Foreign, Security Policies Are Too Complex to Be Left to the State Department

<i> Robert E. Hunter, a member of the National Security Council staff in the Carter Administration, is co-chairman of the Presidential Transition Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. </i>

“What do we do now?” laments the newly elected U.S. senator in the closing scene of “The Candidate.” This memorable movie scene catches the predicament of the man whom we will choose on Nov. 8 to be President of the United States. The morning after, he begins learning how do the job.

The task will be particularly daunting in international affairs. In the 73 days to Inauguration Day, either George Bush or Michael S. Dukakis must put together an Administration capable of discharging the awesome responsibilities of keeping the nation secure and productive in the outside world. As we have learned in recent years, he must make the correct decisions the first time or face a scandal, a failure, or worse.

In theory, Bush would have the easier task. For eight years he has had an office in the White House and has seen how much grief a President can suffer if he pays scant attention to how his Administration is organized and staffed. If Bush has used his time as vice president wisely, he will understand which of the current senior officials in foreign, defense and economic policy are worth retaining and which should be shown the door.

Dukakis is less well-placed; indeed, like many other presidential candidates whose political experience has been outside national government, he knows few of the people whom he would need to draw upon to provide direction for American policy abroad.


Selecting top-flight people is no easy business in a world that demands more craft and wisdom from American foreign policy than ever before. Neither Bush nor Dukakis has yet shown himself to be a match for Mikhail S. Gorbachev and his deft diplomacy, so highly skilled people must be found and quickly bonded into a team that can support the new President’s particular style of governing. These personnel choices are also critical to avoiding the frequent curse of modern Presidents: discovering that the national security adviser and the secretary of state are spending as much time squabbling with one another as with America’s enemies.

There are a few rules of thumb for a new Chief Executive to follow. Many Presidents, including Ronald Reagan, have sought to institutionalize “cabinet government” in foreign affairs--putting the secretaries of state, defense and treasury in effective charge of their respective policy areas. This is an appealing idea, but it has repeatedly proved to be nonsense. To paraphrase Georges Clemenceau on war and generals, U.S. foreign policy is now too serious a matter to be entrusted to the State Department. Key issues cut across too many bureaucratic boundaries to give a monopoly of decision to any one Cabinet department; and in a world of economic interdependence, even the once-traditional division between foreign and domestic policy is fast eroding.

The lesson of the last several Administrations is that the vast array of national-security policies must be brought together and reconciled in the White House, the one bureaucratically neutral territory in Washington. Only the President can make the bargains and compromises central to his policy goals, and the issues and options must be drawn together by someone responsive only to him--in practice, the national-security adviser.

In today’s world, the national-security adviser must have two critical qualities: the ability to understand a wide range of issues and areas of activity and to provide the President with a well-developed set of strategic choices for the nation; and the desire to make the overall system work, which means earning the trust of his colleagues on the National Security Council.


Rarely has a President been blessed with an NSC adviser who was able and willing to do both. Yet if those qualities are lacking, U.S. foreign policy is likely to be paralyzed either by ignorance at the center of policy-making or acrimony in carrying it out. If there is to be both effectiveness and harmony, the secretary of state must clearly be the nation’s chief diplomat and the President’s chief spokesman on foreign affairs. The NSC adviser may in fact be chief strategist, but that role must be complemented with what Franklin D. Roosevelt called “a passion for anonymity.”

An even greater challenge awaits the next President in making sense of U.S. policy on the global economy. More than ever before, it is now imperative to relate traditional foreign and defense policies to the management of the domestic economy and to America’s economic role abroad. Inescapably, the first charge on the next President in international affairs will be to get a grip on the federal budget, to begin cutting the twin budget and trade deficits and to convince the United States’ key economic partners in Europe and Asia that he is serious about asserting a greater mastery of America’s economic destiny. For the next few years, U.S. leadership will be judged as much on economic policy and performance as on effective dealings with the Soviet Union.

To succeed, the next President must bring the making of international economic policy more fully into the White House. He must ensure that it is integrated with other national-security issues, and he must bring Congress fully into his confidence. This will probably require creating a new senior deputy, equal to the national-security adviser, to draw together the many threads of economic policy.

Ronald Reagan leaves office with a national-security team that is far more talented than the one with which he began; and the means of making policy have been transformed since the folly of the Iran-Contra affair. To get ready for the 1990s world that will be more demanding and less charitable of American mistakes, the new President must get the right people and the right method--and do it right from the start.