Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts A Presidential Strategy Board: Enabling Strategic Competence
A Presidential Strategy Board: Enabling Strategic Competence

A Presidential Strategy Board: Enabling Strategic Competence

Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn who is tapped to be President-elect Donald Trump's National Security Advisor

Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn who is tapped to be President-elect Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor

This article reflects the author’s own views, and not those of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government. This article is adapted from a longer research project published in the Spring 2016 issue of Orbis: FPRI’s Journal of World Affairs.

The National Security Council (NSC) staff was once called the Keepers of the Keys, managers of the coordinating process that is central to an administration’s ability to plan and conduct a successful grand strategy.[1] The NSC has had an evolving role, as has its staff.[2] The NSC evolves to the strategic context that any administration faces, and it must also reflect the information processing and decision-making style of the president. The inbound Trump administration will soon face the challenge of integrating America’s diplomatic, military, and economic tools and applying them globally and coherently.

Many have offered advice on how to properly focus NSC staff as well as the “right size” of the group. NSC structures and processes are designed to fulfill the needs of the president and should support his policy and decision-making requirements. These may vary from president to president to fit information processing and decision-making styles as well as the character of an administration’s foreign policy. Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, the president-elect’s National Security Advisor, will manage the evolution of the NSC team to best support Mr. Trump and establish processes and coordinating mechanisms to tee up presidential decisions and implement the foreign policy initiatives of our 45th President.

There has been a chorus of complaints about the Obama administration’s highly centralized decision-making and excessive White House control of government activity.[3] Much of this advice, but not all, has focused on cutting the staff’s size but has overlooked its functions and shortfalls. The most insightful students of government have testified that the current system, centered on the National Security Council and its hierarchical committee system, “is profoundly broken.”[4] The ability to define our national interests, prioritize objectives, craft strategies that link ends to means, and rationalize resource allocation are all cited as deficiencies. But simply reducing capacity at the NSC will not help the U.S. respond to serious challenges to its strategic competency.[5] Such actions are not useful solutions for tomorrow’s strategic challenges because they reduce the White House’s ability to develop creative solutions, minimize its ability to push the Departments and Agencies, and hinder its ability to hold them accountable due to lack of time or authority to conduct oversight.

There are useful proposals for changes in how the next administration might organize the basic processes of the NSC system.[6] Such proposals should have great salience today considering the difficulties experienced by the last two administrations directing two wars and responding to a dynamic security environment.[7] One of the more pressing challenges that we face seems to require multi-dimensional solutions across interagency seams; more study into the role and processes of the NSC is certainly needed.[8] If we are to learn anything from the past 15 years, we should “closely scrutinize how our national security apparatus responded to this unsettling era” and adapt further.[9]

Strategy Development

Ideas on how to adapt the membership of the NSC and its Secretariat are also being proposed.[10] Some have suggested that corporate governance models offer a potential way of running the NSC, which may appeal to Mr. Trump due to his business background.[11] Adaptation should focus on the NSC’s principal mission at the macro-level of policy and strategy development. The complexity of contemporary crises, as well as their velocity, argues against centralization and management by a slow, bureaucratic solution that requires the president to make every decision and resolve every dispute.[12]

Recently, a number of proposals have recommended enhancing strategic planning in the White House. One proposal includes the establishment of a robust strategic planning directorate on the NSC staff. The existing long-range cell has been useful in crafting iterations of the National Security Strategy, but they rarely have been influential in coordinating efforts across the more established regional directorates. Colin Dueck observes that

strategic planning cells for US foreign policy have a precarious and uncertain history in the White House. The result has been a persistent gap in the president’s 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.[13]

Dueck also notes that this directorate could network with existing Departmental planning cells, which would be valuable.

Another solution is to reestablish the Eisenhower-era Planning Board, composed of Undersecretary or Deputy Secretary-level officials from each major department’s strategic planning office.[14] Eisenhower’s NSC structure and planning processes were quickly dismantled by President John F. Kennedy. Zbigniew Brzezinski later concluded that “the Planning Board was a very important instrument, the elimination of which has handicapped the US government ever since then.”[15] The Planning Board, in theory, devises the policy options and longer-range plans presented to the NSC Principal’s Committee and the president, so that they could focus their attention on the big picture. Board members would invest enough time in interagency planning on behalf of the NSC to produce nuanced, far-sighted joint strategies, while also investing enough time in their home department to shape their Department’s plans and execution.

The Planning Board’s members were nominated by the NSC principals and held an appointment by the president. The members of such a panel would have to be relatively senior officials who are strategically minded and able to think long term and across boundaries. Modern day advocates of this model envision that existing senior officers from the State and Defense Departments would comprise the boards. “Reestablishing a Planning Board could,” Andrew. Krepinevich argues, “along with persistent presidential involvement in the formulation of strategy, go a long way toward improving the quality of U.S. strategy.”[16] As Colin Dueck has noted, “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.” In theory, it was a mechanism for effectively integrating the expertise of various departments. Members of the board were tasked to rise above their Departmental roles (as most were appointees) and enjoined to not accept lowest common denominator positions to “bring out conflicts” for the president.[17]

However, before we embrace the “Ike Model,” historical evaluation should be based on seeing if continuities in context still exist as well as a more rigorous evaluation of the model. Eisenhower’s system benefited from a relatively stable era (after Korea wound down) with a government populated with officials that were exposed to the large-scale planning in World War II. Moreover, this system fit the information style and background of a former Supreme Allied Commander Europe, but must future presidents adopt Ike’s preference? Was it really tested under the stress of global operations in wartime? The supporting evidence, drawn from actual policy makers of the time, is critical.[18] Some participants, including Dean Acheson, George Kennan, and Paul Nitze, found Eisenhower’s system ponderous if not exhausting. Acheson said it produced “agreement by exhaustion.”[19]

The Need for a Strategy Board

More importantly, we have misdiagnosed and mislabeled the problem. The White House’s real shortfall is strategy formulation, not planning. Strategy is not planning, but a good strategy enables proper planning.[20] Hence, I contend that the solution lies in creating a Strategy Board.

The Deputy National Security Advisor—President-elect Trump has tapped K.T. McFarland for the position—would chair the Strategy Board, and the board would not duplicate the existing system of Deputy and Principal’s committees. Its composition would include serving government officials below the existing committee structure from the Departments, NSC, and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) staff members as well as external members from outside government. Like Eisenhower’s board, this group would be charged with anticipating problems, generating solutions independent of Departmental preferences/inclinations, and proposing cost effective strategies. The planning details of approved strategic initiatives would be delegated to the respective Departments.

The board would conduct long-range strategic planning processes for presentation to the Deputy and Principal’s Committees at regular periods, including presidential strategy directives assigning priorities and resource allocations that would shape or inform Departmental budgets.[21] OMB representation would improve the connection between policy and budgets, enhancing long-term implementation and strategic coherence.  

A proposal for a formal strategy board, including dual-hatted representatives from the major departments and outsiders, might be seen as spawning greater bureaucracy. But this approach has second and third order effects that Mr. Trump could find beneficial as it would expand the number of planning experts with exposure to both NSC processes and to interagency deliberations, which might deepen the bench for both policy positions and NSC jobs where interagency skills are valued. It would also tap into outside perspectives to minimize parochial perspectives from sitting officials who often find themselves representing their agency priorities.

Considering the past two administrations and our relative lack of success at strategy formulation and implementation, an alternative method appears warranted. Hence, a formal, chartered, but not standing Strategy Board is recommended. It would be comprised of cross-functional experts from government, from think tanks, and from the retired community. It would meet only as directed by the National Security Advisor to support strategy development and refinement. In addition to assisting the NSC develop real strategies, it will help to build up the bench of interagency staff professionals and to stimulate the government agencies that do not have a formal strategy or planning culture.

Today’s “Keepers of the Keys” should focus their efforts at the strategic level. They should, of course, support the president and NSA in planning, coordinating, and implementing presidential decisions. They should avoid micro-management and operational matters. As the U.S. government’s principal integrating policy mechanism, the NSC has immense responsibilities in an increasingly complex world. Enabling the president and his cabinet to better understand context, to better frame problems, and to better integrate their collective capabilities in an integrated strategy is harder, but more important than ever before. A dedicated group of strategists as a full-fledged production unit, a sounding board, or just a red team has evident value. The troops we deploy to foreign crises deserve better than they have received during the last several conflicts, particularly Iraq in 2003 and Afghanistan in 2009, in terms of a coherent and integrated strategy. This proposal offers one option to remedy that issue.

[1] John Prados, Keepers of the Keys: A History of the National Security Council from Truman to Bush (New York: William Morrow, 1991).

[2] David Auerswald, “The Evolution of the NSC Process,” in Roger Z. George and Harvey Rishikof, eds., The National Security Enterprise: Navigating the Labyrinth (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2011).

[3] Robert Gates, Duty: A Memoir of a Secretary at War (New York: Knopf, 2014), p. 566; and Leon Panetta with Jim Newton, Worthy Fights, a Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace (New York: Penguin Books, 2014).

[4] The Honorable James Locher, Statement before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Washington DC, November 10, 2015.

[5] See the excellent work from Linda Robinson, Paul D. Miller, John Gordon IV, Jeffrey Decker, Michael Schwille, Raphael Cohen, Improving Strategic Competence: Lessons from 13 Years of War (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2014).

[6] Shawn Brimley, Dafna Rand, Julianne Smith, and Jacob Stokes, Enabling Decision: Shaping the National Security Council for the Next President (Washington, DC: Center for a New American Security, June 2015).

[7] Christopher Lamb, “How System Attributes Trumped Leadership,” in Richard D. Hooker Jr. and Joseph Collins, eds., Lessons Encountered, Lessons from the Long War (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 2015).

[8] Aaron L. Friedberg, “Strengthening U.S. Strategic Planning,” Washington Quarterly, Winter 2007/2008, pp. 47–60.

[9] David Rothkopf, National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear (New York: Public Affairs, 2014), p. 308.

[10] Jack A. LeCuyer, A National Staff for the 21st Century, (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, December 2012).

[11] Nikolas K. Gvosdev, “Trump and the National Security Council,” The National Interest, January/February, 2017, pp. 91–96.

[12] Shawn Brimley, Julianne Smith and Jacob Stokes, “Reforming the NSC: What the Next President Needs to Know,” War on the Rocks, July 1, 2015.

[13] Colin Dueck, “Strategic Planning for the New Administration,” Hoover Institution, December 15, 2016.

[14] Paul D. Miller, “Organizing the National Security Council: I Like Ike’s,” Presidential Studies Quarterly, 43, no. 3 (2013), pp. 592–606.

[15] Quoted by Krepinevich, see also Council on Foreign Relations, “The NSC at 50: Past, Present, and Future,” October 31, 1997, transcript, accessed at

[16] Andrew F. Krepinevich, Testimony Before the U.S. House of Representatives, House Committee on Armed Services, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation, March 19, 2009.

[17] Colin Dueck, “Strategic Planning for the Next President, Recommendations for the NSC Process, Part 2,” Philadelphia, PA, Foreign Policy Research Institute, FPRI E-Notes, January 2016.

[18] Robert R. Bowie and Richard H. Immerman, Waging Peace; How Eisenhower Shaped an Enduring Cold War Strategy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 91–92.

[19] Chris Lamb, in Hans Binnendijk and Patrick Cronin, eds., Civilian Surge, Key to Complex Operations, (Washington, DC: NDU Press, 2009), p. 53.

[20] Roger L. Martin, “Don’t Let Strategy Become Planning,” Harvard Business Review, February 5, 2013, accessed at

[21] Bruce Jentleson, “An Integrative Executive Branch Strategy for Policy Planning;” and Peter Feaver and William Inboden, “A Strategic Planning Cell on National Security at the White House,” in Drezner, Avoiding Trivia.