Orchestrating Foreign Policy: US Interagency Decisions Post-September 11. (Perspectives)

By Col. Kaufmann, Greg | Harvard International Review, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Orchestrating Foreign Policy: US Interagency Decisions Post-September 11. (Perspectives)


Col. Kaufmann, Greg, Harvard International Review


The terrorist attacks of September 11 provided the US government with a rallying point around which a coherent worldview and agenda for international engagement could coalesce. Since that time, the public has faced a flood of analysis and commentary on the actions taken by the administration of US President George Bush, spanning the spectrum in tone from condemnatory to congratulatory. Public media outlets are expected to provide opposing viewpoints on issues, and public commentary in the United States often reflects discussions conducted behind the doors of the White House Situation Room. This public debate is encouraging because it indicates that the US national security and foreign policy interagency process must be similarly contentious, taking into account various views before making decisions.

Prior to September 11, many commentators bemoaned the emerging unilateralist predilection of the Bush administration, as signaled by its rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, approach to the Middle East conflict, and plans for missile defense. The supposed lack of cooperative international engagement was often attributed to the US-centric philosophy that characterizes the conservatives in the administration. As the initial months of the Bush presidency passed, the focus moved to the roles and influence of the various executive agencies. Increasingly, the commentary turned to the role of the US State Department, particularly its lack of involvement in crucial matters and its tension with the US Department of Defense, as well as the role of its acknowledged moderate leader, US Secretary of State Colin Powell.

A quick review of the major US news stories in the month preceding September 11 indicates an increasing puzzlement at Powell's perceived lack of assertiveness. Who can miss the irony of the September 10 issue of Time magazine, which ran a cover story with the headline, "Where Have You Gone, Colin Powell?" Fortunately for the United States, Powell was exactly where he should have been: at the table, lending his considerable experience and informed voice to the government's deliberations.

While it is certainly possible to find examples of continued US unilateralism today, the September 11 attacks have given rise to a multilateralism that could hardly have been envisioned previously. This is not a shock to anyone remotely familiar with the interagency process by which US national security decisions are formulated, debated, and implemented.

Observers understand the interagency process to be polyphonic in nature. This dialectic of juxtaposed, competing voices drives at a basic principle of foreign-policy formulation in times of crisis: the need for a coherent and coordinated application of instruments of national power in the national interest. The accumulation of these instruments' results usually determines the effectiveness of any chosen course of action. The fact that the new, complex security threat facing the United States after September 11 has inspired a measured yet encompassing approach in the administration is a positive sign because it illustrates the presence of effectual cooperation.

Instruments of National Power

As outlined in the US national security doctrine, there are four instruments of national power: diplomatic, military, economic, and informational. The purpose of the interagency process is to develop an agreed national approach that maximizes the coordinated application of these instruments. At any given time, one specific instrument may necessarily be preferred over others, depending on the aims of the current phase pursued.

Based upon the drastic change in the perception of Powell's role before, during, and after September 11, it appears that the overriding approach has been rooted in the diplomatic powers, and their emerging importance can be traced easily. In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks, national and international interest groups were worried that the United States would strike out blindly in retaliation, especially given the previous administration's pattern of reprisals. …

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