The Structures of National Security Decision Making: Leadership, Institutions, and Politics in the Carter, Reagan, and G. H. W. Bush Years

By Newmann, William W. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, June 2004 | Go to article overview

The Structures of National Security Decision Making: Leadership, Institutions, and Politics in the Carter, Reagan, and G. H. W. Bush Years


Newmann, William W., Presidential Studies Quarterly


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. …

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