- The National Security Council and with it the national security adviser have played an important role in US foreign policy since 1947.
- But the influence of national security advisers throughout modern US history has largely depended on the dynamic between them and the president they served under.
- Compared to the administrations of presidents like John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, the role of national security adviser has diminished significantly under President Donald Trump.
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President Donald Trump tapped Robert C. O’Brien on Wednesday as his fourth national security adviser, a role that along with the National Security Council (NSC) has been vital to important decisions presidents have made on global affairs since shortly after the conclusion of WWII.
However, the role’s influence also depends on the national security adviser’s relationship with the president. Under Trump – and especially in light of O’Brien’s appointment, who some view as light on experience – experts see the diminishing of the role’s importance.
A new defence structure after the Second World War
The US emerged from World War II a superpower, but it also faced new, complex threats with the start of the Cold War. The circumstances required a restructuring of the US military and the nation’s security apparatus more generally – it needed to be more sophisticated.
President Harry S. Truman signed the National Security Act in 1947, which established the office of the secretary of defence and merged the War Department and Navy Department into a single Department of Defence. It also established the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the NSC.
Since its inception, the NSC has helped advise the president on foreign policy and defence, while also assisting in coordination with various agencies on such matters.
Starting in 1953, the president’s assistant for national security affairs, also known as the national security adviser, has directed the NSC staff. The president chairs the NSC and regular attendees include the vice president, secretary of state, treasury secretary, defence secretary, and national security adviser. Other top White House and government officials also regularly attend, and various department heads are invited to meetings when appropriate.
The NSC has evolved over time, and its importance has fluctuated from president to president. This has also been true for the role of the national security adviser.
A national security adviser’s power depends on the president they serve under
Unlike top Cabinet roles such as defence secretary, the national security adviser does not require US Senate confirmation. Along these lines, a national security adviser’s influence in any given administration is strongly dependent on their relationship with the president.
As David Rothkopf, a foreign policy expert who wrote a book on the history of the NSC, put it during a 2008 interview with Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), “The president is the person who determines who his principal national security or foreign policy adviser or advisers are going to be, and the president is the one who gives them power. In fact, there is a market in power that’s established in the White House, with the president determining what it is, who has it, who can trade it.”
“Clearly in the first George W. Bush administration the most important foreign policy actor was neither the NSC adviser [Condoleezza Rice] nor the secretary of state [Colin Powell]; it was Vice President Dick Cheney,” Rothkopf said.
In Bush’s first term and particularly after 9/11, Cheney “assumed a role that no vice president in history has,” Rothkopf went on to say, and simultaneously “the national security adviser gradually retreated to a role of staffing the president” instead of driving the process.
Comparatively, in President Richard Nixon’s administration the national security adviser – Henry Kissinger – had unparalleled influence.
That’s largely because Kissinger was the first person in history to serve as both secretary of state and national security adviser at the same time.
“Nixon didn’t feel comfortable dealing with other people,” Rothkopf told CFR. “He became comfortable with Kissinger as a kind of an interlocutor.”
Kissinger is a divisive figure in conversations on modern US history, but the massive influence he had on global affairs is undeniable. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for efforts to negotiate a peaceful end to the Vietnam War (the conflict didn’t end until 1975), but this was controversial given he’s also remembered for his role in engineering the US bombing campaigns in Cambodia.
Sometimes national security advisers have been elevated in significance by circumstances and can be so influential they have continued the role into other administrations. This was the case with McGeorge Bundy, who was former President John F. Kennedy’s national security adviser. As his 1996 obituary in the Los Angeles Times stated, Bundy “played a key role in the Cuban missile crisis, the Bay of Pigs invasion and the military buildup in Vietnam.”
In some ways, the Cuban missile crisis began with Bundy – he first alerted Kennedy in 1962 that the Soviet Union had moved missiles into Cuba. “Mr. President, there is now hard photographic evidence … that the Russians have offensive missiles in Cuba,” Bundy said to Kennedy, who was apparently still in his bathrobe and slippers at the time.
Bundy would go on to serve as former President Lyndon. B. Johnson’s national security adviser.
The NSC and role of national security adviser have diminished in importance under Trump
In the present day, critics of President Donald Trump say that his tendency to ignore and discredit key advisers has eroded the importance of the NSC and with it the role of national security adviser.
Trump on Wednesday announced he’s picked Robert C. O’Brien, his top hostage negotiator, to be the new national security adviser after ousting John Bolton from the role last week.
O’Brien has little government experience under his belt and his ascendance to a role with a prestigious history has been pegged as a sign the NSC has lost its significance. He’s also Trump’s fourth national security adviser.
“Trump has stated he does not need advice,” Rothkopf told Insider on Wednesday. “As a consequence he does not see much need for advisers and an organisation that primarily plays an advisory role. He also does not like opinions that may contradict his – as HR McMaster’s and Bolton’s did. And he does not have much interest in the interagency process and doesn’t trust some of the agencies.”
“All this combines to create the circumstances we have seen unfold: the most profound downgrading of the NSC since Reagan and possibly ever,” Rothkopf added. “O’Brien is a manifestation of this. He is the least qualified person ever to hold the job, as close to a foreign policy nonentity as you can imagine.”
Rothkopf described the current state of the NSC as “sad” and unprecedented, adding, “But in the event of a real crisis it will be something much worse. The dysfunctional NSC will itself become a threat to US national security. As the president himself already is.”
John Gans, who also wrote a history of the NSC, in a recent New York Time’s op-ed made the case that Bolton is to blame for the NSC’s diminished importance by trying to make his role as national security adviser more important than the NSC as a whole.
“Bolton effectively destroyed the National Security Council system, the intricate structure that governed American foreign policy since the end of World War II,” Gans said.