NSC Reform for the Post–Cold War Era

The National Security Act of 1947 created the framework and institutional structures that dominate American national security decision making today. The act popularized a term—“national security”—that was to be the province of no single agency of the United States government, and established a cabinet-level committee charged with advising the president on the “integration” of the various aspects of national security policy. This National Security Council (NSC) and its supporting staff would eventually form the apex of a complex system of executive-branch policymaking that has few counterparts elsewhere in the world.

That the NSC system served the nation well, on the whole, throughout the vicissitudes of the Cold War is generally accepted. The available evidence suggests that the NSC more than proved its utility as a vehicle for presidential intervention in the national security policy process and for the reconciliation of conflicting agency perspectives. Indeed, where American policymakers most visibly stumbled (e.g., Korea in the fall of 1950, the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, the Iran-contra scandal), formal NSC mechanisms were—not coincidentally— least employed.

What, then, of the present utility of the U.S. national security apparatus? Does the post–Cold War international environment invite or require fundamental rethinking of the meaning of national security and the way the U.S. government is organized to deal with the range of security issues it faces?

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