Make Good Choices! National Security Transitions and the Policy and Process Decisions


What’s the likely “second term Trump foreign policy” or “Biden foreign policy agenda”? Think pieces and Twitter threads abound, and dozens are willing to share their predictions on background.  The re-elected president or the president-elect will have to make a series of critical choices on process and personnel during the next few months. These decisions, typically made during the transition period and not always as intentionally as they should be, will serve as the foundation for policy outcomes for the next four years.

Who leads, how agencies implement policy, and the role of the National Security Council process draw less attention than strategy and policies, but they shape the impact of a presidency. Habits set early in an administration will drive foreign policy outcomes during the next four years. While some personnel and process questions lend themselves to soundbite solutions — like adopting the Brent Scowcroft model, holding over leaders of the opposing party, or shrinking the National Security Council staff — they are not always realistic in practice for a particular administration and may not be best for a president’s policy agenda, or for the country.



Carefully considering these matters may be more important for second-term presidents than first-term presidents. A newly elected president is forced to dedicate time to personnel and process questions due to the requirements of setting up a new government. A president entering their second term, however, is liable to gloss over these issues. As former White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten has said, “Every two-term presidency has had the same problem, which is the president doesn’t think of it as a transition.”

As we move towards transition, observers of national security should take careful stock of how these personnel and process questions are addressed — and practitioners should push their principals to handle such choices with the seriousness they deserve.

Continuity and Change Among Senior Officials

The most public choice a new president needs to make is who will be kept on and who will be replaced.

Keeping experienced and effective leaders can ensure that ongoing operations are not disrupted, allow a new president to signal a predecessor’s policy decisions will not be repudiated, or serve as a bipartisan olive branch. In 2008, for instance, President Barack Obama decided to retain Robert Gates at the Defense Department. Doing so smoothed the Pentagon transition amid two major conflicts, and reassured skeptics of Obama’s foreign policy instincts. As one Obama advisor told the New York Times, the decision to appoint Gates “looks pretty damn good because of continuity and stability.”

Of course, having the same cadre of senior officials direct American foreign policy can have unintended consequences. According to Kurt Campbell and Jim Steinberg, President Lyndon Johnson’s “heavy reliance on holdovers [from the Kennedy administration] undoubtedly made it more difficult to give serious consideration to a radical departure in U.S. policy on Vietnam.” And though Gates’ leadership gave Obama’s defense strategy and budget process credibility, it may also have prevented the president from pursuing his preferred approach in Afghanistan, given the two leaders’ divergent policy objectives in that theater.

Retaining the same foreign policy team can also have serious political downsides. During the 1976 Republican primary, President Gerald Ford was slammed by an upstart conservative rival — Ronald Reagan — for his decision to keep Henry Kissinger as secretary of state. While Reagan’s primary challenge was unsuccessful, his critique resonated so deeply with Republicans that they forced Ford to accept a plank in the party platform denouncing Kissinger’s — and by extension Ford’s — Soviet policy.

Moreover, new senior leadership can bring about much needed change. President Jimmy Carter’s selection of Adm. Stansfield Turner as CIA director helped to modernize the agency’s collection process and move it past the Church committee-era scandals — even if some of his reforms were less than appreciated by agency veterans. A re-elected president can also use the transition into a second term to reset the administration. In 2004, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley advised President George W. Bush to replace his entire national security team in order to distance himself from the increasingly unpopular war in Iraq.

A fresh foreign policy team, however, can take time to find their sea legs — even if they have served before. Every new team needs time to develop personal rapport, and their years of experience may prove as much of a hindrance as an enabler. A common vocabulary, shared understanding of roles and division of labor, and balanced perception of risk take time to develop and cannot be waved away by lengthy resumes. The foreign policy team and process under President George H. W. Bush and National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft is commonly regarded as exceptional. Yet during a showdown with Manuel Noriega, the dictator of Panama, Bush and his team struggled despite decades of collective experience. “We did not act decisively. This was our first crisis. We didn’t do particularly well,” Scowcroft would later recall. Any new foreign policy team will face similar growing pains, making empowering new leadership a potentially risky decision.

Autonomy of the Cabinet

Who a president chooses to lead links closely to the role the cabinet plays in developing and implementing an administration’s foreign policy. Senior officials granted autonomy on personnel and resources will have different qualifications — and requirements — than those more comfortable spending time debating policy in the White House Situation Room or deferring to presidential preferences.

With more than two million full-time civilian employees, the sheer size of the federal government demands some degree of decentralization. And without a leadership team that is empowered to take risks and innovate, the federal government can struggle to respond effectively to crises and threats. At the same time, strong incentives push presidents towards centralized decision-making. As Charles Dawes, a cabinet secretary and Calvin Coolidge’s vice president, once remarked, “Cabinet secretaries are vice presidents in charge of spending and as such are the natural enemies of the president.”

During the transition period, a president should evaluate these tradeoffs and decide how to manage the relationship with their cabinet.

Attempts at total decentralization have run aground. Carter began his administration pledging to have a “cabinet government” that empowered individual secretaries — an explicit rejection of the strong White House model developed by President Richard Nixon. The result, according to Stu Eizenstat, Carter’s chief domestic policy aide, was a disjointed and confused administration in which the White House was blindsided by controversial decisions made by the cabinet. Before the end of his term, Carter abandoned the experiment. More recently, Obama walked back a promise to delegate power to Attorney General Eric Holder after Holder controversially decided to try accused terrorists in the civilian court system.

Hierarchical control, however, also has its downsides. Cabinet secretaries frequently chafe under tight White House control. Gates grew so frustrated with White House interventions that he told subordinates if they ever got a call from the White House they should “tell ‘em to go to hell and call me.” Micromanagement became the most dire insult of the Obama national security apparatus, though frequently with little attention to why or whether White House scrutiny was necessary. But too often if White House attention or support becomes a necessary condition for policy implementation, a distracted or inattentive White House can inadvertently kill promising initiatives.

Among the most contentious issues is that of sub-cabinet appointments. Presidents often want to place their preferred personnel in political appointments in the agencies, especially personnel with White House relationships. As Reagan aide Ed Meese explained, “We wanted our appointees to be the president’s ambassadors to the agencies, not the other way around.” Carter bucked this trend and gave his cabinet secretaries free rein to name their subordinates, a choice that empowered greater team-building at the agency level but resulted in less trust and connectivity with the White House.

Cabinet officers generally want to control sub-cabinet appointments themselves. And selections made by external parties like the White House can prove problematic. In 2001, a hawkish John Bolton was placed in Colin Powell’s relatively more moderate State Department — “behind enemy lines,” as a member of Vice President Dick Cheney’s staff put it. The result of this arrangement was a State Department that was frequently at odds with itself, undermining American diplomatic efforts. A lack of control over personnel may also discourage promising candidates from even seeking cabinet positions.

A president will have to decide how to weigh the need for centralized authority against the desire to offer autonomy to their team — and do so with purpose.

The National Security Council Process and Role of the Staff

The primary mechanism for enforcing the choice of centralization or autonomy is the National Security Council and its associated staff. Presidents and their advisors can give lip service to the archetypal Scowcroft model for policy process and decision-making, but the National Security Council process — the battle rhythm of decisions, the priority of voices, the acceptance of risk, the iteration of policy and strategy — reflects the president’s preferences. These habits are set early in an administration and are difficult to adjust midstream, even with leadership rotation.

The National Security Council process is a collection of bureaucratic decisions with major policy consequences: who hosts meetings on what topic; what is on the agenda; when are decisions made; who attends these meetings and who is kept out; and who follows up on decisions when they are made. Some presidents, like Carter and Reagan, have resisted a formalized or centralized decision-making process driven from their West Wing. In Carter’s case, that decision was explicitly intended to “to place more responsibility in the departments and agencies.” Other presidents, perhaps best exemplified by President Dwight Eisenhower and Nixon, have attempted to concentrate foreign policy decision-making within the National Security Council, and were supported by an active staff.

Today, many advocates seek to move decision-making out of the National Security Council and into the State Department and other cabinet-level agencies. Less formal or centralized approaches, however, when pursued by Carter and Reagan, have been criticized as leading to disputes and bureaucratic intrigue. In Carter’s case, the lack of clear responsibilities and formal process led to squabbles between his secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, and National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. In Reagan’s case, an informal and free-wheeling National Security Council process was identified as one of the proximate causes of the Iran-Contra scandal. Without formal process and clear lines of authority, the National Security Council may also struggle to coordinate long-range planning, instead becoming consumed with the issue of the day.

Still, when the National Security Council has driven the policy process, it has faced critiques that it has become less a hub for coordination than a policy and operational entity in its own right. Successive national security advisors across administrations have sought to streamline the National Security Council staff, judging size as a key driver of operational mischief and outsized control. While the size of the National Security Council may enable micromanagement, micromanagement is also driven by the specific preferences of White House leadership and capacity gaps at agencies.

Presidents should be honest with themselves about the sort of policy process they wish to run and transparently organize their National Security Council process and staff accordingly. Though certain models have attractive reputations, the worst outcome would be to select a popular concept and circumvent it with duplicative policy mechanisms or staff.

Each of these three choices will have a profound impact on the way that American foreign policy is implemented and pursued. The transition period — first to second — is the only time presidents have to wrestle with these decisions and ensure their outcomes are to their liking.



Loren DeJonge Schulman is the Vice President for Research, Analysis, and Evaluation at the Partnership for Public Service, co-host of the Bombshell podcast, and has previously served in senior staff roles at the National Security Council and Department of Defense.

Alex Tippett is a research associate at the Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition. 

Image: White House (Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Manuel Noriega was the dictator of Nicaragua, when in fact he was the leader of Panama.