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Research Questions

  1. How has the evolution of the decisionmaking system diminished its effectiveness?
  2. What sort of challenges does the current decisionmaking system need to address?
  3. What sort of changes would improve the effectiveness of the decisionmaking system?

Every president needs a decisionmaking system that harnesses the full capabilities and accumulated wisdom of the U.S. government and the nation's many stakeholders. Yet national security professionals — the officials who must advise the president on the most-difficult decisions — cite a range of structural problems that hinder effective policymaking. While a more focused and timely decisionmaking process will not necessarily improve outcomes for the United States, poor choices could be calamitous. This Perspective analyzes a range of management challenges in the national security system and presents eight recommendations for strengthening U.S. decisionmaking and oversight of policy implementation. Among the conclusions: The National Security Council staff size should be reduced to better focus on high-priority areas. Civil-military operations should be planned by a new joint office at the State Department with a military general officer as deputy. Red-team and lessons-learned efforts would help ensure that the system is adaptive and responsive. Better integration of intelligence insights and secondments of senior officials across agencies can improve the quality and coherence of decisionmaking. And the use of special envoys, or "czars," should be limited.

Key Findings

Several Features of the Current Structure Hinder Good Decisionmaking

  • While the exact number of professional National Security Council staff is unclear, insiders cite the Obama administration's NSC staff as more than 500. Such a large staff has a number of downsides.
  • A balanced civil-military relationship is critical to managing the different time lines under which military officials and diplomats operate through conflict and postconflict situations.
  • Current messaging systems face several challenges, including obsolescence, lack of departmental cross-over, and inconsistent application of standards for archiving and dissemination.
  • Intelligence insights are more systematically integrated into the policy process, though recent senior officials note the effect may be to reinforce risk aversion.

Several Factors Impinge on U.S. National Security Strategy Formulation

  • Large states are presenting new types of security challenges — especially China and Russia.
  • Nonstate actors play a bigger role and have a longer reach.
  • Environmental stress is an increasing concern.
  • The interconnected global economic system means that problems in region can quickly affect the rest of the world.
  • The proliferation and dispersion of weapons technology and delivery systems means that conflicts can quickly escalate in violence levels and jump across borders.
  • The United States has fewer resources to bind its allies and pressure its adversaries.
  • Patterns of energy supply and investment, always important in geopolitical terms, change more quickly and more thoroughly than ever.
  • Climate change poses a new challenge — both urgent and long-term — to economic security and resilience.

Recommendations

  • Reduce senior staff size.
  • Empower the Department of State on policy and leave implementation to the agencies.
  • The Executive Secretaries should be instructed to crack down on abuse of email channels for instruction and reporting, and institute wide U.S. government usage of the State Department's "SMART" messaging architecture to send, retrieve, and archive organizational messages of all sorts.
  • Issue clear presidential instructions to ensure representation.
  • Integrate intelligence analytical insights into decisionmaking, and ensure intelligence analysts have appropriately wide scope.
  • Increase use of red teams and lessons-learned efforts.
  • Build national security professionals.
  • Make rare use of czars, and sunset all special envoy, coordinator, or representative positions with each presidential term.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    Why Process Matters

  • Chapter Three

    How Did the National Security System Evolve?

  • Chapter Four

    Previous Attempts at Reform

  • Chapter Five

    Changing Environment

  • Chapter Six

    Recommendations for the National Security Decision Structure

  • Chapter Seven

    Conclusion: Strategizing, Decisionmaking, and Policy Implementation

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