Reforming the National Security Council: What the Next President Needs to Know


Last week, the Washington Post reported that the White House has just finished an extensive internal review and developed a plan to reshape the National Security Council (NSC). The review was applauded by many in Washington, given the growing consensus that America’s national security apparatus is in need of an upgrade. However, recognizing that this administration is well into its “fourth quarter,” the heavy lifting on reform will largely fall to the next administration.

As we discuss in our new report for the Center for a New American Security, improving the NSC starts with accurately diagnosing its problems. Four big issues are holding back the NSC today. First, today’s interagency decision-making process pushes too many decisions up to the Principals Committee (an NSC meeting chaired by the national security advisor rather than the president) and the formal National Security Council. It is common to witness cabinet secretaries, the vice president, and even the president debating what are arguably tactical issues, which steals time and focus from tackling the more fundamental strategic questions and detracts from their broader missions at their home agencies. It also means the number of meetings has skyrocketed out of control. This atmosphere leads to a common lament among cabinet officials and their deputies that they do not get to start their jobs until a full regular workday’s worth of meetings concludes.

The second issue is the “tyranny of the inbox.” The flood of diplomatic cables, finished intelligence assessments, unfinished raw intelligence, and other types of information (e.g. news reports and social media) into staffers’ inboxes leaves many NSC staff spending a majority of their day jumping between e-mail systems to monitor incoming traffic and “clear” documents. This information flow borders on overload and can easily overwhelm rather than enable both the development of policy recommendations and their implementation.

Third, the natural balance between process management and strategy development has skewed toward process management tasks like preparing agendas, scheduling meetings, and writing summaries of those meetings. The demands of process management often hamper the ability of the NSC staff to develop more robust strategies for various national security priorities and connect them to the annual budget cycles to ensure implementation.

Fourth, the actual task of managing the interagency — arguably the primary mission of the NSC — has too often been overlooked. This work is difficult, nebulous, and hard to teach and train, but essential nonetheless. The sometimes relatively junior status of NSC officials — directors in particular — can makes it difficult to coordinate action with more senior colleagues at the departments and agencies. In addition, a lack of detailed knowledge about the various implementation tools and how to properly use them hampers the NSC staff’s ability to move policy from presidential speeches to action.

None of these interlocking problems are new, nor are they the fault of one administration or one party. And some of these problems will remain given the speed and complexity of today’s national security challenges, which make the need to fix them more acute. Reform is needed and should focus on four key areas.

First, investing in the NSC’s human capital — how it recruits, retains, and promotes talent — should be prioritized at all levels. Specifically, the NSC’s chief of staff’s office should invest in professional development and training courses that focus on a few different skill sets. These could include how to use tools to implement policies effectively, coordinating with other White House principals, how to manage small teams, engaging the press, working with legislative affairs staff, and using intelligence community products, among others.

Second, the national security advisor and deputy national security advisor must empower the NSC staff to manage the interagency and make decisions at all levels. Specifically, they must provide clarity on what types of decisions they expect to be taken at lower levels and hold their staff accountable. Only then can the NSC get a respite from a blistering pace of meetings that crowds out time for longer-term thinking.

Third, make time for strategic planning and forecasting. The NSC staff can help develop scenarios for how various U.S. responses to crises might play out over the long term, bridging the gap between intelligence analysis and policy recommendations. NSC staffers are perfectly positioned to help the Deputies Committee and Principals Committee processes ensure that any tradeoffs between short- and long-term U.S. interests, or between security and economic interests, are intentional and done with full recognition of the opportunities and risks. For example, the recent episode over the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which left the United States looking flatfooted and out of step with its allies, could have been avoided. In this case, it appears that policymakers failed to question their core assumptions about the behavior of other states. They also put short-term financial and economic development concerns above larger geostrategic priorities.

Fourth, the NSC staff will have to master the budget process that makes any president’s longer-term initiatives real. NSC staff should work more closely with the Office of Management and Budget, and at times it may have to take an active role in ensuring that the programs stemming directly from presidential priorities are elevated and receive adequate resources, often over multi-year timeframes. Recent changes in this area, including detailing an OMB staffer to work with the NSC and including training on OMB processes as part of NSC staff onboarding, represent positive initial steps and should be retained by the next administration.

Unlike many other aspects of the U.S. national security system, the size, composition, and mission of the NSC system is entirely malleable to a president’s wishes. The next administration must therefore enter the White House with a clear sense of what role it wants the NSC system to play and how the management style of the next president can be best supported. Candidates on the short list to become either the national security advisor or the deputy national security advisor must devote significant time in advance to thinking about how they can best equip their NSC team to fulfill a number of often competing roles. Seeking out briefings on the current internal NSC reform process would be a good start. More specifically, the new NSC team should closely examine the frequency of meetings and overall staff size (currently just under 400), both key elements that shape NSC operations and the rhythm of presidential decision-making.

Building the team itself should be handled carefully, ensuring that the new NSC has the right mix of experience, dynamic thinking, and detailed knowledge of the issues to be effective. Given the range of national security and foreign policy challenges facing the United States, it is critical to build a team and a culture inside the NSC system that can enable the next occupant of the Oval Office to protect and advance the nation’s interests at home and abroad.


Shawn Brimley is the Executive Vice President and Director of Studies at the Center for a New American Security. He previously served as Director for Strategic Planning on the National Security Council staff. Julianne Smith is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Strategy and Statecraft Program at CNAS. She previously served as Deputy National Security Advisor to the Vice President. Jacob Stokes is an Associate Fellow in the Strategy and Statecraft Program at CNAS. This piece is based on their recent CNAS report with Dafna H. Rand, Enabling Decision: Shaping the National Security Council for the Next President.