A NEW NSC FOR A NEW ADMINISTRATION
Ivo H. Daalder I.M. Destler
In this policy brief, two veteran NSC watchers offer their views on how to avoid past NSC
pitfalls. They identify eight "back to basics" features of an effective NSC, and argue that it
is necessary to refocus the NSC on its most critical function: coordination of the policy
One of the most important choices any presidentelect must make is how to organize and staff the National Security Council (NSC). Chief executives from John Fitzgerald Kennedy to William Jefferson Clinton have found their foreign policy held hostage to the management choices they made between election and inauguration.
Today's challenge is to refocus the organization on its primary, critical role. For as it has grown in size, the NSC has become more like an agency than a presidential staff. It is immersed in policy detail and focuses predominantly on the short term. It does not give sufficient attention to the critical task that it alone can perform: coordinating the policy process so that, simultaneously, agencies get a full and fair hearing and the president can make clear foreign policy choices in a timely manner.
The new president must ensure that this key function is restored. To do so, he must cut the NSC's size, simplify its structure, and enhance its seniority.
The NSC was established in 1947 to integrate U.S. foreign and defense policy. By law, the Council is the United States government's most exalted official committee, composed of just four members: the president, vice president, secretary of state, and secretary of defense. In practice, the NSC has become a presidential staff of foreign policy experts headed by the assistant to the president for national security affairs, who has been a key foreign policy player in every administration since John F. Kennedy's.
Over the years, the NSC has expanded from a small, presidential staff of about ten policy people in the early 1960s to what is today a fully ensconced, agency-like organization of 225 people, including about 100 substantive professionals. This organization has its own perspective on the myriad of national security issues confronting the government. It has become less like a staff and more like an operating agency. With its own press, legislative, communication, and speechmaking offices, the NSC today conducts ongoing relations with the media, Congress, the American public, and foreign governments.
There are compelling reasons why the NSC has evolved in this way. But this evolution has created serious problems. As the NSC has become more like an agency, it has become less flexible and less adaptable, and its procedures more rigid and bureaucratic. Moreover, with its immersion in policy detail, the predominant focus of its work has become short term, with the
Reprinted with permission from the Brookings Institution.
Ivo H. Daalder is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former NSC staff member under President Clinton. I.M. Destler is
a professor at the School of Public Affairs at the University of Maryland.