Nanjing University professor explains how the US government sets national security policy

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In this edition of Chinese Journal Review, we look at an essay entitled “Ideology, System, and Tools — An Analytical Framework of the U.S. National Security System,” written by Nanjing University professor Shi Bin and published in the Journal of International Security Studies.

In this essay, Shi explains to Chinese foreign policy elites how the U.S. national security system works. Shi has experience living and working in the United States — he was a visiting scholar at Harvard from 2008-2009, for example — so his experience is more informed than other mainland experts, but it is still written from the perspective of someone looking at America’s national security apparatus from the outside. 

I don’t agree with all of his assessments. For example, I think Shi’s view that most U.S. policymakers think that “history will be on [their] side,” which can lead to a tendency to support unilateralism and interventionism, overlooks the strong differences of opinion on this issue within American foreign policy circles. He also parrots some Chinese government talking points, including the view that the U.S. is fixated on maintaining global hegemony. But overall, my sense is that he does a good job at capturing general themes, especially in terms of how systems and processes work. (That said, I’m not an expert in this area, so if you are, and if you notice content that is factually wrong, please let me know and I’ll update the web version of this email newsletter.)

I hope to see more papers like this. Indeed, one of the stumbling blocks in diplomacy is that diplomats and policymakers can forget that other countries’ systems function differently than one’s own country, which can lead to misjudgments about whom to engage and which opinions matter the most. So, I applaud Shi’s efforts to promote understanding about the U.S. policy environment among Chinese policymakers.


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Shi writes that U.S. national security policy has the following five characteristics:

  1. Focuses on maintaining global hegemony
    While other countries think of national security strictly in terms of policies and behaviors designed to protect one's own borders and to maintain domestic security, the United States takes a much more expansive view, Shi writes. He argues that the United States’ national security agenda is also based on maintaining its global hegemonic status.

  2. National security also means economic security, political security, and promoting American values
    Shi explains that the US definition of national security goes well beyond considering physical security, intelligence, and counterintelligence issues alone, as most countries do. The U.S. definition also includes commercial interests and the promotion of American values. The definition is ever-widening, too, Shi adds, noting that the 2010 National Security Strategy (NSS) included cybersecurity, along with national security, public security, and economic security objectives.

  3. It assumes moral superiority
    American policymakers also think it is important to promote American “morality and ideology”, Shi writes, adding that U.S. policymakers think that American-style liberal democracy is the “highest achievement” in the history of human development. This leads “most” American policymakers to believe that “history will be on [their] side,” contributing to a tendency to favor interventionism and unilateralism to solve problems.

  4. Emphasizes military and technology superiority
    U.S. policymakers want to see decisive victories, which can be secured as long as the US can maintain technological and/or military domination over its rivals. As a result, U.S. policymakers promote policies that support U.S. technology firms and contain foreign technology rivals like China.

  5. Promotes the international system in its current form
    In the past, other hegemonic powers conquered territories or enslaved populations to maintain global dominance. The U.S. has taken a different approach, Shi writes. He explains that the U.S. forms alliances with other countries and promotes international organizations as a way to benefit and “borrow” from others’ power.

National security policymaking structure and process

After spending some time explaining the legal framework that establishes America’s national security apparatus — he discusses the National Security Act of 1947, which created organizations like the National Security Council (NSC) and CIA — Shi details specific concepts that he concludes are important to understanding how U.S. policymakers develop and execute national security policy. These include:

  1. Promulgation of the annual National Security Strategy
    Shi explains that the Goldwater-Nichols Act requires that every White House publish and transmit to Congress an NSS, which is typically written by the NSC with input from other national security agencies.

    While there are formal processes for national security agencies to provide input to and to review the NSS, there is also considerable informal back-and-forth between the agencies, too. The NSC’s job is to help resolve conflicts, Shi writes. For example, he says that the Department of State and Department of Defense (DOD) frequently have competing goals and the NSC must intervene to make final decisions in those cases.

    Shi observes that outside political forces also try to influence the NSS. For example, the White House and other national security agencies meet with outside groups to seek their consultation in the development of the NSS. Congress will also opine. Although Congress does not have the formal authority to approve or restrict elements of the NSS, Congress does carry influence because many elements tied to the NSS, such as DOD acquisition, are subject to Congressional approval, Shi writes.

    Following publication of the NSS, Shi explains that other agencies develop their own derivative strategies, such as the Nuclear Posture Review, National Intelligence Strategy, National Cyber Strategy, and others. 

  2. The US president sets the tone on American foreign policy
    Shi writes that US foreign policy can change significantly depending on who is the American president. The NSC sits inside the White House and acts as the “imperial center” of the American national security system, Shi explains, adding that its proximity to the president gives it more influence than other national security agencies. As a result, Shi writes that it is often through the NSC that the president will direct the administration’s most important policies or highly controversial policies or programs. For example, the Reagan Administration ran the Iran-Contra program through the NSC, Shi notes.

    The strength of the NSC depends on who is president and the relationships that president has with other cabinet heads, he explains. For example, Nixon directed much of his foreign policy through the NSC whereas Kennedy leaned more heavily on his Secretary of State, Shi writes.  

    American presidents tend to enjoy more widespread public support for their foreign policies than for their domestic policies, so the U.S. Congress tends to support presidents’ foreign policy agendas, Shi explains. He adds that, during times of conflict, presidents also tend to enjoy a “rally around the flag” effect in support of their policies, especially at the beginning of armed conflict, however this public support can wane over time.

  1. Other agencies have increasing influence in US foreign policy
    Shi writes that as the American definition of national security has evolved over time, a corresponding and increasing number of U.S. government agencies have also started to play a role in setting America’s foreign policy agenda. In addition to agencies like the Department of State, DOD, and the CIA, which have been the traditional actors in American foreign policy, agencies like the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Department of Treasury are increasingly influential, he writes.

  2. National security policymaking is not always transparent
    While the U.S. government has formal processes for developing national security policies, policies can also take shape in informal ways, too, Shi writes. The president may have conversations with friends and advisers that inform his thinking, for example, Shi explains. However, given that the rule of a law is a foundational principle in the United States, presidents are unlikely to operate outside of what is legally permissible, he notes.

  3. The CIA is a strong intelligence agency, but it is not Washington’s only spy shop
    Shi writes that in addition to the CIA, other government agencies have their own intelligence offices and/or agencies, including DOD, and the Department of State, among others. Shi explains that the intelligence community (IC) operates under the direction of the Director for National Intelligence (DNI).

    As a global power, the United States is “keen on overseas intervention, and its external covert actions are unparalleled in frequency, cases, and influence,” Shi argues. One of the reasons why the CIA is so strong is that it is able to work through networks and partnerships with other countries’ intelligence agencies, he adds.

    He also comments on U.S. laws governing the IC. This includes rules and regulations that protect the identities of intelligence officers, promote information sharing and coordination among IC agencies (an outgrowth of the 9/11 attacks), and laws that prohibit the CIA from domestic spying. Shi writes that Congress has oversight over the IC, but has relatively little control over the IC’s activities, especially regarding covert actions.

  4. The U.S. is willing to do what it takes to win the battle over technology
    Shi writes that the U.S. national security community sees technology superiority as its next major challenge and that it is willing to circumvent “market forces” to ensure that America maintains a technological edge over other countries, including by investing in areas such as quantum computing and artificial intelligence. He adds that this also includes adopting policies to contain Chinese companies, especially those active in sensitive sectors like 5G. 

  5. The U.S. military is in a “crisis” but generally enjoys public support
    Shi writes that the U.S. military is in the midst of a “crisis” relative to the broad public support that it has historically received because of a string of military sexual harassment cases and past news about U.S. military involvement in torture cases, among other issues. However, he explains that the U.S. military generally receives strong public support because the U.S. economy (and jobs) is so tied to defense spending. The U.S. government also has many education and scholarship programs that are supported by the U.S. military, so this further increases the public’s contact with and support for a strong national defense, Shi comments.

  6. The national security agenda will likely expand over time, but there are limits
    Shi concludes that the U.S. national security agenda will likely continue to expand over time and will include new areas. However, even the United States has limits. He says that the U.S. will still be constrained by budget realities, so spending and expansion of the national security agenda will wax and wane over time. 

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