Changing Course: The Sources of Strategic Adjustment
Under what conditions will presidents change their grand strategy? Change isn’t easy, particularly for presidents and particularly at the level of grand strategy. Most presidents take office with well-formed foreign policy views, or at least a general set of foreign policy promises (often to reverse the “failures” of their predecessor). Most grand strategies are formed at the beginning of an administration and rarely change thereafter. Presidents attempting to change course must overcome cognitive biases that prefer consistency and a national security bureaucracy that “does its thing.” While we have models for major change between administrations, we lack theory for smaller adjustments within administrations.This dissertation builds a typological theory of strategic adjustment. Initially, I model adjustment as a function of: (1) strategic shock; (2) domestic political slack; (3) a president’s conceptual complexity; and (4) a president’s foreign policy experience. After conducting original archival research and three cases studies from the Truman and Eisenhower Administrations, I argue strategic shocks set processes in motion that force presidents to consider a course change and give presidents freedom to maneuver around domestic political pressures. Positive shocks put presidents in the domain of gains, making them more risk averse. Negative shocks put presidents in the domain of losses, making them more risk acceptant. The president’s foreign policy experience also influences the degree of adjustment. Presidents with higher levels of foreign policy experience can afford to take risks in response to positive shocks and can afford to resist pressure in response to negative shocks. Experienced presidents are thus more likely to make moderate adjustments when confronted with gains or losses. Presidents with lower levels of foreign policy experience, on the other hand, are less willing to take risks in response to positive shocks and are more vulnerable to charges of “weakness” and pressures to “do something” from the public and strong-willed subordinates in response to negative shocks. Inexperienced presidents are thus more likely to make no adjustment in reponse to positive shocks and major adjustments in response to negative shocks.
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