Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Strategic Planning for the Next President, Part Two: Recommendations for the NSC Process

Strategic Planning for the Next President, Part Two: Recommendations for the NSC Process


This is the second in a series of three essays on the challenge of strategic foreign policy planning for the next administration. In Part One, I described problems with the national security decision-making process under the current president, then considered and rebutted the argument that any sort of strategy in US foreign policy is impossible. Here in Part Two, I outline the uses of strategic planning, and put forward specific recommendations for an improved decision-making process. In Part Three, I will offer some guidelines for the substance of an alternate US strategic direction.


On January 20, 2017, the next American president will inherit a powerful array of international challenges, capabilities, and opportunities. Apart from the naturally current focus on the election season itself, the various presidential campaigns and their leading foreign policy advisers would benefit from thinking through how they plan to tackle these international security challenges, not only country by country, but overall. A genuinely prudent US foreign policy strategy, starting in 2017, would involve a shift toward a different presidential decision-making style along with a shift in overall direction. In terms of decision-making style, if a president wanted to impose greater order and coherence on US foreign policy strategy, it would certainly be possible to do so. Based on both recent and historical experience, a variety of instruments might be developed. These are laid out in the essay below. In truth, the precise organizational flowchart adopted is less important than the fact of genuine interest and trust from the top down. No formal arrangement for strategic planning will avail if it does not fit the personality of the president, or if it does not have his confidence. On the other hand, any one of several mechanisms could help considerably if a president decided to get serious about conceiving, developing and imposing a successful strategy on US foreign and security policies. Since these are literally matters of life and death, getting serious would seem appropriate.

The Uses of Strategic Planning

Crushing time constraints on top US foreign policy officials these days leave precious few moments to think strategically. In his memoir, George Shultz wrote that he had his own private routine for strategic planning, first developed as Secretary of Labor, and then used as Secretary of State:

In any day, or certainly any week, I would block out periods of time when nothing was scheduled and I wasn’t going to deal with things in my “in” box. I was going to sit with a piece of paper and think ahead about key problems, ways of getting at them, what I wanted to work on, and what I wanted to cause others to work on. This was my own personal version of policy planning.[1]

A good model for any cabinet official, or indeed any president. And proper staffing arrangements can help. Dean Acheson records that when George Marshall established a policy planning staff at the State Department in 1947, he intended it:

To look ahead, not into the distant future, but beyond the vision of the operating officers caught in the smoke and crises of current battles; far enough ahead to see the emerging forms of things to come and outline what should be done to meet or anticipate them.[2]

Or in Marshall’s own characteristically trenchant instructions: “avoid trivia.”[3]

A coherent strategic planning process can assist the president and his leading foreign policy advisers in several ways. Aaron Friedberg suggests four.[4] First, it can help them to consider and develop alternative strategies and courses of action in a systematic fashion, weighing explicitly the costs and benefits of each. Second, it can help policymakers to assess current strategies, including whether existing policies are actually working, along with recommended adjustments if they are not. Third, it can help them to identify some possible high-impact future contingencies, including recommended policy responses should these contingencies occur. Fourth, it can help them to recognize key long-term trends or emerging issues of potential significance for ongoing policy, and think through the potential implications.

In order to be genuinely strategic, all such planning must necessarily factor in the current and possible future reactions and responses of international adversaries, along with possible US counter-reactions and adjustments. There is no pretense here that any such ‘plans’ can be carried out to the letter operationally. Indeed the failure to adapt day-to-day to international events would itself be un-strategic. Yet there is ample evidence to indicate that a more rational strategic planning process both can and could contribute to an improvement in the quality of US foreign policy decision-making. Dwight Eisenhower himself suggested, based upon his own considerable experience, that while plans necessarily change, the process of strategic planning is indispensable, because it helps decision-makers better respond to actual events.[5]

One might assume that given the resources and expertise available to the federal government, this kind of planning is already done. Yet all too often it isn’t, at least not in a coordinated and impactful manner. As Friedberg notes, the consequences in such cases have frequently been misallocated resources, suboptimal policies, duplication of effort, lost opportunities, costly improvisation, and even catastrophic failure. Significant improvements to the National Security Council (NSC) decision-making process are possible. Here are six specific recommendations:[6]

  • Develop and execute a meaningful national security strategy early on.
  • Restore a proper balance of responsibilities between the NSC and line departments and agencies.
  • Appoint a strong national security advisor to play the role of genuine honest broker, policy entrepreneur, and presidential agent.
  • Appoint and empower a strategic planning directorate on the NSC staff.
  • Create an effective strategic planning board.
  • Learn from private sector experience.
  1. Develop and execute a meaningful national security strategy early on.

Ever since the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, presidents have produced a public national security strategy roughly every four years. A common criticism of these types of documents is that they rationalize existing policies more than guide them.[7] Certainly this would seem to be the case with the 2015 National Security Strategy (NSS), which calls for “strategic patience” in allowing existing policies to work, reveals limited conceptual learning since 2009, and seems oddly disconnected from pressing challenges in numerous regions overseas.[8] To be fair, there is a persistent problem in terms of the timing of these quadrennial statements. Such documents can take months or even years to produce, and in the meantime, US officials in relevant departments and agencies must act upon events and implement what they understand to be the president’s policy.[9] Still, abolishing a national security strategy of any kind would be unlikely to improve the quality of US foreign policy. A better course would be to take it seriously.

Part of the dilemma lies in formulating and implementing a proper national security strategy when that strategy is required to be public.[10] Critics such as David Edelstein and Ronald Krebs suggest in their recent Foreign Affairs article that what’s needed in US security strategy is “meaningful transparency” and “more regular venues for officials to articulate the logic behind policy.”[11] This is a strange conclusion to draw in the age of Julian Assange and Bradley/Chelsea Manning. By any reasonable comparative or historical standard, American foreign policy is formed, debated, and then regularly leaked in a way that is astonishingly public. How is the United States supposed to compete with serious adversaries internationally, if its every thought and move is deliberately signaled to these same adversaries ahead of time? The debate over US foreign policy already too often resembles a circus. What’s needed is not an even bigger carnival tent, but some sort of rational process whereby a popularly elected president can formulate a coherent American security strategy with fair expectation of discretion.[12]

As Paul Lettow and Thomas Mahnken have suggested, the example of the Reagan administration is useful here.[13] Early in his presidency, and even prior to entering the White House, Ronald Reagan developed a conceptual framework for pressuring and weakening the Soviet bloc worldwide through a variety of political, military, economic, technological, ideological, and diplomatic tools. The details of this strategy didn’t come together all at once, and its precise implementation was naturally the subject of serious internal bureaucratic debate once he was in office. But documentary evidence clearly indicates that Reagan had a distinct, self-conscious approach for competing with the Soviet Union relentlessly — and the development and execution of a classified national security strategy early on was crucial to that effort.[14] The president’s National Security Decision Directive 32 (NSDD-32) from May 1982, entitled US National Security Strategy, declared the administration’s aim was “to contain and reverse the expansion of Soviet control and military presence throughout the world,” to “weaken the Soviet alliance system by forcing the USSR to bear the burden of its economic shortcomings, and to encourage long-term liberalizing and nationalist tendencies within the Soviet Union and allied countries.”[15] In order to produce this document, Reagan’s National Security Advisor and NSC staff led an extensive, rigorous, classified interagency planning effort that helped guide the administration’s policy successfully over the course of two terms. Despite hostile caricatures of Reagan at the time, the president was personally invested in this process – generally businesslike, diligent, and in charge of the key decisions. Further presidential strategy directives flowed from NSDD-32, laying out policies for specific regional and functional issues with appropriate flexibility. These directives were then sent out to the relevant departments and agencies to be implemented – an expectation that was enforced by the White House.[16]

The next president should follow Reagan’s example, and develop a classified national security strategy early in his administration to help guide a successful foreign policy. He can then decide how much to make public, in order to build support from allies, Congress, and public opinion. At the very least, a classified annex to a public document could help to ensure the kind of frank internal discussion and direction necessary for genuine strategic analysis. Streams of classified papers can also be commissioned to flow from such a document.

These strategy documents are valuable mainly and only insofar as they constitute a relatively brief, crisp, timely encapsulation and description of the president’s aims. The current interagency paper churn should therefore be reformed and simplified in that direction, in cooperation with Congress.[17] It might even be worth considering short annual white papers with classified annexes as a substitute for the current variety of strategy reports, a few of which – like the Quadrennial Defense Review – are truly gargantuan exercises. The important thing for the next president is to have some kind of early, streamlined opportunity for genuine strategic planning, in whatever precise form that takes. As Jordan Tama argues in a recent issue of Political Science Quarterly:

The American public would probably be better served by a system wherein the White House directs a comprehensive interagency national security planning process at the outset of an administration that generates both the public NSS and classified guidance regarding priorities and key policies, to be followed by more narrow reviews by individual agencies aimed at implementing the output of the interagency process – with the precise timeline for those follow-on reviews set by the White House. Limiting the scope of the agency reviews to implementation of the interagency review would also reduce the number of person-hours spent on the agency reviews.[18]

A sensible, reformed national security strategy process can be used to drive interagency planning and set the agenda so that the United States takes the initiative internationally, rather than constantly allowing its adversaries to do so. Any such strategy released by the White House does have the great advantage that by definition it is an authoritative description of the president’s views. This forces officials at high levels to think about the president’s priorities and worldview in a systematic way, and to confront tensions or contradictions within existing US policies.[19] The response to valid criticisms of the current NSS process is therefore to give it real impact: treat it as an opening opportunity for an administration-wide exercise in basic strategic thought. This can be a chance for incoming officials to think through fundamental issues, including long-term trends and challenges; establish some hierarchy of goals, priorities, and threats; consider how the policy pieces fit together; and start building internal consensus and cohesion, by giving everyone their say upfront. The beginning of a new administration is exactly the right time to do this. For all of these reasons, the prompt completion of a serious national security strategy should be a top priority for the next president.[20]

  1. Restore a proper balance of responsibilities between the NSC and line departments and agencies.

The Obama White House mimics the hyper-centralization of the Nixon-Kissinger foreign policy team without their geopolitical aptitude. The unfortunate result has been NSC micromanagement and indecision simultaneously.[21] The execution of policy should be treated as the province of agencies and departments that actually have their hands on the tools of implementation. The proper role of the National Security Advisor and their staff is to manage the interagency process and arm the president for policy engagement – to monitor what is going on inside government, generate ideas for presidential initiatives, and provide the president with the wherewithal to make decisions and conduct foreign policy successfully.[22] The overarching size of the NSC staff should therefore be reduced from its current excess level. It should be a relatively flat, streamlined, and elite group, with the appropriate mix of political appointees and career detailees in regional and functional directorates. They should each be able to handle multiple topics, and to work together with collegiality and discretion. Senior positions should have some prior stature in the policy world. They should furthermore have some incoming awareness of the specific instruments available to help develop and implement the president’s policies.

NSC staff can help to improve the quality of information search. Like the National Security Advisor, they can play the role of honest broker, and also an entrepreneurial role that respects the prerogatives of line departments and agencies while ensuring the president’s options are not limited to those favored by the interagency. NSC staff should ensure that interagency perspectives are included in the policy development process. They should further ensure that deputies and principals committee meetings do not consume too much valuable interagency time. Departments and agencies should, in turn, send appropriately senior representatives to participate in NSC meetings, and then faithfully implement the president’s policies once decided. This would be the implicit struck bargain of a functional interagency process headed by the NSC.[23]

Overall, the next administration should restore a proper balance of responsibilities between NSC staff on the one hand, and the various departments and agencies on the other. NSC staff should bring up to the deputy level those issues — and only those issues — requiring senior-level attention.[24] They should reach out and build informal relationships with staff across the various agencies who may not frequent interagency meetings, but are running critical initiatives and implementing policies within the bureaucracy.[25] As stated by Peter Feaver and William Inboden, both of whom worked in strategic planning for the White House from 2005 to 2007, the NSC needs to “listen more and meet less.”[26] It is perfectly reasonable for the president to appoint and empower people not only at the cabinet level, but inside departments and agencies, who understand his priorities and are able to represent them effectively.[27] This is doubly true for NSC staff, who are after all a centripetal force in US national security policy.[28] Ideally they can provide coordination, breadth, coherence, integration, and proximity to political authority in a way that regular bureaucratic settings do not.[29] But this is no reason to disdain career civil servants. On the contrary, it is those with decades of practical experience in the career military, intelligence, and diplomatic services that bring situational awareness and case-specific understandings indispensable to any successful foreign policy strategy. The same might be said of political appointees working at the head of line departments and agencies; NSC staff need not duplicate their work. There are already thousands of people in government whose job it is to carry out and implement US foreign policy. When it comes to policy execution, NSC staff should work to ensure implementation on a few key issues of high priority to the president – and then get out of the way.

  1. Appoint a strong national security advisor to play the role of genuine honest broker, policy entrepreneur, and presidential agent.

Among the principal players in the foreign policy process, only the National Security Advisor can represent the president’s distinct overarching perspective, separate from specific departmental responsibilities. In order to be fully effective however, this official must play several roles simultaneously. This is difficult, not impossible. Stephen Hadley for example was able to do so as National Security Advisor for President George W. Bush during the late 2006 Iraq war strategy review.[30] First, the president needs a National Security Advisor to be an honest broker. An honest broker probes existing assumptions, considers alternative policy directions, weighs the costs and benefits of each possible course, and ensures that all relevant bureaucratic actors receive a fair hearing. More than one National Security Advisor has actually done this, and in doing so improved the quality of the deliberative process. No other cabinet official is adequately placed to perform this role.[31] Second, a National Security Advisor must be an effective agent of the president. In other words, they must act upon the president’s evident concerns and priorities, to ensure those priorities are being followed. The National Security Advisor’s authority derives precisely from the fact that they act on behalf of the president and are understood to do so. Any conception of the office detached from that foundation will not allow it to have much practical influence over the decision-making process. Third, a National Security Advisor can and should act as policy entrepreneur from time to time. Policy entrepreneurs connect viable alternative solutions, to pressing problems, to political conditions.[32] This need not contradict the role of honest broker if handled with integrity. The key is for the National Security Advisor to manage the process scrupulously, so all cabinet officials can be confident their views are being honestly represented to the president and vice-versa.[33] Procedural propriety does not require National Security Advisors to be completely indifferent to the substantive merit of policy alternatives, nor to be silent when asked for their personal views by the commander-in-chief. Only by joining the role of honest broker to that of policy entrepreneur, when necessary, can the National Security Advisor be an effective agent of the president. Academic analyses tend to appreciate the first role, while underestimating the significance of the other two.

Needless to say, any incoming National Security Advisor should possess serious prior foreign or defense policy experience within the executive branch. What is the best historical model for this complex, vital office? Henry Kissinger is of course the most famously influential National Security Advisor in American history, and in that capacity he centralized the foreign policy process tightly inside the White House with President Nixon’s full support.[34] Kissinger was, unusually, both a brilliant conceptualizer and a canny implementer of an innovative foreign policy agenda. In my view the Nixon-Kissinger innovations were on the whole productive for American interests, and largely necessary at the time. But Kissinger’s sidelining of the State Department during Nixon’s first term – with the president’s approval – cannot be a model for the future. Indeed Kissinger himself later admitted as much, after serving at Foggy Bottom: a president must have confidence in his Secretary of State, and should make that appointment accordingly.[35] In the words of the late Peter Rodman, who served every Republican president since Nixon, the purpose of a National Security Advisor is not to substitute for a weak Secretary of State, but among other things to ensure presidential control of a strong Secretary of State.[36] This is exactly the role Brent Scowcroft played for President George H.W. Bush, in relation to Secretary of State James Baker, and organizationally it worked well. Scowcroft operated as a truly scrupulous honest broker. Yet any notion that he did only this is mistaken. As historian Bartholomew Sparrow makes clear in a recent biography, Scowcroft was also the president’s strong right arm, and an influential voice on behalf of specific foreign policy choices more than once.[37] He was in fact honest broker, occasional policy entrepreneur, and presidential agent simultaneously. For all of these reasons, it is Scowcroft rather than Kissinger who provides the best model for this office looking ahead.

  1. Appoint and empower a strategic planning directorate on the NSC staff.

The overall size of the NSC staff should be reduced from its current numbers. Within the area of strategic planning however, there would be little gained and potentially much lost by further decimating any presidential capacity for overall foreign policy planning. Only presidents have the authority to cut across interagency tensions and interests. Yet strategic planning cells for American foreign policy have had a precarious and uncertain history in the White House. The result has been a persistent gap in the president’s institutionalized ability to oversee coherent foreign policy and security strategies. This gap can be addressed in part by establishing a properly staffed and empowered strategic planning directorate on the staff of the NSC.

An effective strategic planning directorate inside the White House can perform several useful tasks for the National Security Advisor, and consequently for the President:[38]

  • Lead author the next National Security Strategy (NSS) in consultation with equivalent staff at the relevant departments and agencies.
  • Represent the National Security Advisor on any interagency strategic planning board or working group.
  • Explicitly weigh the costs and benefits of alternative US foreign policy strategies in specific regional and functional cases.
  • Assess current strategies and recommend needed adjustments.
  • Conduct scenario and contingency planning.
  • Author retrospective studies with current policy implications.
  • Identify key long-term international trends and relevant emerging issues.
  • Commission external studies relating to all of the above.
  • Assist with speechwriting for the National Security Advisor, the President, and other top officials.
  • Meet with planning counterparts in allied governments.
  • Help author strategy documents apart from the NSS.
  • Act as an internal foreign policy think-tank for the White House.
  • Reach out to members of Congress from both parties along with outside experts in order to gain useful advice, identify useful sounding boards, explain the administration’s policies and build support for them.

Such a planning cell would include a senior director, along with a number of directors, counselors, advisers, and/or assistants, on par with other functional and regional NSC directorates. In terms of numbers and expense, the planning directorate would not have to be very large. Access to the National Security Advisor and quality of personnel would be more important than sheer numbers. Planning staff would need to have a demonstrated ability to provide added value, to defer credit, and to work collegially with line directorates in order to earn their trust.[39] But such a planning directorate would work best if supplemented by a sister cell charged with overseeing implementation and execution, along with at least one staff member responsible for working directly with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The planning directorate would also be well advised to work closely with other officials in the Executive Office of the President oriented toward top presidential priorities, and to remember that in a successful administration the White House functions as a team.

An effective NSC planning directorate could play a useful role in helping to coordinate strategic and policy planning cells at the various departments and agencies. This in turn could encourage more coherent presidential foreign policy strategies. But of course such a directorate will only work if the principal decision-makers — particularly the President and his National Security Advisor — are truly interested in using it to secure better policy outcomes. According to Rosa Brooks, who worked in the Department of Defense from 2009 to 2011, “if President Obama lacks a clear strategic foreign policy vision, it’s partly because the strategic planning shops within the White House’s National Security Staff…have been marginalized and disempowered.”[40] Shawn Brimley of the Center for a New American Security, having directed strategic planning efforts on Obama’s NSC staff, is more diplomatic, but makes an important point about the centrality of command climate:

In general, greater strategic thinking and planning often comes down to greater intentionality and intellectual honesty about decision-making….Being strategic at the NSC is as much a mindset and managerial demand signal as it is a set of documents. The degree to which the NSC makes time for strategic deliberations versus day-to-day crisis management rests largely with the people in the top leadership positions and the messages they send to staff.[41]

Again: if principal US foreign policy decision-makers are not interested in either acting or thinking strategically, then it certainly will not happen.

  1. Create an effective strategic planning board.

On organizational matters related to strategic planning, Dwight Eisenhower provides a leadership model worth emulating in certain significant ways. Upon becoming president, Eisenhower decided it was ”inconceivable…that the work of the White House could not be better systematized.”[42] He decided to institute a strategic planning board to generate and debate policy recommendations for consideration by the NSC. The board was made up of top officials responsible for strategic policy planning from each of the relevant departments and agencies, including those related to foreign economic policy. The president himself considered it vital, and gave the board instructions to meet regularly in order to “supply a continuity of planning and thought.”[43] The board’s function was to analyze trends, anticipate problems, consider alternative proposed solutions, and explicitly confront questions of ends and means through rigorous deliberation. It formed a mechanism by which the relevant experience and expertise of various departments and agencies were gathered and integrated effectively. In their policy papers, members of the board were not to split the difference between departmental positions, but if necessary “bring out conflicts,” and see themselves as part of a corporate body whose responsibilities were to the president.[44] Each member had an “unbreakable engagement” to brief one principal decision-maker before every NSC meeting, and to lay out key differences in order to help structure top-level deliberations.[45] The president expected his cabinet officials to arrive at NSC meetings properly briefed and ready to discuss planning board options and recommendations. The board’s value to the principals was not in specific operational blueprints, since Eisenhower understood very well the day-to-day need for flexibility, but rather in “living with the problem before it becomes acute.”[46] Indeed this was the essence of Eisenhower’s view regarding the value of strategic planning.  Responsibility for execution was delegated to the relevant agencies, but Ike created and used an operations coordinating board to help implement approved policies.

Ike’s successor, John F. Kennedy, abolished the strategic planning coordination board in favor of a more freewheeling approach. Certainly this suited Kennedy’s rather dismissive attitude toward his predecessor, and it also suited conventional academic wisdom at the time, but the United States paid a price for it in the loss of a sensible planning mechanism. Eisenhower knew what he was doing. He used a strong staff system to inform lively, thorough debate in regular meetings with top advisers, explicitly weighing the costs and benefits of various policy options while maintaining firm control of the entire process.[47] As President Carter’s national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski noted years later, ever since the abolition of Ike’s strategic planning board, there has never really been a reliable substitute in terms of institutional capacity.[48] Numerous administrations have been forced to learn this through painful experience. President George W. Bush during his final months in office established a national security policy planning committee, to institutionalize regular meetings between strategic policy planners from various departments and agencies. Any new administration would do well to create and rely upon something like this from the very beginning, in a meaningful way.

The next president should create and empower a strategic planning coordination board to link the various policy planning cells across the executive branch and connect them to the NSC. The pieces are already in place at strategic and policy planning offices inside the various agencies and departments, but they rarely integrate effectively. A true planning board, or at the very least some sort of robust interagency working group, would help to address that problem. Such a group or board could assist the president and his leading advisers in bringing greater coherence to US foreign policy. Because of changes since Eisenhower’s day, its recommendations would probably go to the NSC deputies committee for subsequent consideration by the principals. Indeed it might be worth appointing an experienced deputy national security advisor, distinct from operations, specifically to oversee strategic planning.[49] Presidents further need to be well advised as to how economic and commercial considerations impact national security and vice-versa. Any interagency planning board should therefore integrate economic considerations into US national security strategy through formal input and representation from the departments of Treasury, Commerce, and Agriculture. This would have the effect of usefully connecting the work of the NSC with that of the National Economic Council.[50] The planning board should be complemented by an interagency operations or implementation group to ensure that strategies are actually executed successfully. Admittedly this will all require some political lift on the president’s part. But it would help to reverse America’s current strategic dysfunction.

  1. Learn from private sector experience.

The United States has the richest, most dynamic civil society in the world. It’s clear the federal government could do a better job tapping into that vast private expertise in specific areas like foreign aid and democracy promotion. Strategic planning in foreign policy benefits from the input and advice of think-tanks, NGOs, consultants, and outside experts who possess time, insight, and objectivity.[51] Yet this is not the limit of what can be learned from private sector experience.

Over the years, many leading companies have utilized internal strategic planning processes in an attempt to foster innovation and productivity. And what they have learnt is extremely relevant to the concept of strategic planning. They have long since learnt that strategy cannot realistically be detached from operations. To some extent, it emerges as a pattern from action, decision, learning, and adaptation, whether or not entirely preplanned. The formulation of strategy thus walks on two legs, one deliberate, and the other emergent.[52] Indeed these private sector lessons are in keeping with some of the most cutting-edge research in political science on how American grand strategy is really made.[53] As Andrew Erdmann points out in a very useful essay on the subject, the implications for strategic planning are profound. The chief executive must own the strategy; it cannot be outsourced. This actually requires a serious attention to process. Those who would implement any strategy must be involved in developing it, not only to bring ownership, but crucial situational awareness and understanding. The purpose of strategic planning is therefore not so much to fabricate plans, as to help prepare policymakers to make better decisions and then execute them when the opportunity arises. This was precisely Eisenhower’s own insight. In the end, strategic planning cells do not literally make strategy; they help those who do.[54]

Presidential Leadership and the Necessity of Choice

This brings us back to the centrality of presidential leadership in the NSC system and in any US foreign policy strategy. Informally, a great deal depends upon the personal qualities of the president and his leading advisers, including whether they are compatible and trust one another. No organizational structure can substitute for real presidential engagement. No foreign policy strategy is credible if not backed up by him. Presidential authority provides democratic legitimacy and accountability to the entire process. It also provides executive direction. When presidents don’t engage personally, forcefully, and consistently, they frequently lose control. Attempts at, or assumptions of bureaucratic consensus then turn out to be a recipe for deadlock and incoherence.

Presidents must face up to the fact that difficult tradeoffs in US foreign policy are inevitable. There are often serious risks in trying to split the difference between sharply opposing policy positions. If there is no bureaucratic consensus on a given leading issue, then pushing departments and agencies to compromise may be a real abdication of responsibility.[55] The presentation of real choices to the chief executive is central to his authority. A president ought to be made aware of his options. Then it is up to him to decide. Strategic planning can help.


[1] George Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State (New York: Scribner, 1993), 32.

[2] Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation (New York: WW Norton, 1969), 214.

[3] Cited in Richard Haass, “Planning for Policy Planning,” in Daniel Drezner, ed., Avoiding Trivia: the Role of Strategic Planning in American Foreign Policy (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2009), 23.

[4] Aaron Friedberg, “Strengthening U.S. Strategic Planning,” Washington Quarterly 31:1 (Winter 2007-8), 48-50.

[5] Eisenhower: “The plans are nothing, but the planning is everything.”  Quoted in Robert Bowie and Richard Immerman, Waging Peace: How Eisenhower Shaped an Enduring Cold War Strategy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), vii.

[6] For some similar lists of proposals to which I’m indebted, see Shawn Brimley et al, Enabling Decision: Shaping the National Security Council for the Next President (Washington, DC: Center for a New American Security, 2015); Peter Feaver and William Inboden, “Implementing an Effective Foreign Policy,” in Choosing to Lead: American Foreign Policy for a Disordered World (The John Hay Initiative, 2015); Friedberg, “Strengthening U.S. Strategic Planning”; Paul Lettow and Thomas Mahnken, “Toolbox: Getting Serious About Strategic Planning,” The American Interest (September-October 2009).

[7] Jordon Tama, “Does Strategic Planning Matter? The Outcomes of U.S. National Security Reviews,” Political Science Quarterly 130:4 (Winter 2015-16), 754-56.

[8] President Barack Obama, National Security Strategy, The White House, February 2015.

[9] Tama, “Does Strategic Planning Matter,” 736-37, 741-42, 758.

[10] Ibid., 742, 755.

[11] David Edelstein and Ronald Krebs, “Delusions of Grand Strategy,” Foreign Affairs 94:6 (November/December 2015).

[12] Gabriel Schoenfeld, Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law (New York: WW Norton, 2010).

[13] Lettow and Mahnken, “Toolbox: Getting Serious About Strategic Planning.”

[14] For useful commentary on the overall formulation and execution of Reagan’s foreign policy strategy, see Martin Anderson and Annelise Anderson, Reagan’s Secret War (New York: Crown Publishers, 2009); John Arquilla, The Reagan Imprint (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2006), 38-43, 51-53, 227-35; John Gaddis, Strategies of Containment (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005 edition), 353-56, 369-77; Mark Lagon, The Reagan Doctrine (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1994), 78-82; Paul Lettow, Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (New York: Random House, 2005), 61-72, 75-82; Henry Nau, Conservative Internationalism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), chapter 7;  and Richard Pipes, Vixi: Memoirs of a Non-Belonger (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 170-73, 179-80, 188-202.

[15] NSDD-32, “US National Security Strategy,” May 20, 1982, Ronald Reagan Library, Simi Valley, California.

[16] Lettow and Mahnken, “Toolbox: Getting Serious About Strategic Planning.”

[17] Feaver and Inboden, “Implementing an Effective Foreign Policy.”

[18] Tama, “Does Strategic Planning Matter?” 765.

[19] Interview with Peter Feaver, December 4, 2015.  Feaver headed the office responsible for drafting President Bush’s 2006 National Security Strategy.

[20] Hal Brands, What Good is Grand Strategy? (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014), 198.

[21] Karen DeYoung, “How the Obama White House runs foreign policy,” The Washington Post, August 4, 2015.

[22] Peter Rodman, Presidential Command: Power, Leadership, and the Making of Foreign Policy from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush (New York: Vintage, 2010), 284.

[23] Feaver and Inboden, “Implementing an Effective Foreign Policy.”

[24] Brimley et al, Enabling Decision, 5, 13.

[25] Ibid., 8.

[26] Feaver and Inboden, “Implementing an Effective Foreign Policy.”

[27] Elliott Abrams, “The Prince of the White House,” Foreign Policy, March 4, 2013; Rodman, Presidential Command, 284.

[28] Lettow and Mahnken, “Toolbox: Getting Serious About Strategic Planning,”

[29] Bert Rockman, “America’s Departments of State: Irregular and Regular Syndromes of Policy Making,” American Political Science Review 75:4 (December 1981), 911-27.

[30] Colin Dueck, “The Role of the National Security Advisor,” Orbis 58:1 (Winter 2014), 15-38.

[31] John Burke, Honest Broker? The National Security Advisor and Presidential Decision Making (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2009), 283-84, 288.

[32] John Kingdon, Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies (New York: Longman Classics, 2003 edition), 179-83.

[33] Brent Scowcroft, quoted in Karl Inderfurth and Loch Johnson, eds., Fateful Decisions: Inside the National Security Council (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 138, 140.

[34] For useful commentary on Kissinger’s incoming foreign policy preferences and procedures, from a range of perspectives, see Henry Kissinger, White House Years (Boston: Little Brown, 1979), chapters I-III; Walter Isaacson, Kissinger: A Biography (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005 edition), chapters 8, 10; Niall Ferguson, Kissinger, 1923-1968: The Idealist (New York: Penguin, 2015), chapter 22; Jussi Hanhimaki, Flawed Architect: Henry Kissinger and American Foreign Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), chapter 2; and Jeremi Suri, Henry Kissinger and the American Century (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard, 2007), 7-15

[35] Henry Kissinger, Years of Upheaval (Boston: Little Brown, 1982), 434.

[36] Rodman, Presidential Command, 282-85.

[37] Bartholomew Sparrow, The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security (New York: Public Affairs, 2015), chapters 17-27.  For further evidence that Scowcroft was more than simply an honest broker, see George Bush and Brent Scowcroft, A World Transformed (New York: Vintage Books, 1999).

[38] Brimley et al, Enabling Decision, 13; Peter Feaver and William Inboden, “A Strategic Planning Cell on National Security at the White House,” in Daniel Drezner, ed., Avoiding Trivia: the Role of Strategic Planning in American Foreign Policy (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2009), 98-109; Friedberg, “Strengthening U.S. Strategic Planning”; Lettow and Mahnken, “Toolbox: Getting Serious about Strategic Planning.”  On contingency planning, see Michael Oppenheimer, Pivotal Countries, Alternate Futures: Using Scenarios to Manage American Strategy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[39] Feaver and Inboden, “A Strategic Planning Cell on National Security at the White House,” 106.

[40] Rosa Brooks, “The Case for Intervention,” Foreign Policy, October 18, 2012.

[41] Brimley et al, Enabling Decision, 10-11.

[42] Dwight Eisenhower, “The Central Role of the President in the Conduct of Security Affairs,” in Amos Jordan, ed., Issues of National Security in the 1970s (New York, 1967), 87.

[43] Notes on Planning Board meeting, May 6, 1953, CJCS 334 (NSC) 1953, Record Group 218, National Archives.

[44] Foreign Relations of the United States [FRUS], 1952-54, 2:251.

[45] FRUS, 1952-54, 2:253.

[46] Eisenhower, “The Central Role of the President,” 214.  For a good summary description of how Eisenhower created and used his strategic planning board, see Bowie and Immerman, Waging Peace, chapters 5, 8-9, and 11.

[47] Fred Greenstein, The Hidden-Hand Presidency: Eisenhower as Leader (New York: Basic Books, 1982).

[48] From “The NSC at 50: Past, President, and Future,” Council on Foreign Relations, October 31, 1997.

[49] Friedberg, “Strengthening U.S. Strategic Planning,” 56.

[50] Laurence Zuriff, “Connecting Economics and Security,” in Choosing to Lead: American Foreign Policy for a Disordered World (The John Hay Initiative, 2015).

[51] Feaver and Inboden, “A Strategic Planning Cell on National Security at the White House,” 105.

[52] Henry Mintzberg and James Waters, “Of Strategies, Deliberate and Emergent,” Strategic Management Journal (July-September 1985), 271.

[53] Ionut Popescu, The Process of Grand Strategy: Planning and Improvisation in America’s Global Leadership (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, forthcoming).

[54] Andrew Erdmann, “Foreign Policy Planning Through a Private Sector Lens,” in Drezner, ed., Avoiding Trivia, 137-52.

[55] Rodman, Presidential Command, 275-80, 287-89.