Throughout the twentieth century, US Presidents have utilized the National Security Council (NSC) in assisting with foreign and defense policy. However, after President Kennedy brought in outside advisors and informal groups in the 1960s, the system began to deteriorate, leading to an expansive growth of executive power and a major diminishment of the interagency foreign policymaking process. In this article, Grant Golub argues that the Trump administration hasn’t dismantled this process single-handedly – it was already broken.
When John Bolton resigned as national security adviser last September, a flood of articles were published arguing he and President Donald Trump had broken the National Security Council (NSC), the US government agency responsible for advising the president on foreign and national security policy. After an American drone strike killed Qassem Soleimani, a top Iranian general, in January, more articles were written alleging Trump had dismantled American foreign policymaking.
However, this narrative is only half-right. Yes, it is true the Trump administration has abandoned the previous decision-making process its predecessors employed in favor of presidential directive by tweet. But, it is incorrect to assert the NSC was properly functioning previously or that a rigorous interagency national security process existed before Trump. For decades, both Democratic and Republican presidents have been centralizing government authority in the White House, to the detriment of American national security.
After World War II, the American national security apparatus was reorganized to better coordinate foreign and defense policy. As part of that, the NSC was created in 1947 to assist the president in considering vital foreign matters and crafting suitable policy. The NSC was not designed to supplant other government departments traditionally charged with overseeing foreign policy, such as the State or Defense Departments, or to formulate and implement policy. Instead, it would help ensure the president had all of the appropriate information before making foreign policy decisions and then disseminate those decisions throughout the wider government bureaucracy.
Dwight D. Eisenhower was the only president to utilize the NSC in a way similar to what its creators had envisioned. When he became president in 1953, he restructured and improved the NSC system. Under Eisenhower’s approach, agencies would draft policy proposals and recommendations and then submit them to the interdepartmental Planning Board, which reviewed and refined them. Once the Planning Board had reconciled differing agency views, it submitted modified papers to Eisenhower and the full NSC for their evaluation. Although the Planning Board made suggestions, it ensured the president and his advisers heard all available viewpoints on a specific topic and worked to be an honest broker of information. After Eisenhower adopted a policy, the Operations Coordinating Board was responsible for ensuring the government executed it. This is how the NSC was intended to function.
However, the American national security process began to break down under John F. Kennedy. JFK disliked Eisenhower’s NSC structure, believing it too rigid and inflexible, and immediately disassembled it. Kennedy preferred a more freewheeling approach to decision-making, convening ad-hoc groups to help him consider policy. Perhaps more consequentially, Kennedy appointed McGeorge Bundy, a Harvard University professor, as his national security adviser, who expanded the position beyond coordinating and facilitating policy to include advising the president on foreign affairs as well. Bundy also hired a small staff to study policy proposals and make recommendations. For the first time, the NSC and the White House had its own national security policy staff, strengthening Bundy’s influence and allowing the White House to centralize foreign policymaking under the president. Gradually, more traditional agencies with important voices in foreign and defense policy were sidelined.
The obvious problem with consolidating national security affairs at the White House is that it limits the range and depth of advice the president hears when making foreign policy decisions. This can lead presidents and their advisers to get stuck in circular reasoning or not consider reasonable alternatives for tackling major issues. It can also lead to presidents making costly mistakes that can embroil the United States in disastrous conflicts.
When Lyndon B. Johnson succeeded Kennedy, he continued Kennedy’s practice of utilizing informal groups or outside advisers to consider policy choices. Now famously, Johnson instituted the “Tuesday Lunch” group, consisting of him, Bundy, the secretaries of State and Defense, and a rotating cast of other senior advisers, where the president would make foreign policy decisions, especially on the escalating Vietnam War. Johnson largely distrusted his formal military advisers and the State and Defense Department bureaucracies, afraid they were attempting to thwart his domestic political agenda by saddling him with the war.
As a result, Johnson failed to receive critical information that might have led him to make different decisions about Vietnam. At the Tuesday Lunch sessions, the president and his advisers agreed continuing escalation was the only way to win the war. They failed to consider alternative courses of action and shunned information that contradicted their own assessments of the conflict. This insular form of decision-making led to the deaths of tens of thousands of American soldiers and millions of Vietnamese civilians. It was a calamitous way to make national security policy, but Johnson’s successors would continue to concentrate foreign policy at the White House, further eroding the policymaking process.
Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, another Harvard professor turned national security adviser, dramatically accelerated White House centralization of foreign policy. The duo resolved to fully control the foreign policy apparatus and make all national security policy in the West Wing. Kissinger vastly expanded the NSC staff, enlarging their role to now formulate and implement policy decisions. Kissinger and the NSC served as a traffic stop between Nixon and other government agencies, examining their policy proposals and ensuring they did not attempt to subvert the president’s strategic designs. They withheld information from the bureaucracy and used secrecy to make policy. Nixon also installed weak secretaries of State and Defense who would not have the ability to undermine his decisions. The result was an expansive growth of executive power and major diminishment of the interagency foreign policymaking process.
Over the next several decades, presidents of both major political parties continued this trend. Lack of oversight and input from other government departments contributed to embarrassing scandals like the Iran-contra affair and decisions to launch unnecessary wars or military operations in areas of the world where the United States did not have vital security interests. Fast forward to Trump, who has magnified the ongoing deterioration of national security decision-making, making it apparent how broken this process actually is.
If you consider the history of American foreign policymaking though, it becomes clear this breakdown did not start with Trump. He has shined a light on a problem that has existed for decades. If the United States wishes to pursue a more realistic and developed foreign policy, it needs to build a new interagency policy process that obtains information from across the federal government, solicits opinions from a wide range of experts, and considers disparate courses of action before a final decision is reached. It will be a massive undertaking and the stakes are enormous, but it is a reconstruction long overdue.
Grant Golub is a PhD candidate in International History at LSE. His research focuses on American foreign relations and diplomatic history. He holds a BA in History and American Studies from Princeton University and an MSc in History of International Relations from LSE.