Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The National Security Council: An FPRI Primer
The National Security Council: An FPRI Primer

The National Security Council: An FPRI Primer

The National Security Council: An FPRI Primer

Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution identifies the President of the United States as the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, granting the President the power (with the advice and consent of the Senate) to negotiate treaties, appoint ambassadors, and generally run American foreign policy. In order to fill those few sentences with practical meaning, presidents have created offices with officials who can help him make and execute foreign policy.

The Secretary of State is the senior member of the Cabinet responsible for managing American foreign relations, but Presidents have also wanted groups of advisers who are more tightly bound to the office of the President. The most important of these special circles of advisers is the National Security Council (NSC). The NSC was created by the National Security Act of 1947 in response to the expansion of U.S. global engagement as a result of the emerging Cold War. In addition to the NSC, the National Security Act created the Department of Defense (by merging the existing Departments of War and the Navy and establishing the Air Force as a distinct branch of the armed forces) and the Central Intelligence Agency. Each of these changes aimed to strengthen the President’s ability to manage the foreign affairs of a superpower.

Members of the NSC include the top Cabinet officers concerned with foreign policy (The Vice President and Secretaries of State, Defense, Energy, and Treasury) as well as other officials whom the President selects (such as the Director of National Intelligence, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and White House Chief of Staff). Supported by a professional staff that includes hundreds of thematic and geographical experts (some of whom are seconded by Cabinet agencies and some of whom have been hired specifically by the White House) who supply the President with a steady stream of information, the NSC meets regularly to coordinate policy among the responsible agencies, and to deal with crises as they emerge.

The person responsible for managing the National Security Council on behalf of the President is the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, more commonly known as the National Security Adviser. This person is one of the President’s closest advisers, but is not subject to the Senate confirmation required by Cabinet secretaries, which means the NSC is responsible to the president alone, and acts as both the coordinator of the different positions espoused by the other council members and as a spokesman for the president.

The powers of the National Security Adviser are officially vague but potentially vast, depending on how much the president wants to concentrate foreign policy decision making in the White House. On paper, the job consists of chairing the meetings of the NSC; supervising the work of the extensive NSC professional staff; and managing the flow of policy memoranda between the Oval Office and the rest of the government. Over the years, however, National Security advisers such as McGeorge Bundy (1961-1965), Henry Kissinger (1969-1975), and Brent Scowcroft (1989-1993) have been central figures in making American foreign policy, usually because the Presidents they served trusted them to take on extra responsibility and wanted them to act as a counterbalance to other agencies. The tug-of-war between the NSC (representing the White House) and Cabinet Secretaries has become a regular feature of contemporary American politics, and is worth watching if you want to understand how foreign policy is made.

Two concrete examples illustrate positive and negative aspects of the NSC’s ambivalent place in the foreign policy establishment:

President Richard Nixon relied on National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger to carry out delicate negotiations that he did not want to entrust to the State Department or discuss with the public, including the negotiations to end American involvement in the Vietnam War and the preliminary talks for Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972. Nixon and Kissinger’s collaboration led to some successes, but also fed suspicion of the White House in the State and Defense departments, not to mention among the press and public. The Nixon Administration’s addiction to secrecy led to the Watergate Scandal, and the eventual resignation of the President.

An even more complicated example of NSC overreach comes from Ronald Reagan’s second term in the late 1980s. At that point, the White House was pursuing policies in both the Middle East and Central America that had not been supported by Congress. In an effort to avoid those restrictions, the National Security Council, acting on instructions from White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan, became embroiled in an elaborate scheme to sell weapons secretly to Iran, in the hope that Iran would help secure the release of American hostages in Lebanon. This already complicated policy, which sprang from President Reagan’s promise to help the families of the hostages became even more convoluted when NSC staffer Lt. Col. Oliver North secretly used the proceeds from the arms sales to fund American support for rebel forces in Nicaragua. Both Secretary of State George Schulz and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger opposed this operation, but it had strong support within the White House, and the NSC staff pursued it secretly. When it became public knowledge in late 1986, the resulting Iran-Contra Scandal rocked the Reagan Administration, and is used to this day as an example of the dangers of allowing the NSC too much freedom to develop policy on its own.

President Obama often relied on the NSC and White house staff to maintain control of policymaking, to the frustration of multiple secretaries of State and Defense. It remains to be seen if the Trump Administration will do so as well. On the campaign trail, President Trump expressed suspicion of the policy establishment, and appeared disposed to use the NSC as an alternative to the State and Defense Departments. His first choice as National Security Adviser, Gen. Michael Flynn, and his decision to appoint his controversial Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon, to the Council each signaled a more activist NSC. Flynn’s resignation and the appointment of Gen. H.R. McMaster as his replacement, however, along with the recent departure of Steve Bannon suggest a return to more traditional roles. McMaster is known as a scholar as well as a soldier, and appears more likely to emphasize the NSC’s traditional position as coordinator of government policy, supported by the research and reports of the professional NSC staff, who act as a special think tank within the White House.  

Every President needs close advisers whose primarily loyalty is to the occupant of the Oval Office. Thus, the National Security Adviser will remain a key figure in making American foreign policy. The challenge for both Presidents and National Security Advisers is to understand both the possibilities and the limits of that relationship.