US foreign policy: muddling through, satisficing or boiling frog?
25 Aug 2014|

West Point Superintendent Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen briefs President Barack Obama prior to the United States Military Academy at West Point commencement in West Point, N.Y., May 28, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)The last couple of months have provided an opportunity to see in action President Barack Obama national security strategy articulated in his 28 May speech at West Point which was elaborated subsequently, and less formally, with a complementary doctrine of ‘don’t do stupid (stuff)…’.

Considerable effort has gone into analysing that strategy, both in these pages and elsewhere. Policy tragics are honour-bound to try to place a stated approach within established theory. Early on, Joshua Rovner attempted to classify Obama’s foreign policy approach as ‘muddling through’, the alternative term for Charles E. Lindblom’s ‘incrementalism’ model of public-policy decisionmaking. Under that model, most policy is made in ‘baby steps’, embracing improvements at a rate the polity can handle—albeit one that never quite achieves the desired objective.

That approach is contrasted often with ‘maximisation’, in which expansive, rational examination of all possible options leads to the selection and bold implementation of the ‘best’ one. Maximisation could describe some of the administration’s domestic policy initiatives, where it’s shown an appetite for strong, risky action: the Affordable Care Act was certainly bold, as are some of the ideas mooted for immigration reform. In this field, the president has led change aggressively—but not in foreign policy.

Some say Herbert Simon’s model of ‘satisficing’ or bounded rationality may better describe Obama’s foreign policy approach. Satisficing involves making policy decisions that are simply satisfactory for an adequate number of interested parties at the time, rather than optimal for the whole over the long run. As Robert Kagan has pointed out, the president tends to aim for the ‘dead centre’ of public opinion in foreign policy matters—to make decisions that minimise dissatisfaction in the electorate rather than produce the optimal long-term outcome. In this context, the ‘stupid stuff test’ for foreign policy decisions is the extent to which they unsettle current public opinion rather than the danger they may add to a future situation. So far, the electorate hasn’t demanded more of this administration’s foreign policy.

Since the West Point speech, circumstances have certainly led Obama to do some things that weren’t anticipated then, both in Iraq and in relation to Ukraine. But among some shrewd commentators there is a growing sense that responses aren’t keeping pace with developments—that the circumstances require bolder action, even if most people don’t want it, and that the administration must inform the popular debate more effectively. And those voices are coming from close to—or within—the administration: Secretary of State John Kerry and retired General John Allen have said as much in relation to ISIS in Iraq, while Hillary Clinton has pointed out the inadequacies of ‘don’t do stupid stuff’ as an organising principle for a great nation.

A preference for satisficing decisions is particularly risky given a background of shrinking US defence capacity. Projected downsizing means America won’t be able to field as much force in the future, making it all the more critical to understand the opportunity costs of satisficing (or muddling through) and to seize chances to arrest deteriorating situations (like Iraq and Ukraine).

This rather pessimistic picture calls to mind the popular American metaphor of the boiling frog, swimming happily in its pot of gradually warming water until it’s too late to jump out. For a frog, with limited options, jumping out of the pot maximises the outcome. A great power like the US, leading like-minded but less powerful countries, should instead be looking for ways to turn down the heat. Satisficing might prevent the pot from boiling over, but the water is likely to be uncomfortably hot for a long time.

Andrew Smith is an independent researcher based in the United States. Image courtesy of The White House.