The National Security Council: A Tool for Decision

governors politics senate-repeal-obamacare government congress migration visa securityKey Points

  • The United States faces a renewed period of great power competition, and the National Security Council, the principle institution for presidential national security decision-making, needs to be up to the task.
  • A disciplined, effective process that is grounded in the NSC’s statutory framework and the lessons of its history can give the president a chance to make good decisions.
  • Rather than treating the NSC as a superagency for national security matters, presidents and their staffs should see the NSC for what it is: a powerful tool to help presidents make decisions.

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America’s post–Cold War holiday from history is over, and we now face a renewed period of great power competition. Competition between the United States and its two great power competitors—China and Russia—combined with the threats of rogue states, international terrorist networks, and the proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction sets the context for American national security policymaking, as the new National Defense Strategy1 observes. To protect and advance US interests and values, American national security policymakers must shake off the rust accumulated over our long hibernation and address the current task with discipline, vigor, pragmatism, and a clear-eyed appreciation of America’s strengths.

The United States possesses enduring sources of strength, including our military might, our economic leadership, our institutions of republican self-government, and the strength of our values. To compete and win, it is essential to adapt our national security policy by realigning and coordinating US foreign policy, military strategy, economic statecraft, and other tools of national power to face a more competitive international environment. Meeting these challenges will require carefully considering the institutions and processes of national security decision-making, because the urgency of these challenges demands sharp judgment and pragmatic policymaking, supported by robust decision-making processes suited to the moment and grounded in prudence, statute, and historical practice. In particular, the tools of presidential national security decision-making through the National Security Council (NSC) should be reevaluated in the context of the emerging international order that this president and future presidents will face.

At a time of renewed challenge abroad and testing of many political institutions at home, reminding ourselves of the purposes toward which we design the institutions of national security can lay the groundwork for preserving what is good, while establishing a framework for renewal. For the presidency, that means asking fundamental questions about process and purpose. Each president makes national security decisions differently, but to be successful, the president should adhere to three key principles: (1) The president should organize, staff, and operate his NSC in a manner consistent with the institution’s statutory foundations; (2) how the president uses the NSC should be shaped by the lessons of the successes and failures of prior administrations of the postwar era, and (3) as much as possible, the NSC should do only the things that only the NSC can do. Rather than trying to reinvent the NSC to adapt to the changing international security environment, correct the perceived faults of a predecessor, or use the NSC to do things it cannot do, presidents should see the NSC for what it is: a powerful decision-making tool.

To provide the president with the right set of resources for decision-making and to oversee the implementation of those decisions require discipline and proper perspective on what the NSC is, its purpose, and what it can and cannot do. Presidents and the White Houses that serve them have a better chance at success if they treat the NSC as a staff component of the institution of the presidency with a unique and limited role and if they act as stewards of that institution with a clear recognition of the lessons of history. Under the crush of events and the responsibilities of presidential leadership, the NSC process can fail the president when it strays from the middle path laid out in its statutory foundations and institutional past.

A successful NSC does a few things well and does them the right way. It organizes decisions for the president on national security issues and oversees their implementation in a way that is consistent with the three key principles above: concurrent with the statutory foundations of the NSC, concerned exclusively with operating on the president’s behalf, and consonant with the institutional framework built over the decades since its creation.

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From - AEI.org - by Luke Strange

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