I Got a Story to Tell: Who Does What in National Security Policy?


For several compounding reasons, experts believe the Trump administration has more novices and under-qualified appointees in leadership positions than any since the United States became a great power.

A trove of Republican foreign policy experts are reportedly blacklisted from joining the administration for signing #NeverTrump letters during the presidential campaign.  Republicans have had their “foreign policy fitness” atrophy naturally because of their exclusion from policymaking in the Obama administration the past eight years.  And several senior level career bureaucrats have abruptly left government since Trump took office.  Moreover, Trump is famously derisive of think tanks, and has mostly bucked the tradition of drawing on the expertise of policy wonks and scholars who’ve spent their careers mastering a particular field of knowledge or practice.

This witches’ brew of happenstance, opportunity cost, and anti-intellectualism makes understanding how national security policy is made unusually important, because even if Trump and his inner circle disdain established policy practice, most of official Washington lives by it — and always will.

Working national security policy from multiple angles — in the U.S. Air Force, the intelligence community, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and several think tanks — I found formal documents describing the policy process less than illuminating.  One can read Title 10 and Title 50 of the U.S. Code (which respectively define the roles and authorities of the military and intelligence agencies), past National Security Strategies, or presidential decision memoranda about national security (including how the National Security Council is organized) and not actually understand anything.  The documents that purport to explain national security policy and process convey little, if anything, of national security practice.

Instead, as Iver Neumann once did for the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, I found it far more useful to think of national security policymaking as a story involving the interaction of many different roles or “scripts” that bureaucrats follow.  These scripts  — which include key traits, locations, and sources of influence — don’t just give you insight, they give you leverage. They tell you something about the advantages, limits, and biases of various actors in the system based on where they sit.

Surprisingly, the scripts associated with different communities of policy practice are mostly undocumented.  In what follows, I’ve tried to rectify that.  The different communities I identify below are not mutually exclusive.  Somebody can simultaneously follow multiple scripts, or even change scripts based on circumstances (I did).  Understanding these roles is a shortcut for understanding where various actors fit — and what they can and can’t do well — within the national security ecosystem.


During the Obama administration, I observed several political appointees referring to defense strategists as “Storytellers” because they develop narratives that rationalize the U.S. government’s innumerable activities.  To the extent that Storytellers “do” something tangible for which political appointees can take credit, it involves defining the actionable implications of competing policy approaches and writing or coordinating strategic policy documents.  Their work imposes order and coherence on a vast complex of operations, plans, and policies.  The most prominent homes for Storytellers are the National Security Council’s Strategic Planning Directorate, the Office of Strategy and Force Development in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and the Office of Policy Planning at the State Department.  But strategists exist in many other places as well, from the Joint Staff to Geographic Combatant Commands. The Army and Navy even have “strategist” occupational specialties.

The Storytellers’ unique influence over policy derives from their control over the narratives that make sense of decisions and actions.  They also define assumptions about the future security environment that inform today’s strategic choices and priorities.  Even when narratives are little more than rationalizations of past decisions, they can have the effect of constraining and guiding future ones.  If you doubt the potential influence of Storytellers, recall that AirSea Battle “doctrine” was only given public prominence because Storytellers included it in their drafting of the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review.  Storytellers also played an outsized role in the small group that developed the Obama administration’s policy of rebalancing to Asia.  Budgetary and force posture shifts that later served as evidence of a “pivot” to Asia started with a narrative that made it possible.


The force planning community exists to answer a deceptively simple question: What should the size and shape of the joint force (or some part of it) be?  The appellation “Hobgoblin” was coined by a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when he alluded to force planners in Office of the Secretary of Defense by paraphrasing from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds ….”  I was never quite clear about what he meant, but the label stuck, and has been a title worn proudly by some force planners ever since.  Storytellers and Hobgoblins are both obsessed with the “future of warfare,” but in slightly different ways.  Whereas Storytellers craft narratives and weigh competing strategic priorities, the Hobgoblins try to make sure defense budgets include the capabilities and capacity needed to prevail in plausible future wars.

The Hobgoblins may be among the least familiar national security actors to outside audiences, but their relative obscurity belies their influence, which is achieved through technical analysis: by maintaining a library of statistical models and hypothetical conflict scenarios, the Hobgoblins have hard, if esoteric, data to back up their answers to important questions about what it takes to win a fight (or multiple fights).  How many sorties of which fighter aircraft arrayed over what period of time do you need to maintain air superiority in different parts of Asia?  How many brigade combat teams does it take to secure a given span of territory in a renewed Korean conflict?  There is no correct answer to questions like these.  But if your answer is backed by rigorous analysis, it becomes ammunition for policymakers trying to connect near-term decisions to long-term effects.

Performance Artists

On the classic Salt-N-Pepa hip-hop track “Push It,” a DJ can be heard cautioning, “This dance ain’t for everybody.  Only the sexy people.”  The same might be said about Performance Artists, who are diplomats, regional advisers, and subject-matter experts.  Many of them staff policy desks in places like the Office of Asian and Pacific Security Affairs (at Defense) or the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs (at State).  They often go by titles like “Action Officer,” “Country Director,” or “Policy Advisor.”  Circumstances dictate much of what a Performance Artist does, which could be anything from crisis management to diplomatic negotiations.  Sexy indeed.

Just as frequently, circumstances call for them to be event planners, copy editors, or even bag handlers (Seriously, when you’re traveling with a cabinet secretary you’ll be asked for strategic advice one minute and then asked to carry your boss’s bags the next.  I once carried two reams of printer paper in a briefcase while traveling with the undersecretary of defense while providing subject matter expertise on the same trip).

Because they’re responsible for what former Secretary of State George Shultz once described as “gardening” — continuously maintaining relationships with foreign governments on behalf of the United States — Performance Artists translate policy and strategy to make it compatible with whomever their foreign counterpart might be.  Their unique influence over national security policy derives from their buffering or mediating role between policy decision-makers and foreign governments.  This gives them an unusual ability to define what’s politically possible at any given moment, and to authoritatively interpret the likely consequences of different decision paths involving allies and adversaries.  During the Trump administration, it may well be the Performance Artists who keep our alliances intact.


Taken from the title of Fred Kaplan’s famous book Wizards of Armageddon, the Wizards are nuclear policy experts, and increasingly, ballistic missile defense experts.  Other names in circulation include the Priesthood and Crusaders.  These various titles — which are obviously only used by “uninitiated” outsiders — poke fun at the Wizards.  Many policy wonks, especially those who work in arms control, harbor skepticism about some of the Wizards’ core beliefs: the unassailability of the nuclear triad, the logic and limits of mutual vulnerability, and the merits of long-term missile defense investments.  You can find Wizards in the aptly named Office of Nuclear and Missile Defense in the Pentagon, and a few at the State Department or the National Security Council, but the greatest concentration of them reside at U.S. Strategic Command and in academia. The biggest names in nuclear strategy are all scholars.

The Wizards’ power comes from two sources: the cloistered nature of their work and intricate beliefs about coercion theory and nuclear strategy.  They comprise an insular community with a high degree of consensus — though not necessarily as a result of groupthink.  Nuclear issues are historically treated with specialized classification compartments that make them difficult to integrate with the broader defense enterprise because most officials lack the requisite security clearances.  Wizards working in government therefore have access to facts and assessments to make policy arguments that most others do not.

Even when nuclear weapons considerations can be interwoven with other aspects of defense, nuclear strategy often has a logic all its own, as Bernard Brodie observed at the dawn of the atomic age: “Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars.  From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them.”  Strategic thinking about nuclear weapons owes its origins to scholars from the strategic studies and security studies traditions.  The intimate ties between academia and policy in the early Cold War era were never more pronounced, or more enduring, than on nuclear issues.  This theory-policy nexus advantages the Wizards in debates about nuclear weapons development, deployment, and use because decades of rigorous research by Brodie, the Wohlstetters, Hermann Kahn, Thomas Schelling, and others form the basis for the Wizards’ arguments.

Hill People

Hill People are personal and committee staff in the Senate and House of Representatives.  Some are genuine experts in areas of foreign or defense policy. Others are, by necessity, an inch deep and a mile wide.  All are information brokers, trading in the currency of late-breaking news and the political state-of-play on current issues.  Even after leaving Congress, Hill People are still often known as such because they represent a particular configuration of dangers and opportunities by virtue of their high-powered legislative networks.

Hill People can be dangerous because of their access to lawmakers and the legislative process, and because their policy agendas are the most openly linked to domestic politics.  If Hill People are against you, they have plenty of subtle tactics to subvert your policy agenda or otherwise make your life a living hell: congressional hearings, requests for technical briefings, requirements to conduct “studies” of issues under your purview, and questions for the record (QFRs), whereby legislators ask written questions to specific executive branch officials or offices. Writing the answers consume endless amounts of staff time.

But Hill People also present special opportunities to form coalitions that can circumvent executive branch hierarchies and outflank interagency opponents.  The military services, for example, have long been able to circumvent the Pentagon’s civilian leadership by working directly with Hill People to secure defense appropriations for programs that civilian officials did not deem sufficiently important — the so-called “unfunded priorities lists.”  Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was famous for controlling the Department of Defense by putting up barriers to such practices.  But his bureaucratic feats of control were remarkable precisely because they were so rare.  They also proved short-lived.  Within two years of his retirement, the unfunded requirements boondoggle resumed, and the Hill People again became key allies for services seeking to maximize their share of the defense budget.


This is a broad, catch-all category that describes warfighters, program managers, Geographic Combatant Command business, and the vast majority of national security civil servants.  You’re an Operator if your role exists to execute and implement policy rather than to actively shape or assess it.  If the world were divided into those who do things and those who talk about doing things (it’s not), Operators would be the former.

Even though it’s not their purpose, Operators can have decisive influence over policy because they’re the group most intimately connected to, and responsible for, actualizing decisions made in Washington.  If you want to move a carrier strike group from the Middle East to the Western Pacific, even on a limited basis, you’ll be constrained by endless rules involving carrier maintenance rotations, refueling procedures, risk assessments, personnel requirements, and the like.  Take, for instance, North Korea’s 1969 shootdown of a U.S. EC-121 reconnaissance aircraft.  Upon hearing the news, then-President Nixon initially demanded immediate retaliation.  But just because the president orders it, doesn’t make it so.  Nixon got “slow rolled” into doing nothing.  All the strike options the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Staff presented to Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, who in turn presented them to Nixon, were either too escalatory or took longer to execute than was politically acceptable.  In the time it took to prepare for a retaliatory strike, Nixon changed his mind.

Know Your Role

Vaclav Havel, who was a playwright before becoming President of the Czech Republic, once quipped, “If you want to see your plays performed the way you wrote them, become president.”   Yet even presidents cannot make all national security policy decisions, and were they to try, they would still rely heavily on the advice they receive and the policy coalitions that surround them.

This presents an opportunity for those seeking to influence national security policy, from within the community or without.  If you’re working within government — whether as a newly minted political appointee still looking for the restroom or a grizzled, battle-scarred bureaucrat — these scripts are a primer for how the big messy picture all comes together (or not).  But if you work outside government and are trying to shape policy with your research findings, it’s still important to know, for example, that Storytellers and Hobgoblins are the key to long-range thinking and defense budget questions, that Wizards are the primary audience for insights about nuclear deterrence, and that Performance Artists are ideal for translating your message to resonate with foreign governments.  And even if you’re just a scholar hoping to conduct interviews with government officials for research, these distinctions matter because insights from the interview data you collect will be more or less blinkered, and more or less authoritative, depending on the scripts your subjects live by.

Understanding how national security policy is practiced requires understanding the different scripts — with all their advantages, weaknesses, and bureaucratic biases — that different national security actors follow.  Only then can you reasonably expect that your plays will be performed as you wrote them.


Dr. Van Jackson is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks and host of the Pacific Pundit podcast series, available on your favorite podcast app.  He is also an Associate Professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies.  He previously held positions in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as a Storyteller and Performance Artist, in the U.S. Air Force as an Operator, and research fellowships at the Council on Foreign Relations and the Center for a New American Security.  The views expressed are his own.  Find him on Twitter at @WonkVJ.

Image: Dept of Defense

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