PSQ prides itself on publishing scholarship created by the best and brightest in their respective fields. To highlight some of these exciting contributors and provide an in-depth look at the broader work our authors do, we bring you our Featured Author interview series. This month, we feature John P. Burke, whose article “Struggling with Standard Order: Challenges and Performance of the Trump NSC System” was included in the December 2018 issue of PSQ.
John P. Burke is the John G. McCullough Professor of Political Science at the University of Vermont. He has published nine books and over fifty articles and book chapters. His latest work is Presidential Power: Theories and Dilemmas (Westview Press: 2016). He is also the author of an important study of the president’s national security advisor: Honest Broker? The National Security Advisor and Presidential Decision Making, (Texas A&M University Press: 2009). Another area of recent and on-going research is on presidential transitions to office. Professor Burke has published a number of articles on presidential transitions and two books: Becoming President: The Bush Transition 2000-2003 and Presidential Transitions: From Politics to Practice, which focuses on the Carter, Reagan, Bush Sr., and Clinton transitions and early presidencies.
What initially sparked your interest in the national security system as it pertains to the current presidency?
Analysis of the national security system has long been an interest of mine: a number of articles over the years plus my book Honest Broker? The National Security Advisor and Presidential Decision Making, (Texas A&M University Press, 2009). That this article also covers the early Trump presidency dovetails with another long interest: presidential transitions and early presidencies. What I found particularly interesting were the difficulties this administration encountered. Even in more problematic early presidencies, such as Carter’s or Clinton’s, the national security side of things functioned relatively well. Not so in this presidency. There was turmoil on all sides of the Trump White House and, of course, the resignation of NSC advisor Michael Flynn just weeks into the new administration. This was unprecedented. Difficulties continued during H.R. McMaster’s tenure as NSC advisor. As for his successor, John Bolton, his stance as NSC advisor is certainly more aggressive and advocacy-laden than his predecessors. Finally, Trump and his decision-making proclivities loom unusually large here. This is no surprise, but the interpersonal dynamics are fascinating to study.
How do you think your work on this article will guide you in your future research?
There is a sort of conventional wisdom among those of us that study presidential decision making that the surrounding advisory system should–more or less–“fit” a president’s predilections and preferences “like a suit of clothes.” In Trump’s case, “fit” seems problematic. It raises questions concerning how advisory systems are structured and roles defined under such circumstances. McMaster, in many ways, was more of the traditional honest broker, diligently presenting options and policy analysis to a president who was apparently disinclined to read or listen. This raises the question of how might institutional resources and “reality testing” in general be brought to bear under these circumstances. Surely, Trump is not unique among executive decision makers. It is an area I would like to explore. Can problematic decision making be channeled in a direction that produces positive outcomes? Or, it a fruitless task? These are issues that now intrigue me.
What kind of response do you hope your work elicits from your readers? Ideally, what kind of critical thought do you hope your article inspires?
The article reinforces my belief that “case studies” of this sort need to be done by political scientists and taken seriously. We know the institutional history and ask questions of the material in ways that differ from historians and journalists. I also hope it furthers research on presidential decision making, advisory systems, how those who are part of them define their jobs, and how all of this is linked to performance and outcome. Much still remains unexplored even in the case of the Trump White House. I hope my work spurs further inquiry and research by other scholars. In-depth analysis here is important and it matters.