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Biden's team must forge an early national security strategy — and better processes

Biden's team must forge an early national security strategy — and better processes
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President-elect BidenJoe BidenBiden to sign executive order aimed at increasing voting access Myanmar military conducts violent night raids Confidence in coronavirus vaccines has grown with majority now saying they want it MORE’s emerging national security team has impressive credentials, reflecting his own deep experience. This will be a big advantage, given the need to “build back better” with the world as well as at home. The tasks include rebuilding institutions battered over the past four years, including the State Department, the intelligence community, and law enforcement and justice agencies.

The daunting international agenda makes it imperative that the president and his advisers draw on the best lessons from the first 74 years of the National Security Council (NSC). These lessons include a focus on teamwork with vigorous debate, longer-term vision, effective policy implementation, and balancing well between oversight and micromanagement. 

The current environment demands better interagency coordination and more effective internal and external communications. The new NSC must address the expanded overlap of international and domestic agendas that has rocked the U.S., as highlighted by sharp debates over trade versus jobs. The NSC also must better manage emerging and morphing issues, which cluster around technology, science, health, cyber and the environment. 

Talented professionals such as Tony Blinken, Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinSunday shows preview: Manchin makes the rounds after pivotal role in coronavirus relief debate US proposes new summit with Taliban on interim Afghan government Overnight Defense: White House open to reforming war powers | Army base might house migrant children | Fauci scolds military on vaccine MORE, Janet YellenJanet Louise YellenThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - Senate begins marathon vote-a-rama before .9T COVID-19 relief passage The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Virus relief bill headed for weekend vote Debt to break WWII record by 2031 MORE and Jake SullivanJake SullivanHillicon Valley: China implicated in Microsoft breach | White House adds Big Tech critic | QAnon unfazed after false prediction White House calls Microsoft email breach an 'active threat' The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Virus relief bill headed for weekend vote MORE bring good sensibility to the team, but they need to institutionalize new norms of behavior and more efficient NSC mechanisms as they take the reins. My public service and the recent opportunity to review the NSC’s practices since 1947 with American University students lead me to the following recommendations:

  • Collegial NSC teamwork and vigorous debate over a good range of options are vital. Tilting the tables by withholding information, distorting options, leaking, etc. should be grounds for discipline or departure. The new team cannot tolerate such divisive behavior, especially given the domestic and international challenges. 
  • To oversee an effective interagency and NSC process in the “honest broker” model set by Brent Scowcroft, Jake Sullivan, national security adviser-designate (NSA), will need presidential authority to enforce discipline and clear “rules of the road,” in addition to overseeing policy development and implementation. 
  • Interagency decision-making should be triaged with only the most important issues rising to the full NSC and the president. The president should be given a viable range of options with dissent encouraged. Intelligence must be politics-neutral. The president should reinforce a strong NSC process, even if deliberating occasionally with close advisers on particularly sensitive issues. On bigger strategic issues, red teams, outside experts and task forces should be employed to introduce fresh perspectives.  
  • The administration needs to forge a national security strategy early, setting overarching U.S. goals. The strategy process will build government-wide understanding of the vision and allow Defense, State and other agencies to reflect key goals in more detailed strategies. 
  •  A first order of business is to review existing policies, such as climate, immigration, tariffs and sanctions, and to put in action an initial agenda designed to demonstrate renewed U.S. leadership. 
  • Once decisions are made, special attention should be given to clear communication about the decision and implementation responsibilities. Special efforts are needed to communicate regularly with Congress as part of building the closest possible relations.
  • Policy implementation needs a special NSC process mechanism, with regular reviews, to monitor results and make policy adjustments. Cabinet heads should have the primary responsibility for policy implementation, but the NSC process needs to evaluate results, while avoiding micromanagement.

  • The press of business inevitably pushes the president and officials to a shorter-term focus. The NSC should have an office charged with monitoring progress on the longer-term strategy. It should lead an interagency process to examine progress, or lack thereof, and organize biannual strategy reviews with the president. This same group can organize “lessons learned” exercises, vital for improving performance.
  • The new team should make an early effort to forge a unified national security budget, as NSA-designate Sullivan has advocated. Achieving results often demands five- to 10-year horizons, not the 1-to-2 years built into the current budget system.
  • The NSC staff should be kept to fewer than 200 people. This number should allow the president to be well supported; provide expertise on geographic, global and emerging issues; and permit the NSC to promote interagency collaboration in policy development and implementation.

  • The NSC process should be effectively integrated with economic and homeland security policy processes. The U.S. cannot afford “gaps” between domestic and international policies and between economic and national security issues, or serious problems will develop. This is crucial as technology, cyber, disinformation, science and health emerge as preeminent global and domestic issues. Likewise, policies on trade, workforce development, R&D and immigration are about national security and the United States’s ability to compete in the world, as well as improving domestic well-being. The NSC needs new mechanisms to mange well these interconnections.

Earl Anthony Wayne, a retired career ambassador, teaches at American University's School of International Service and is a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars. Follow him on Twitter @EAnthonyWayne.