Virginia Commonwealth University
Decision making for U.S. national security is not a static process. Presidents adjust their decision-making structures from time to time when they perceive that the standard interagency procedures no longer serve their political purposes. This article identifies a distinct pattern in the evolution of national security decision structures over time by examining Carter, Reagan, and G. H. W. Bush decision making on nuclear strategy and arms control Similarities in each administration's structural changes stem from institutional and political pressures. The difference, in the shape of those changes have their origin in the idiosyncratic leadership styles of each president.
Decision making for national security is not a static process in which committee responsibilities and procedural protocols that are established during the transition function in the standard mode throughout the tenure of an administration. Presidents adjust their decision-making structures from time to time when they perceive that the standard interagency procedures no longer serve their political purposes. An earlier study of this notion examined the reasons why presidents make these adjustments (Newmann 2001). This article follows from that premise. It considers the nature of these changes by identifying the patterns within those changes and examining the causes of similarities and differences in the evolution of the structure of the presidential advisory processes in several administrations. Structure is defined as the relationships between the senior advisors and the relationships between those advisors and the president.
Two basic schools of thought define the literature on presidential decision making. An institutional approach that encompasses the governmental politics school (organizational process and bureaucratic politics models) and the new institutionalism school suggests that the nature of decision making in any administration is essentially the same. Therefore, adjustments made within one administration should resemble those made within other administrations. The idiosyncratic approach, found in presidential management models, argues the contrary: the personal leadership style of each president is the key variable in decision making. Modifications in decision-making structures from administration to administration would also be unique products of particular presidents.
This article argues that viewing these schools as mutually exclusive is an obstacle to understanding presidential decision making. An examination of the evolution in decision-making structures from administration to administration reveals much that is similar and much that is different. The similarities stem from the dynamics described in the institutional approach. The differences arise from the leadership styles of each president as illustrated within the idiosyncratic models. As a result of institutional pressures, the structure of national security decision making follows a distinct pattern of evolution over the first term of any presidential administration. Each administration begins with a standard National Security Council-based interagency process. Decision making then evolves in a predictable manner. Presidents will eventually use three concurrent structures to make decisions: a formal structure (the standard interagency process); an informal structure, in which the senior advisers meet with and without the president on a regular basis outside the interagency process; and a confidence structure, in which the president relies on one or two select advisers. The latter two are added to the decision-making mix after the administration has been in office for a time. However, the origins, use, and interactions between these structures are dependent on the leadership style of the president and will vary from administration to administration; different presidents come to rely on different structures. These ideas, particularly the notion of changes in decision making over time, will be considered by following the policy process of three case studies over an extended period of time: the Carter administration and Presidential Directive 59; the Reagan administration and the Build-Down proposal within the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START); and the G. H. W. Bush administration decisions leading to the 1989 Malta Summit.
First, this article briefly reviews the causes of change in decision-making structure. The earlier research identified the independent variables as the international and domestic political environment, the administration's organizational dynamics, and the choices made by a president. The president's role in the process is somewhat redefined to isolate three presidential variables: management strategy, political strategy, and leadership style. Essentially, this refinement of the independent variables of the previous model enables this study to focus on how the president's idiosyncratic leadership style influences the evolution of the decision structure. Second, the institutional and idiosyncratic approaches in the literature on presidential decision making in foreign and national security policy are considered. Third, a model is introduced that incorporates both approaches by developing the notion of three concurrent decision-making structures and their relationships. This model describes national security decision making as a process in which all presidents face similar pressures and adjust their policy process in similar ways. However, this evolution of those decision-making changes is significantly shaped by the president's own leadership style. The case studies will examine these ideas and a concluding section will consider the theoretical and policy implications of this work. The case studies support the conclusion that leadership matters. The successful use of all three concurrent structures depends on an individual president's personal decision-making preferences.
Causes of Change in National Security Processes
Though this article focuses on a dependent variable--how decision making changes--it is important to summarize previous work on why decision making changes. The following is a brief summary and reformulation of a previous article on the causes of change in national security decision making (Newmann 2001). Walcott and Hult's governance model suggests that there are three different sources of decision-making structure: (1) political environment; (2) presidential choice; and (3) organizational dynamics (Walcott and Hult 1995, 16-19). Political environment refers to the international and domestic political context in which a given organization operates. Presidential choice considers the president's political objectives and strategy for achieving those objectives. Organizational dynamics is a catchall category focusing on the relationships between officials, departments, and the president.
The previous work that adapted Walcott and Hult's model specifically for national security decision making argued that international and domestic political forces that affect organizational dynamics and the president's perception of those dynamics cause presidents to make changes in their decision-making processes. Importantly, these are deliberate modifications to standard procedures based on a president's sense that his administrative arrangements are no longer adequate to achieve his political objectives in a changed political environment.
For the purposes of this article, it is necessary to refine the presidential choice category, dividing it into leadership style, management strategy, and political strategy. First, management strategy refers more directly to the overall design of the administration's decision-making process. The key issues here are the National Security Council (NSC) committee structures and processes, particularly roles of the secretary of state and assistant to the president for national security affairs (ANSA). Though an administration's management strategy is influenced by the president's leadership style, it is important to examine them separately. Presidents may establish procedures under which everyone within the administration must operate, but the way in which the president chooses to interact with the system and his advisors (his leadership style) is an issue that needs special attention. Second, a president's political strategy is obviously a determinant of his policy choices, but it is also a factor in his choices about how to structure the decision process. Chandler's idea that "structure follows strategy" is important (Chandler 1962, 11-14; Child 1972). Presidents design their administration structures to achieve specific objectives, much the same way that commercial organizations operate within a specific market sector. In this case, the "market sector" is an international and domestic political environment with strategic, popular, and electoral challenges. Third, leadership style refers to the ways in which the president involves himself in the decision-making process and how he relates to his advisors as a group or individually. Importantly, both the informal and formal aspects of this are crucial (Burke and Greenstein 1989, 21, 275-79; Cyr 1982, 81; Ponder 2000, 9). Presidents may delegate; they may become deeply involved in the process; they may rely on one or two advisors or use all their advisors equally. It is this leadership style that is the focus of the idiosyncratic approach described below.
The Institution or the Individual: What Defines the Nature of Decision Making
Two competing schools of thought have attempted to describe presidential decision making (Burke 1992). The institutional approach suggests that the institutional and political context in which each president operates is essentially the same, and therefore decision making in all administrations reflects similar dynamics (governmental politics and new institutionalism). The idiosyncratic approach argues that all presidents are unique actors and will devise very personal ways of making decisions (presidential management and anecdotal evidence).
Institutional Approach: Policy Making is the Same for all Presidents. The governmental politics model is a term used to describe both the organizational and bureaucratic politics models. Both models view decision processes as a competitive struggle for control of policy between government officials and departments. Policy choices are made through negotiations among these officials and departments. They differ in their description of the motivation for a policy maker's actions. The organizational process model views an official's action as a product of his loyalty to organizational interests (Huntington 1961; Hammond 1961; Schilling, Hammond, and Snyder 1962; Allison 1969, 1971, 67-100; Halperin and Halperin 1983-1984; Allison and Zelikow 1999,. 143-96), while the bureaucratic politics model sees an official's actions as a function of his own personal interests (Allison 1969, 1971, 144-84; Allison and Halperin 1972; Halperin and Kanter 1973; Halperin 1974; Allison and Zelikow 1999, 255-324). Overall, the governmental politics model portrays a process that is defined by the institutional nature of decision making within the executive branch--separate organizations and individuals competing to see their interests become policy. Each president faces these similar institutional pressures.
The new institutionalism model, in a similar fashion, contends that administrative structure and decision making is defined by the institutional nature of the larger design of government. Initially, the new institutionalism literature considered the structure of governmental decision making to be determined by Congress and the pressure of various interest groups. The departmental structure of the government was seen as a reflection of congressional and lobby group concerns (Moe 1989). Further scholarship refocused the literature on the power of the presidency, suggesting that the president has both the motivation and managerial advantages to win decision-making struggles with Congress, interest groups, and the bureaucracy (Moe and Wilson 1994; Moe 1998). In this view, the president becomes the key actor in structuring decision making.
The difference between these models is subtle, but important. Though both see a struggle for control of the policy process and the structure of the executive branch between different political institutions and actors (the presidency, Congress, executive departments, political officials, and lobby groups), some scholars of the new institutionalism literature suggest that the president usually wins these struggles. The governmental politics models often imply that the president is deeply constrained by his own executive departments and advisors. Both, however, see the institutional decision-making context as the determinant of the nature of decision making.
The Idiosyncratic Approach: Decision Making is Unique for all Presidents. Scholars and ex-governmental officials often emphasize the idiosyncratic nature of White House management, whether in foreign or domestic policy. They contend that each president is unique. Decision-making processes must be fit to the president's individual beliefs on management and preferred decision-making style; one style of decision making does not fit all. Retired policy makers state it most forcefully. Nixon Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman argued that "each presidency is almost completely unique because it is under the constitution, an office held by one man, and that's all there is to the office of the president that one man" (Haldeman 1987, 74). Jack Watson, head of Carter's transition staff and eventually his White House chief of staff, claimed that "one of the clearest lessons is that the White House staff organization is a personal reflection of the President and what will work beautifully for one man may not work at all for the next President" (Bonafede 1976).
Analysts of presidential management strategies suggest that while individual presidents are unique, there is a pattern to the types of management strategies presidents employ. As implied by the governmental politics and new institutionalism models, presidents are in competition with other institutions and individuals for control over governmental policy. These management strategies are designed to give a president that control. Usually, discussions of these strategies focus on the senior-level advisory and decision process, in particular, how a president structures committees, review processes, and the division of labor between departments and officials. The majority of them identify management patterns, then categorize the different presidential management strategies that have been used by presidents (Johnson 1974; Porter 1980; Campbell 1986; Hermann and Preston 1994; Preston 2001). In these analyses, even if all presidents are unique actors, presidents often use strategies similar to previous presidents. A certain amount of emulation and organizational memory is involved. For example, Johnson sees three management styles used by presidents since FDR (competitive, collegial, and formalistic); Porter also sees three styles (centralized management, adhocracy, and multiple-advocacy).
Both the anecdotal analyses of policy makers and the studies of management styles focus on what is different about each presidential decision apparatus. That difference is based on the person who occupies the Oval Office. Greenstein (2000, 3) even suggests that if "some higher power" had decided to create a system where one person made a huge difference, the outcome would be very much like the U.S. form of democracy. Wildavsky's (1991) two presidencies thesis adds to this notion. It argues that presidents have much greater power in foreign affairs than in domestic affairs (Shull 1991; Fleisher and Bond 1988; Fleisher et al. 2000). If the president has such power in national security affairs, his ability to influence the process is that much greater. Three Concurrent Structures: Their Origins and Relationships
The model below agrees, in part, with both. The institutional and political contexts are relatively the same and do push all presidents toward similar administrative modifications--three concurrent structures. However, a president's own leadership style will have an important impact on the shape and nature of those changes, ultimately defining the use of and relationships between these three concurrent structures. Structure here is defined as the relationships among the senior advisors and between the senior advisors and the president. Some scholars have differentiated between structure and process (George 1980, 82). However, within this article, process will be seen as dependent on structure. The way in which decisions are made, committee debate and discussion procedures, and the formation of consensus or allowance of conflict are dependent on the relationships among the senior advisors and the president. Delineating the difference would be a task for further research.
Three Decision-making Structures. All administrations develop three concurrent or simultaneously operating decision-making structures after some time in office: the initial formal interagency structure; an informal structure in which the senior officials and the president operate within a truncated version of the NSC; and a confidence structure in which the president relies on one or two advisors more than any other. The structure of decision making is defined here as the relationships between the senior officials and between those officials and the president. This definition is used specifically to highlight the informal, even ad hoc, nature of the advisory and decision-making process. These structures may be specific committees (formal or informal …