Foreign policy articulates national security objectives, whereas strategy is the art of identifying the ways and means to secure these objectives. “Deny Iran nuclear weapons” is a clear foreign policy goal, but in the absence of a plan for achieving it, the goal remains only an aspiration. Political scientist Stephen Krasner notes that the formulation and execution of an effective strategy depends, in part, on the capabilities of state organizational and administrative structures.

Although this may seem obvious, U.S. national security strategies often devote little attention to the institutional and procedural capacities required for adequate implementation. Indeed, the dearth of scholastic literature devoted to the analysis of institutional adequacy and effectiveness underscores a lack of appreciation of the importance of bureaucratic capacities and capabilities, especially those charged with the coordinated execution of the various aspects of the national security system in its entirety. Instead, policy makers and strategists often take for granted the ability of relevant departments and agencies to deliver. Unfortunately, this is often a bad assumption. The creation of a sound national security strategy requires a deep understanding of how state structures and processes might either obstruct or facilitate efficient and effective implementation.

After World War II, bureaucratic and administrative structures for implementing foreign policy measures have evolved mostly in a piecemeal fashion. Modifications to the security institutions have been made sector by sector, but without the subsequent and necessary shifts in related protocols and procedures or changes to the relevant frameworks. The foundation for the modern national security strategy was initially put in place with the National Security Act of 1947 and the establishment of the National Security Council (NSC), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the National Military Establishment (later renamed the Department of Defense) under a Secretary of Defense. But in the 68 years since, there has been no subsequent and equally consequential revision in organizational design and procedures, although there has been constant bureaucratic growth and expansion of mission, as well as some less comprehensive but still significant innovations to the national security architecture.

Several of the more important changes to the structure of national security institutions have included the following.

  • Department of Defense
    • The establishment of the All-Volunteer Force in 1973, which, following the recommendation of Gates Commission (led by former Secretary of State Thomas Gates, Jr.), formally ended conscription in the United States.
    • The Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, which streamlined the military chain-of-command, bypassing the service chiefs on the Joint Staff (i.e., Army Chief of Staff, Chief of Naval Operations, etc.) so that the Combatant Commanders (i.e., Africa Command, Central Command, etc.) report directly to the Secretary of Defense, who, in turn, reports directly to the President of the United States. The service chiefs were assigned an advisory role to the President and the Secretary of Defense. They were also given the responsibility of training and equipping personnel within the respective unified combatant commands.
  • The Intelligence Community
    • The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 established the senior executive position of Director of National Intelligence (DNI), the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), as well as the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. It reorganized the Intelligence community to facilitate the sharing of information between the intelligence gathering agencies and the law enforcement branches with the goal of preventing future attacks on American interests both at home and abroad.
  • National Security Council
    • Although the Secretary of the Treasury was made a statutory member of the NSC in 1949, it was not until 1993 that the National Economic Council (NEC) was established by Executive Order 12835 to “coordinate the economic policymaking process with respect to domestic and international economic issues.”
    • With the “Combating Terrorism: Presidential Decision Directive 62” (PDD-62) of 1998, the Clinton Administration created the position of National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counterterrorism, who reported to the President through the National Security Adviser.
    • While the Intelligence Reform Act of 2004 placed the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) outside of the NSC structure, during the Obama Administration, the role of the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism has proven to be an influential one.
    • In 2009, President Obama merged the staffs of the Homeland Security Council (HSC) and National Security Council into one National Security Staff (NSS). However, the HSC and NSC continue to exist by statute as independent councils of leadership advising the President.
    • The size of the staff supporting the National Security Council has grown from about 20 in the Kennedy years to about 100 in the years following 9/11. Since the merging of the NSC and HSC staffs in 2009, the size of National Security Staff is difficult to confirm, but estimates have risen to about 250 personnel.

While the evolution of organizational & administrative structures and related processes since the end of the Second World War occurred in incremental steps (the National Security Act of 1947 being the big exception), the combination of these modifications has had a major impact on the overall development and implementation of U.S. national security strategy. Moreover, the cumulative changes to strategic institutions have resulted in very clear trends with regard to lines of authority, communication, and cooperation within the foreign policy community:

  • The President’s ability to manage the various aspects of the foreign policy from the White House has been strengthened.
  • The breadth and depth of strategic deliberations have been increased to include economic, law enforcement, and counterterrorism interests.
  • Coordination and interoperability between the different branches of the armed forces with respect to their ability to jointly plan and conduct military operations has been improved.
  • The Intelligence community has been reorganized to streamline authorities to improve cooperation between agencies with respect to the sharing of information

These trends are, in turn, having significant impacts on the efficiency and effectiveness of the overarching national security strategy—a subject that will require further study as institutional designs continue to be adjusted and modified to better meet the rapidly evolving domestic, regional, and international challenges. For now, a brief review of the capacity and capabilities of the relevant agencies to plan and implement national security strategy both at home and abroad makes evident the importance of this topic.


The State Department, responsible for developing and implementing the nation’s foreign policy, is grossly undermanned with respect to its vast and complex array of mandates and requirements. With almost no professional development programs beyond language training, the majority of State Department personnel have inadequate regional competence outside of Europe and Northeast Asia. U.S. Embassies are not organized and empowered to deal with twenty-first century realities (e.g., locking down embassies and consulates in response to terrorist threats; becoming increasingly marginalized from strategic discussions as advances in communications and transportation permit many details of bilateral relations to be managed by those based in Washington, D.C).

Moreover, the State Department’s personnel issues are mirrored by those in the U.S. Agency for International Development, the agency often tasked with supporting the implementation of State’s aid programs. Most troubling is that the problems at State can only be addressed if the President and Secretary of State are willing to invest a great deal of time and interest and if Congress is willing to assign it greater budgetary priority—both of which are unlikely to occur unless faced with a severe and massively damaging organizational failure.

The Military

U.S. Armed Forces are currently transitioning away from a posture that has supported over a decade of war. Already aware of the need to restructure each branch of the uniformed services, the Defense Department is also being forced to review and rapidly shift their budgetary priorities to meet the strict dictates of the Budget Control Act of 2011, a fiscal austerity policy often referred to as the Sequestration. The deep spending cuts imposed by this act are forcing DOD officials to focus on the essentials, while also compelling them to make tough choices between rising personnel costs and investments in the next generation of weapon systems, equipment, and training. Even without budgetary concerns, the very success of the Goldwater-Nichols Act (mentioned earlier) may have unwittingly created an armed forces with far-reaching global capabilities and interests that tend to elevate the desirability of military options when considering crisis response.


Throughout the Cold War but especially after 9/11, there has been a steady effort to place development assistance in direct support of the national security strategies. The problem, though, is that, after decades of having its reporting authority and even its programs moved from one place to another, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the institution that implements America’s development policies, is badly fragmented. Indeed, frustration with the inefficiencies in the capacity and the capabilities of USAID led to newer programs being placed and managed outside of that agency. The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), and the Middle East Partnership Initiative are just a few examples of development programs that remain outside of USAID authorities. In addition, like their counterparts in the Department of State, USAID is short of expertise and known for their risk aversion.


The focus of the Intelligence community has substantially shifted over past 18 years from collection and analysis to covert field operations that include surveillance and hunting terrorists. This change in agency culture is such that a premium is placed on designating targets and then classifying those targets as the number one national security priority. The risk here is that while the CIA is improving its “whack-a-terrorist” skills, it is also now fully engaged in both policy advocacy and implementation. Indeed, with the Intelligence community striving to increase its sphere of activity, there is a very real danger that as it pursues its counterterrorism missions well beyond its central task of collecting and analyzing information, it will also neglect and thereby compromise its role as the provider of best objective intelligence.


While its staff size has increased significantly since 1947 (especially under Presidents Nixon and then Clinton), it is not clear if it is structured in a manner that best serves its purpose. Cabinet secretaries and military commanders often lament NSC micromanagement, but as security problems become ever more complex as well as inherently and increasingly “interagency,” the challenges of achieving unity of effort become greater. The 2009 reorganization of the NSC and HSC staffs was implemented to improve interagency communication and cooperation. However, it is too soon to know whether that organizational design modification has had the desired effect on enhancing the efficiency of developing optimal policy options as well as increasing the effective implementation of the numerous aspects of the U.S. national security strategy.

A comprehensive and effective United States national security strategy must take stock of the capacity of the relevant government machinery to plan and implement. To move beyond mere aspirations requires a deep understanding of the organizational structures and administrative capabilities of the agencies charged with formulating and executing the policies, programs, and processes associated with that strategy. To do otherwise is to risk overpromising and under-delivering. A national security strategy that builds on the strengths and competencies of the existing security institutions is only a first step, but is one crucial to its success. 

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