President Trump CEO, part 1: Setting Strategy

 

Part of President Trump’s great appeal is that he’s perceived as a successful businessperson. He’s even been talked about as being a President with CEO experience.

My article on the duties, responsibilities, and job description of a CEO, lays out four inherent parts of a CEO’s job. These are the parts of the job that, by definition, make a CEO a CEO. The CEO can delegate some things, but others simply can’t be delegated. Setting strategy is one of a CEO’s main duties.

Setting strategy

The CEO ultimately sets the strategy for a company. For a company, that means external, competitive strategy (how do we win in the marketplace against competitors) and internal strategy—how do we best use our internal resources in pursuit of success.

Strategic decisions generally have huge implications for a company or country. They involve moving time, effort, and money from one set of goals to another. They usually represent a multi-year commitment, whose effects won’t be seen until substantial investment is made. So strategic decisions are usually given a lot of thought and analysis.

Unlike businesses, countries don’t use economics as the only measuring stick. The goal isn’t to win against the competition. The goal is to provide a safe environment for the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness of the residents. The outward-looking strategy certainly has economic components (e.g. tariffs, trade agreements, tax treatment of overseas corporations), but it also involves strategy around war and conflict, around global resource allocation, and around solving global problems that require cooperation between nations.

External strategy is complicated for a country

President Trump has made it clear that we will no longer be the world’s policeman, without compensation. That’s taking an economic approach to strategy.

That’s one piece of the puzzle. Unlike in business, however, countries deal in currencies other than money. Global problems affect us whether we want them to or not. China’s coal-fired power plants cause atmospheric pollution whose effects we feel. Power vacuums in the Middle East gave rise to terrorist groups like ISIS (ironically in response to our leaving Iraq too soon).

That’s what foreign policy is all about. It’s how we relate to the world stage vis-a-vis world problems. In America, the buck stops with the President when it comes to foreign policy.

There are a lot more moving parts when it comes to a country’s external strategy. External strategy needs to blend economics, diplomacy, war, foreign aid, and probably other things as well, if we’re to maximize our country’s well-being.

On his first weekday in office, today, he has already pulled out of the Asian-Pacific Trade Pact and the TPP. He is clearly sending strategic signals, that America will be withdrawing from free trade deals, with the hope that it will bring jobs back to America. Whether it does or not remains to be seen.

Between the time I wrote the last paragraph and this one, Trump has also actually given orders to build a wall with Mexico, and has discussed pulling out of NAFTA. The speed of these orders and lack of discussion given to the implications suggest to me that these strategic-level decisions are being made dangerously quickly.

Non-economic issues matter to a country’s external strategy

So far, the non-economic elements of Trump’s strategy are a mixed bag. He’s done some things that have horrified career diplomats, such as hinting that the US will pull out of NATO. That may be a negotiating strategy designed to get other countries to foot their part of the bill (an economic strategy). And at the same time, the rest of the world is looking at the non-economic elements (their own safety) of that statement.

His foreign policy might be brilliant. It might encourage other countries to fall in line behind us. Or it might scare others into shifting alliances and finding ways to need the United States less, which ultimately gives us less power in the world and less influence in world events that may affect us.

If it’s true that Trump is actually being manipulated by Russia, presumably Putin is doing so to the advantage of Russia, and not to the advantage of the U.S. But that’s probably a determination that will have to be made in hindsight.

There is already a motion on the house floor for America to pull out of the United Nations. That’s the kind of move that has huge potential repercussions. Some of those are psychological, but some are quite concrete. If we leave the U.N., and the remaining countries in the U.N. remain and act as a single body, we’ve just given up any sway we had as part of any issues the organization addresses.

I don’t think we can draw any conclusions, yet. He’s pulling a lot of levers very quickly, and we haven’t yet seen how the effects ripple through the world.

What he’s doing on the non-economic dimensions seems scary to me, but … he could be right. What he’s doing is drastic. Strategically? Just as we can’t know what the final benefits of his strategy will be, we also don’t know what unintended consequences such a strategy might have.

Internal strategy

Internal strategy is determining how best to use the resources of the country to increase overall well-being.

This one’s tricky; I don’t understand even a small number of the issues myself. As for national building blocks of well-being, here are some of the ones I am thinking of:

  • a population of 300 million
  • a public school system
  • certain publicly owned natural resources
  • an electrical grid
  • physical infrastructure
  • farmland
  • a market-based economic system
  • financial markets

The question is whether our CEO has any strategy that explores the interdependencies between these things over the next several decades, and whether our CEO has any strategy for how to combine them to help our country succeed.

Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t. I haven’t been convinced that any President in my lifetime has had much of an overall strategy. They all seem to have fragments of strategies for each area, largely disconnected from one another. Since all of those things influence each other, the one approach we know is probably wrong is to treat them as silos.

From what little I’ve heard Trump say, I don’t think he has any kind of sophisticated strategy for best using our internal resources. This does not make him unusual, however. If any other candidate, or any President I’ve heard in my lifetime, has had such a strategy, they’ve never talked about it in public.

Trump’s appointment of non-scientists to posts which require scientific knowledge (or at least the understanding of what science is and how it works) is worrisome. America’s strength over the last century and a half has come from our technological progress, on which we’ve built our economic and business progress.

We’ve already ceded several important industries to other countries: manufacturing, computer hardware and electronics fabrication, etc. Now’s the time to be doubling down on education and scientific infrastructure that can form the basis for American and world prosperity for the next century. My impression is that Trump is going in exactly the opposite direction.

Summary

Trump is making rapid-fire strategic decisions that have global and local implications for the economy, for the environment, for the future of our national competitiveness, and for our safety. On the surface, his policy decisions seem to be made as a hodge podge of campaign promises, not as part of an integrated strategy that takes into account the multiple dimensions of his actions.

While it’s too early to tell how his strategies will play out, I’m pessimistic. In my experience, big, complex decisions made hastily don’t often lead to success.

 

Part 2 of President Trump CEO, continued…

President Trump, viewed as a CEO, part 1

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