Foreign Policy Blogs

The NSC and Foreign Policy Management: A Role for Diplomats?

Foreign Policy Manager?

Role player under NSC or manager of foreign policy?


The recent Washington Post article by Karen DeYoung, outlining the burgeoning role of the National Security Council (NSC), raises issues that go beyond the foibles of any particular administration. Most salient is that “politics … have become so much more corrosive and challenging that it’s a natural instinct for the White House to say, ‘We’ve got to have an eye on this. On everything,’ ” as DeYoung quotes an ex-White House official.

Micromanagement is a common impulse of executives for complex or contentious matters. Foreign policy today is both.  As General Stanley McChrystal notes in his book Teams of Teams, the post-modern world’s complexity makes prediction of external threats almost impossible. It is inevitable, as Daniel Drezner comments, that events will “catch the White House off guard and cause the opposition party to howl in protest.”

Foreign policy is rife with potential points of political vulnerability.  The growth of the NSC’s role, and the proliferation of politically-appointed ambassadors and officials, reflects their location at the interface of politics with management of a large, multi-faceted institution. Executive branch discretion over foreign policy makes it a high-profile political arena.  Contests of presidents and opposition parties increasingly overshadow functional considerations.  As the political environment locks presidents more and more into a marketing function, control of the political enterprise takes priority over institutional management.

A major consequence is that the world now has to guess what makes America tick. Politics involves management of diverse interests high and low. Their assembly into coalitions means that diverse claims will always tug and push at foreign relations. But beyond this natural play of interests, as pundit Ian Bremmer notes, friends and foes alike really do not know what America wants. Adversaries easily find evidence that the U.S. seeks economic domination or debases moral codes, and their claims go unrefuted.

Micromanagement is inefficient, even politically. Managing foreign policy to a coherent message of its own would be simpler. During the Cold War, foreign policy clearly revolved around “Containment“ of the USSR. The Soviets’ full-spectrum opposition to U.S. interests made reaction to their efforts a clear priority. Today America must assert its own enduring priorities to formulate a consistent message. But choosing and sticking to priorities is difficult, even without a politics that precludes consensus. After the Arab Spring, Americans might conclude that making democracy a priority over stability (or vice versa) will look foolish (or craven) as events unfold. The New York Times notes Washington’s difficulty choosing Russia, ISIS, or North Korea as the top national security threat.

Most dangerously, inconsistent policy overshadows America’s conviction in unalienable rights. It portrays free people caring less about freedom than short-term gratification. The nation was conceived in a document justifying independence on the principle of rights; failure to validate that “self evident” truth undermines the premise of American legitimacy.

Validation, therefore, defines U.S. foreign policy’s fundamental purpose. It is a nuanced, complex concept; full understanding yields a non-political guideline for foreign policy management. If a free society can defend itself, serve its people’s needs, and honor its principles, not only will America survive, but U.S. influence and power will revive.

Political leaders must set the ongoing choices of foreign policy. Most popular concerns will fit with the validation of America’s creed. It requires defense and prosperity as well as fidelity to the ideals of human liberty. What politics lacks, however, is a function to keep policies aligned with America’s creed, and with each other. A NSC and any number of political appointees can push a president’s political enterprise. A permanent corps should carry the management rationale, framing issues in terms of America’s fundamental interest.

The U.S. diplomatic corps is naturally positioned for this function. Diplomats staff the foreign policy decision processes, represent policies abroad, and can report successes or shortfalls in projecting America’s purpose. A new genre of professional formation, steeping U.S. diplomats in the origins, questions, and debates around the creed of individual rights, will be necessary to equip them for this mission. Institutional practices and structures will also be needed; a corps invested in the mission will shape them best.

This training and these practices will require time and effort to implement. But embedding America’s founding rationale in foreign policy institutions will aid administrations in managing policy. Balancing political considerations with enduring priorities will show America’s basic nature, as a catalyst for human freedom.



George Paik

George F. Paik is a former political affairs officer in the U.S. Foreign Service, as well as a twenty year veteran of U.S. capital markets. He is a current board member and former chair of the World Affairs Forum (a sister to FPA in the World Affairs Councils of America network) in Stamford, CT. His work as a diplomat straddled the fall of the USSR, and included political analysis, human rights, trade affairs, and environmental policy, in postings were in Brazil and Trinidad, and in the Department of State. Financial experience includes stints with Mellon Bank, Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co. and People’s United Bank. He currently holds the position of Managing Director at Lord Capital, LLC, a firm focused on international trade finance.

Paik graduated from Harvard University with a BA in Social Studies; he also holds an MBA in Finance from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He counts ten years playing Rugby, with club mates from countries around the globe, as part of his international experience.