Revisiting NSC Reform: Lessons Learned from Previous Failures (Marcellus Policy Analysis)

By Grant Golub, Spring 2021 Marcellus Policy Fellow

The current structures of U.S. national security policymaking have allowed the National Security Council (NSC) to dominate American foreign policy. An organization originally designed to coordinate and integrate foreign and defense policy has quietly grown into the most powerful component of the U.S. national security apparatus. The NSC has supplanted traditional executive branch agencies and departments constitutionally tasked with managing the nation’s foreign affairs. Instead, a comparatively obscure organization based at the White House with little accountability to the American people is principally crafting U.S. foreign policy. This cannot continue.

Reforming the NSC system though will be a challenge. If future NSC reform is to be successful and the institution’s supremacy diminished, a new wholesale strategy is essential. However, this is not possible without learning from previous attempts to change the NSC and the underlying structures of U.S. foreign policy decision making. Policymakers must learn from the past to effectively change the future.

Once a broad-based reform process is established, lawmakers should make a series of changes to recreate the NSC system. The National Security Advisor and their top deputies should be made Senate confirmable. The number of outside hires on the NSC should be sharply curtailed in favor of placing officials from a range of executive branch agencies on the NSC staff. And finally, Congress should establish new oversight committees for national security. If these revisions were made and the NSC returned to its humbler origins, U.S. foreign policy would likely become more balanced, restrained, prudent, and valuable to every American.