Yesterday and Today Through the Lens of Our Top Security Advisers

By Thea McDonald

On October 10, 2017, the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) hosted a panel titled The National Security Council at 70: Charting the Future of America's Security.

CSIS President and CEO John J. Hamre moderated a coalition of distinguished experts who, among the four, have seen and addressed our nation’s most imminent national security issues over multiple generations. These four men have all held the job of top adviser to the president for national security. Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster joined three of his predecessors, General James L. Jones Jr., Mr. Stephen Hadley and Dr. Henry Kissinger, to discuss the history of our nation’s National Security Council (NSC) and the issues the NSC currently faces.

Congressional Collaboration

Faced with Congress’ oversight power and in possession of executive branch authority, the NSC “sits at the fault line of the national government,” Hamre noted as he asked for the panelists’ views on information sharing with Congress and deference to the president. Lt. Gen. McMaster, National Security Adviser to President Trump, expressed that his NSC aims to include Members of Congress in early strategy development conversations as many of the challenges our nation faces today require legislative fixes.

Gen. Jones, who served on Capitol Hill as a non-partisan Marine Liaison Officer and then as National Security Adviser to President Obama, opined that the NSC should “project an image of bipartisanship.” He continued and noted, “When I became National Security Adviser, all of a sudden I was a Democrat – and I didn’t know I was.”

President George W. Bush’s National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley expressed that while his former position is not Senate-confirmable, he spent plenty of time talking with Congress on national security priorities.

Dr. Kissinger, who served as National Security Adviser to Presidents Nixon and Ford, and in other capacities under President Reagan, told of older times “when bipartisanship wasn’t at its height” but during which he and President Nixon held private, unrecorded meetings over drinks with members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in their efforts to involve Congress in their decision-making.

Strategy vs. Operation

Noting that the NSC is faced with criticisms that its role has devolved from strategic to operational – and that the NSC should be a forum for strategy development – the panelists seemingly agreed that the agency’s focus should indeed be developing integrated strategies, but that staying out of the operations game is a difficult undertaking.

Technology’s Impact

According to Dr. Kissinger, when the U.S. government began opening lines of communication with China, the U.S. sent printed letters via a Pakistan diplomat, who would transfer the communications between the U.S. and China – taking anywhere from a couple of weeks to a few months from sending a letter until receiving a response.

Today, said Gen. Jones, the speed of information transfer and technological development makes it necessary for the National Security Adviser to always know what’s going on in every corner of the world, be able to sift through that information, and distill what the president needs to know on a daily basis.

Lt. Gen. McMaster acknowledged today’s technology-driven challenges and described the importance of agency heads in the operation, implementation and partnership in managing these challenges and contributing to the development of national security strategies.

Pragmatic Realism

Reflecting on his predecessors’ comments about the current national security situation, McMaster noted, “the stakes couldn’t be higher” because new and sophisticated threats emerge daily. McMaster described today’s threat pool as “democratization of destruction,” which “requires us to focus on our strategic competence.”

According to McMaster, President Trump has assessed the threats we face and laid out a strategy for moving forward. Put the safety and security of the American people first. Coordinate economic, diplomatic and military strategies. Prioritize “peace through strength.” Work to deter a broad range of bad actors. Expand America’s influence across the globe, and capitalize on our relationships with our allies. These are the ideals McMaster pinned to President Trump’s “pragmatic realism” approach to national security to close out the session.

To watch the full panel discussion, click here