Another is for him to select cabinet officers (and either select their deputies or trust the judgment of his appointees to select their subordinates) who he feels share his vision and outlook, empower them to run their departments, and utilize them as his principal advisors, counselors and confidants. In this approach, best exemplified in recent years by Ronald Reagan’s administration, the president’s instincts on policy were transmitted to the cabinet officers who were expected and trusted to translate this guidance into detailed plans of action. The White House staff served to coordinate and to keep open the lines of communication between the Oval Office and the departments—and primarily to provide support to the president rather than to supersede or overshadow the departments and their secretaries. Under such a model, the national security advisor serves primarily as a tutor and aide to the president rather than his emissary to the rest of the government.
Finally, there is the hybrid model. In the George H. W. Bush administration, the White House staff and the cabinet secretaries had shared responsibilities for both policy formulation and execution. The national security advisor and the key secretaries reinforced each other’s position and enjoyed coequal access to the president. It worked because a handful of key figures—both cabinet secretaries and White House staff—collaborated and found consensus on the key issues.
The Reagan and George H. W. Bush approaches are less effective if the president makes cabinet choices not based solely on his personal preferences but out of political necessity (such as selecting people with support of key constituencies in Congress) and therefore may have less confidence in their dedication to his agenda. It also breaks down if the president believes it important to use his cabinet choices to achieve balances between competing policy perspectives—say, between a secretary of defense who is a proponent of engagement with a particular country or believes in a strategy of offshore balancing versus a secretary of state who is a skeptic of engagement or prefers a more interventionist approach. In such conditions, the importance of the White House staff rises, particularly that of the national security advisor, who can emerge as the “honest broker” or as the chief coordinator. The White House staff thus becomes the “synthesizer” of policy and assumes a greater supervisory role to ensure that whatever compromises are made are in fact being carried out. In such conditions, the national security advisor as well as other White House officials must be able to guarantee that all views and options will be heard, but there must also be a clear understanding that when the president has made a decision, it will be carried out even if it goes against the preferences of some of the team. This, however, can create conditions for the expansion of the size in the staff assigned to the White House, if a president believes that, in the absence of effective monitoring by people directly loyal to him, his decisions will be slow-rolled or even quietly opposed.
THERE ARE a number of factors that have contributed in the last two decades to presidents favoring a White House–centric national-security structure: a president and his team of advisors may believe that their policy preferences will be resisted by the bureaucracy; or that cabinet appointees will be “captured” by their departments; or that the Senate is not prepared to confirm the president’s preferred choices. When faced with the latter reality, it is easy for a president to want to house his “actual” people he would want to see in charge of the country’s defense, diplomacy, development and intelligence in the environs of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and to transfer more operational responsibilities to them, at the expense of the departments and agencies.
Moreover, given the legal reality that cabinet officers can be required to testify before Congress, White House staff, in contrast, are cloaked under presidential privilege, giving chief executives the ability to plan, test out ideas and freely discuss options without having to reveal the content of those conversations to congressional committees. Presidents also enjoy the privilege of appointing special envoys and “czars” who can be tasked with cutting across bureaucratic lines to coordinate policy and pursue specific objectives and to report directly back to the Oval Office. While in the short run this offers the sense of direct control, it ends up creating bloat and paradoxically reduces the overall effectiveness of the president in achieving his foreign-policy objectives.
President-elect Trump faces a number of unique challenges as he creates his national-security team and prepares to hit the ground running come January 2017. Unlike Richard Nixon, for instance, foreign policy has not been a long-standing interest or career focus where he has a deep reservoir of experience and comfort in addressing the issues. Unlike his Democratic rival, whom he bested in this election, he does not have the benefit of large numbers of trusted personal staff who served in Senate and State Department positions who he could then easily deploy into the higher echelons of the U.S. national-security establishment. He has expressed positions on national-security issues that resonate with a majority of the voters who elected him to office, but put him at odds with the so-called “bipartisan consensus” that has served to define the foreign-policy positions of presidents of both parties over the last two decades, yet which are shared by many who seek to serve in his administration and by those in the Senate who will hold the fate of his nominees in their hands.
This may be an opportune moment for the president-elect to draw on lessons from the business world—namely, the experience of corporations that utilize both an executive board or board of directors and a supervisory or management board for governance. Both are the “teams” of the CEO, but their composition differs with one selected by shareholders and the other selected solely by the chief executive. While the analogy does not entirely hold—since both cabinet officials and White House staff serve at the pleasure of the president—it takes into account the constitutional position of cabinet secretaries vis-à-vis the Congress versus the personal nature of the White House staff. If one conceived of “two boards” for national security, the cabinet officers might best be seen as the executive board—tasked with developing strategies and policy recommendations to present to the president and charged by him with execution, while the White House staff would serve as his advisors, counselors and experts—but also be dispatched to liaise with the departments. Just as corporations form smaller audit committees, the president could direct combinations of presidential staff and cabinet appointees to closely interact on specific, defined issues—such as reexamining the Iran nuclear deal or testing the prospects for improving relations with Russia—and for these committees to physically visit and check in with those segments of the agencies and departments, which may be charged with carrying out pieces of the overall mission. That would be in keeping with Trump’s own business philosophy that e-mail and phone contact are never enough, and that on-site face-to-face interaction is required.
In the business world, the rights, duties and obligations of board members are spelled out. As the cabinet, subcabinet and White House staff appointments are made, it might prove useful to define how these people will relate to each other and to the president and to the vice president, the conditions of their access to the Oval Office, and how different portfolios are distributed. These understandings would eliminate what Trump, in the past, has identified as the three factors for the failure of business projects by defining lines of communication, lines of leadership and accountability, and marrying expertise and executive experience.
America has not run its foreign policy on business principles—at least since the days of Secretary of State James Baker within the George H. W. Bush administration, whose tenure saw a whole host of diplomatic and national-security successes buttressed by successful deal making. Perhaps it is time to make the Situation Room more like the boardroom.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a contributing editor at the National Interest, is coauthor of U.S. Foreign Policy and Defense Strategy: The Evolution of an Incidental Superpower.
Image: Empty boardroom in Hong Kong. Flickr/Creative Commons/@ricardo