voices and views clamoring for supremacy is a boon for free societies compared to authoritarian contenders such as Communist China, where a party line constricts debate to ideological lanes and forecloses options in the process. We shouldn’t lightly forfeit our advantages by exiling devil’s advocates.
Silencing a voice, no matter how outlandish, constitutes a dubious move for any president. The commander-in-chief is under no obligation to heed counsel from any of his advisers, either in whole or in part, any more than the powers-that-be in the church hierarchy were obliged to accept recommendations from the devil’s advocate. Trump ought to listen to dissenters — and solicit contending views to enliven his own thinking.
Heterodoxy is a virtue.
Needless to say, none of this is to endorse John Bolton’s worldview. To me, Bolton always has appeared captive to the “Law of the Instrument,” the quip popularized by Abraham Maslow in the 1960s: “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” Armed force is the instrument Bolton favors. He is quick to raise the hammer in international controversies, and slow to set it down if the nail resists being driven in. In other words, he balks at terminating martial endeavors that fail to deliver results or outlive their usefulness.
That’s a problem. Strategy is about setting and enforcing priorities — and sometimes that means cutting loose longstanding commitments lest you bleed yourself dry trying to do everything, everywhere, with finite resources. Sometimes force is the right implement; sometimes it’s not. It is invariably expensive. Drawing from the armory too often tempts national overreach. America is not especially good at winding down past commitments involving force, such as Afghanistan. They have a way of lingering — and constantly siphoning away resources needed for higher priorities.
Priorities such as, say, strategic competition with China and Russia — supposedly the administration’s paramount concern.
The warrior-president is Theodore Roosevelt. He derived his approach to foreign policy from a West African proverb: “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.” Both as United Nations ambassador under George W. Bush and as Trump’s national security adviser, Bolton displayed a proclivity for speaking brusquely — to put it mildly — while waving the big stick in foreign dignitaries’ faces. In-your-face diplomacy did not carry him far, as Roosevelt might have predicted.
Teddy Roosevelt went out of his way not to affront his interlocutors in public. When European navies blockaded Venezuela in 1902 to compel Caracas to repay debts owed European bankers, President Roosevelt dispatched virtually the entire U.S. Navy battle fleet to the Caribbean Sea to shadow the European fleet and deter it from seizing South American territory in defiance of the Monroe Doctrine. So circumspect was the U.S. deployment that it took a century before historians proved it happened. The president got results through the softly, softly approach — not by putting the Kaiser or fellow European potentates on the spot and getting their dander up.
There’s wisdom there. For our next national security adviser, let’s hire a devil’s advocate who speaks his or her own mind vociferously in private and shows tact in public. Come to think of it, the man at the top might himself take a pointer from Irving Janis and Theodore Roosevelt.
James R. Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and the author of “Theodore Roosevelt and World Order: Police Power in International Relations.” The views voiced here are his alone.