National Security Council - Conclusion

No president has ever made national security policy in the National Security Council. The NSC was not created as a policymaking body but as an advisory body to the president. The Cold War brought into the policy process various agencies and groups whose views were important but rarely coordinated. Foreign policy was no longer just in the hands of the State Department. The Defense Department and the JCS, joined by the CIA and the Treasury Department, were all players on the field of U.S. global power.

Therefore, even when presidents avoided the formal structure created early in the Cold War, they found it necessary to find a substitute. Interdepartmental committees and the Committee of Principals were all created to fill this role.

The turning point in the history of the NSC came in 1961 with the election of John F. Kennedy. When Kennedy brought into the White House a national security adviser with a staff, he began an inexorable move toward a completely new process. Even though it continued to meet sporadically, after 1961 the NSC was nothing more than the president's adviser and his staff, which soon evolved into just the president's staff.

Personality has been more important to the policy process than structure. That each president uses the NSC differently is part of the received wisdom about the policy process. Every president uses the NSC differently in order to differentiate himself from his predecessor as campaign promises for new policies are subsequently translated into new processes.

Since it was created by an act of Congress, no president can abolish the NSC. For the most part, however, it has evolved beyond recognition. The interdepartmental and ad hoc committees that form the crux of agency participation bear only a slight resemblance to Truman's senior staff or Eisenhower's Planning Board, and the dominant role of the national security adviser has changed the equation since the time when chairmen set the agenda.

The effect on policy is difficult to gauge. The danger faced by most presidents has been the tendency to rely on a few loyal advisers. If they do not participate in NSC meetings or the meetings of "principals," presidents become isolated. They do not have a forum for contrary views and are remote from those who must defend and implement their policies. Nixon and Kissinger may be prime examples of this isolation, but presidents such as Johnson and George H. W. Bush also preferred selective advice.

The NSC of the 1947 statute is probably dead and certainly obsolete. The end of the Cold War and the American position as the strongest global power probably requires a different kind of national security organization in order for the president to be truly advised in this new century.

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