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Affairs of State: The Interagency and National Security

Edited by Dr. Gabriel Marcella. | December 2008

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A Summary

No power in history has matched the global reach and influence of the United States. The United States is globally deployed with over 250 diplomatic missions and a system of combatant military commands, and its soft power attracts much of the world. Yet the essential challenge to American statesmen remains the effective coordination and integration of the various elements of national power through the large and complex interagency system. Defending the nation will be an even greater task in the 21st century as statesmen, civilian and military, grapple with a dynamic geopolitical context of non-traditional national security threats which will require fluency in meshing all the levers and instruments of power.

The modern interagency process originated with the National Security Act of 1947, which established the National Security Council system. Since that time the interagency has grown in size and responsibility, in tandem with America's expanding global role. Ten salient points help to understand the strength and weaknesses of the system and the need for serious improvement:

1. To defend the nation in the 21st century statesmen must be increasingly sensitive to and proficient in the whole of government, all instruments approach to national security and military strategy. This admonition applies equally to civilian and military officials of the U.S. Government.

2. Functional interdependence characterizes the interagency from the national level down to the operational levels of embassies and combatant commands. This means that departments and agencies must integrate their ideas, programs, and resources. No single department can nor should work without the others. Much effort goes into functional integration, such as the central role of the National Security Council and assigning Foreign Policy Advisors to combatant commands. These senior diplomats, often ambassadors, work as advisors to the combatant commanders in order to promote policy-strategy integration.

3. There are two interacting levels of the interagency; the national strategic and the operational in the field. The two are intimately tied and should work together in relative harmony. The reality is often less than the ideal, with tension generated by competing priorities, human frailties, and other variables. It is imperative to learn from successes as well as failures.

4. Though there is a propensity to resist, the interagency system tries to learn from its responses and adaptations to the changing demands of the international system. Such learning and adaptation are codified in writing by succeeding administrations, often in the form of presidential national security directives and other documents. It is imperative that national security professionals understand and participate in the process of learning and adaptation, and then apply the wisdom in their work.

5. Personality, diplomatic skill, and respect for other institutional cultures, along with written and spoken communication skills, are factors that matter immensely for those who seek to work effectively in the interagency. Even in the best of circumstances rational choice decisionmaking may clash with bureaucratic politics and other irrationalities.

6. The institutional cultures of the various departments (such as diplomatic, military, intelligence) often differentiate approaches to strategic planning and operations. They are realities that must be surmounted in the pursuit of the common interest of national security.

7. The National Security Council (NSC) and its staff, which work directly for the President, are the center of gravity for the interagency process. According to the preference of the President, the function of the NSC has oscillated between coordination-integration of policy and making policy. Military and civilian officers, whether at the national strategic level or at the operational level in the field, need to learn how to work with the NSC and members of its staff.

8. The NSC system designed in 1947 is inadequate for the geopolitical requirements of the 21st century and must be reformed. There is, for example, an enormous asymmetry in personnel, technology, and in opportunities for professional development between the Department of State and the Department of Defense. State is literally a pauper with respect to resources and in view of the enormous number of missions and activities it must support. This imbalance must be corrected because it threatens the credibility and effectiveness of American power and influence. This is merely one of the changes that need to be made, as numerous commissions and studies recommend.[i]

9. It is imperative to develop a new personnel system for the various departments that deal with national security. Such a system is the national security officer proposed by President George W. Bush in mid 2008. Currently, there are few incentives for civilian and military careerists to cross boundaries and serve tours in other departments for the purpose of cross-fertilization and mutual learning. The new personnel system must stress functional integration and provide sufficient professional rewards, such as promotion.

10. The various senior service schools and other federal institutions of education and training should take the initiative in promoting interagency education. Bu such education is not likely to occur unless it is properly funded, the students are rewarded, and the investment sustained for the long term.

The findings and insights of the various papers in this compendium are the work of seasoned practitioners and scholar diplomats who have devoted careers to making the interagency system work well.National security professionals working in Washington or in the field will find the accumulated wisdom very useful in their work.


[i] For example, James Locher, Project On National Security Reform, Washington, DC: Center for the Study of the Presidency, 2008.