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US National Security Policy Research Paper


What are the challenges USA faces when developing a coherent US National Security Policy inside the four-year presidential cycle and the failing role of ‘think-tanks’ in National Security Policies affect national policy-making?


The working thesis statement for this research is that, numerous challenges have been witnessed when developing National Security Policies and the challenges are more complex in the four-year presidential cycle. This situation or scenario is likely to affect the National Security Policy-making process and in the end, developed security policy may not be effective.

The situation is made more difficulty by presence of many think-tanks or group-tanks who for a long time tend to fail in their policy-making security strategies, a situation that later affect the entire national policy-making process. The four-year presidential cycle is largely limited in terms of time to enable the development of a coherent national security policy.

Given the nature of USA security needs and priorities that have persisted for many decades, the process of security policy-making requires enough time. For example, it is impossible and always difficulty to capture the multiple elements of security priorities in the four-year presidential cycle.

Security priorities for the USA are dynamic, fluid and changing everyday and this situation makes the process of making coherent national security policy a flexible one.

Moreover, the role of think-tanks and group-think tanks for a long time has been presented to be neutral. But in nature, think-tanks tend to have political leaning in their process of policy advice, a situation likely to make the entire process more difficult and challenging. Therefore, it can be hypothesized that,

  1. Since the national security policy-making process is likely to take place in a four-year presidential period, numerous challenges are likely to emerge which will affect the functionability of the national security policy.
  2. Think-tanks and Group think-tanks have for a long time been involved in national security policy-making process and majority tend to take partisan position, a situation that has in the past and in future it is likely to results into failure of national security policies.

Purpose Statement

The US is a country that has experienced and continues to experience both sides of positive and negative history1. The positive side is fostered by economic, political, social, and cultural development of the country, which is also accompanied by unequivocal freedom and rights. Moreover, the US has become victim to terrorism activities, frequently aided by rogue states, and failed democracies2.

As a result, the security needs of the country have been compromised, provoked, and abused by terrorists. Unlike in the past, the issue of terrorism is no longer a complacent concept for ignorance as far as security needs, and a safe environment remains priority.

There is a need to improve the overall security requirements and, at the same time, actively participate in international activities that aim to promote and establish worldwide peace3. In all these circumstances, the US has a huge role to play in the international arena and at home as well.

The country has the duty to defend the nation, its states, territories, and boundaries in a way that breeds confidence and trust among its citizens. At the same time, the country has to inspire a sense of international security, calmness, and peace by actively pursuing security goals that aim at eliminating all possible sources of threats and, at the same time, creating an environment for democracy and security to thrive.

All these aspects have to be fulfilled, but when one analyzes the uncertain nature of the international environment, it becomes clear that more efforts are required, especially in developing a national security policy that addresses these multiple needs and concerns in a precise and satisfying manner.

The role played by different players who in one way or the other participants in the development of national security policy is critical. From the role the president and the administration play, to the role Congress plays, to the role of think tanks, and the public play, it can be seen clearly that coordinated efforts and abilities are required to ensure the security policy achieves its goals.

In other words, it can be said that the US well being depends a lot on foreign defense and national security policies that are developed and implemented in such a way that aspects of organization, coordination, and articulation are not absent4. Developing a national security policy in four years is not an easy task given such a policy has to operate on a long-term basis.

Therefore, it can be suggested that transforming the current situation of developing a US national security policy is necessary. There is a great need to have elements of national security dedicate their efforts in developing and implementing a policy that is long term irrespective of political and administration change.

At the same time, it can be observed that the role that has been played by think tanks in the entire process of national security policy development has been diluting, confusing and at times conflicting. As a result, there should be clear established guidelines in which the participation and contribution of think tanks in the development of national security policy are clearly outlined and communicated.

Given that international and national security needs to remain paramount for the progress of American society and the international community at large, it is necessary to have national security policies that are effective and address the needs holistically. Research in this area is therefore appropriate and can be utilized in the decision-making processes.

Furthermore, the large amount of available literature concentrates on national security policy development without adequately exploring the role of think tanks and the challenges posed in developing policy inside the four-year presidential cycle. These two critical aspects cannot be ignored or underestimated as far as formulation and implementation of national security policy are concerned.

In other words, it can be observed that for the national security policy to be effective and functional, it has to reflect multi-dimensional approach input, which does not only regard and perceive security policy in a singular dimension but also in a holistic dimension. Lack of adequate literature can, therefore, is associated with the inadequacies and difficulties reflected and experienced in national security policy development.

As a result, this research paper aims at generating information that is objective in nature and relatively complete in spectrum, which, in turn, can be used by various stakeholders involved in the process of developing and implementing national security policy.

This research project is significant in many. For instance, the research project is premised on the need to evaluate the challenges likely to impact the process of developing a national security policy in the four-year presidential cycle. This four-year cycle is perceived to be a relatively short time for any genuine security policy to develop strengths and thereafter, be able to achieve its goals.

Security issues facing the US today are long-term and transcend many structures, systems and institutions, and therefore, cannot be addressed comprehensively in a four-year term. As a result, it has been established that the domestic, inactive, and sometimes dysfunctional nature of a US national security policy is likely to arise from the four-year presidential cycle, which is likely to partially impact the policy.

At the same time, new administrations come in with new policy-makers and create a situation likely to witness constant change. As a result, the entire process of security policy-making is likely to be affected by these changes and political dynamics.

There is a need to identify how well a national security policy can be formulated and developed amidst these challenges. Formulating an effective national policy needs to be everyone’s concern, especially that of stakeholders close to making or influencing security policy.

Other key players, such as the public and academic scholars need to have knowledge of how the challenges in the security policy development process can be dealt with in a more productive manner. This knowledge cannot be attained by using current literature or information, but by undertaking objective research projects.

Research is likely to lead to the generation of more appropriate information and is likely to answer the pertinent research questions in the most concise way that addresses the needs of new challenges of developing national security policy.

At the end of this research, an adequate knowledge base will be developed from the findings and analysis of key aspects, which will be vital to a number of stakeholders involved in developing and implementing policy. This knowledge base will also be crucial and inevitably important in future research processes as it will provide necessary and critical secondary information resources.

Significance of research can only be achieved when there are specific set objectives. The primary objective of the research project is to establish and ascertain challenges that impact or are experienced in developing a coherent US national security policy inside the four-year presidency cycle.

A related objective will be to ascertain how the issue of ‘Think Tanks’ or ‘Group Think Tanks’ impact and results in the failure of national security policies and the policy-making process.

As a result, through the research, it will be possible to establish how the four-year presidential cycle is a relatively short period to put in place a concrete national security policy. Moreover, the role of think tanks will be established as well as how they may fail the policy-making process. More importantly, research objectives are realized through research questions that a researcher would want to answer.

In this case, research questions, unlike ordinary questions, are somehow more inquisitorial in that they expect an answer5. Moreover, research questions must be answerable in that they should have some achievable objectives in form of answers. In this regard, this research project will be premised on the following research questions:

  • How does the nation security policy-making process take place?
  • What factors influence the national security policy-making process?
  • How does the four-year presidential cycle impact the national security policy process?
  • What role do ‘think tanks’ play in the national security policy process?
  • In which ways may ‘think tanks’ fail the national security policy process?

The USA is faced with numerous challenges in the 21st century. Some of these challenges have increased the security needs of the country, a situation that has forced security requirements to become one of the more critical priorities the US passionately pursues. These issues are further made complex by increased technology and communication, globalization, economic interdependence, and more.

At the same time, it has been established that in order to effectively address the security issues the country faces, there is a need to develop and implement an effective national security policy.

An effective national security policy is one that is seen as addressing the diverse and multiple needs of various stakeholders both at local and international levels, whose security needs, affect or influence the US directly or indirectly. However, it has been established that this process of developing an effective security policy is a difficult one that faces numerous challenges.

Theoretical/Conceptual Framework

Achieving success in any research work process requires appropriate development or analysis of theoretical or conceptual frameworks. Research work constitutes investigation of variables and the relationship among the variables. As a result, theoretical framework provides a clear way to conceptualize and analyze the relationship between variables where in most cases, there are independent and dependent variables.

Independent variables are autonomous in that, they are not affected or influenced in any way, but dependent variables are constantly affected by influencing factors. National security of the USA is affected and influenced by many factors. The factors are both internal and external and influence the national security policy process in diverse ways.

As a result, developing a coherent national security policy is likely to be affected by numerous factors and actors. In one way or the other, the factors and actors tend to influence the policy in profound ways. In most cases, there are three main influences to national security policy, which are, international political and military developments, domestic priorities, and technological advancement6.

Therefore, the current research fit in this model since, the four-year presidential period and role of think tanks can be categorized under domestic priorities. The figure below shows the interaction of national security policy process variables, which have been identified as international political and military developments, domestic priorities, and technological advancement.

As it can be seen from the model, the three groups of variables are interrelated; hence, each one influences and is likely to affect the other. As a result, the process of developing national security policy is likely to be influenced by these groups of variables.


The United States is regarded as the only country in the world that possesses unprecedented and unequaled strength and influence. The US is a world superpower, a fact that the country itself and outside nations acknowledge easily and reluctantly. The position the country holds in the world today is largely sustained by faith in the principles of liberty and the need to have a free society.

As a result, the US has found itself bestowed with numerous responsibilities, obligations, and opportunities that have invited security threats to the country as it tries to execute its role. In an attempt to play its role, the US has largely come out as a country interested in promoting a balance of power that favors and accommodates freedom.

The 21st century presents the US with numerous challenges that require balanced, timely, and objective response. There are numerous forces shaping the national and international front, which can be described to be complex and contradictory.

Today the world is seen to be characterized by numerous turmoil; increasing changing patterns of state-to-state relationships; and increased intra-national conflicts fueled by ethnic, religious and nationalistic differences7.

At the same time, the world is confronting issues addressing aspects of international terrorism, drug trade, and threats arising of information-age technology. Prior to the turn of the century, these issues were invisible and no one thought they would evolve in to the major threats they are today. The world was perceived to be peaceful and this sense of optimism changed drastically after the events of September 11, 2001 by terrorists.

From that time, the US was abruptly awakened and things could no longer be assumed. The country came face to face with reality, obligating the country to devise new security strategies to confront and respond to terrorists activities.

Even as the reality dawned on the country to have superb security strategies in place both internal and external, it has become clear that war against security threats is influenced and intermixed with globalization, economic expansion, homeland security and the need for the US to pursue its strategies in a more peaceful manner8.

Given that the US has established itself as a world superpower, there exists an obligation the country has to assume in the global governance environment, it is imperative to state that in order to safeguard its security needs, the country has an effective security policy.

All attempts need to be directed at developing an effective and comprehensive national security policy that addresses the multiple needs of the country. However, developing such a policy has proved to be challenging, especially in a four-year presidential term. As previously highlighted, there are many reasons for this therefore; it becomes increasingly difficult to create an effective long-term policy strategy.

The issue at hand which this paper is interested in researching revolves around identifying and analyzing the challenges presented in development of a comprehensive national security policy and the role ‘think-tanks’ play in accelerating these challenges.

As it has already been established, think tanks constitute interest groups, who in one way or the other would want to influence national security policy and, in the process, become active players in influencing the origination, development and implementation of the same.

As a result, there is need to investigate and analyze how domestic priorities in terms of key players, institutional arrangement and policy structures are likely to affect formulation of a coherent national security policy.


This section will involve analyzing into deeper perspectives the basic facts that have been highlighted in the backgrounds section.

National Security Strategy

National Security Strategy (NSS) constitutes the collection of security, economic and political strategies enacted to enhance and devise how best to pursue national security and create an international order as far as security matters is concerned9.

This process involves both aspects of planning that incorporates the use of various implements of state power and primary focus is directed to the domestic policies needed to produce and maintain them over a relatively long period of time. As a result, in order to attain consensus, the National Security Strategy is likely to reflect a mixture of governmental and administrative pursuance of policies and strategies10.

It has been hypothesized that the dysfunction of some of the previous National Security Strategy policy framework has emanated from the perception that the policy framework is formulated in a rational and systematic process.

A fact that has been observed before in the majority of National Security Strategies is that the processes of security policy formulation, emerges from both within the executive branch and Congress 11. The entire process is characterized by intense political maneuvering, compromise, and frequent bargaining.

After the Second World War (WWII), many changes were witnessed across different nations especially with regards to security matters. Nations prioritized security as a vital and primary concern for both domestic and international relations. The US was one of the nations that after WWII identified security as a critical and basic consideration requiring a concise approach and strategic consideration.

However, one characteristic that has defined US policy-making is that each administration that has come to power has endeavored in developing appropriate and reliable institutions that have the ability and capacity to manage national security policy12.

One of the evident characteristics of US presidents is that each one that has assumed power has tried to develop individual policies that are totally different from that of their predecessor with the aim to pursue policies devoid of problems and deficiencies of previous administrations13.

In the end, the president in office comes up with a national security policy-making and coordination system that in large measure reflects his personal and individualized management style. The national security policy-making process is spearheaded by the National Security Council, which has been the primary organization bestowed with the responsibility of formulating national security policy for the country.

The composition of the council is a process that the incumbent president undertakes and, as a result, the members have changed many times in order to conform to the needs and inclinations of the new political administration in place.

As it can be seen in the USA, the president as the head of the National Security Council has the power to influence and possibly direct the National Security Policy process. Even as the position of the president becomes more pronounced in the national security process, it has been observed that the role of the president is regarded as fluid and least predictable as compared to other primary actors involved14.

In both the constitution and institutional understanding, the president is the pivotal point of the national security policy process and assumes a critical role. However, as it has been observed, the patterns of presidential involvement have varied in accordance to the style and experience of each president, a situation that has further dictated the way national security policy is developed and implemented15.

In some cases, the president may decide to be personally intertwined in the details of policy-making and in the implementation process. In such cases, the president becomes an active player or participant in the entire process.

On the other hand, presidents in the past have also tried to play a more passive role while deferring a more active one to senior officials. Regardless of the case or circumstances, what remains clear is that US presidents have and are likely to continue impacting the national security policy-making process in one way or the other16.

However, the president’s role has been limited through time in the past. This time is reflected in the minimal time the president has to carry out massive national security policy structuring and re-structuring in the presidential cycle. Given the nature of national security policy and its diverse elements it has to contain for it to be successful, it can be said that a four-year period is short to initiate any long-term security policy.

The difficulty of this situation becomes more problematic when it becomes clear that the security policy initiated by the previous administration has to continue into the period of the new administration since eliminating it may detrimentally affect national security. Take, for example, the case of President Barrack Obama’s ascension to the White House.

When his administration assumed power, the Bush administration had put in place some specific national security policy initiatives as a result of the events of 9/11. In their nature, President George Bush’s national security policies were premised on the relatively long-term understanding of fighting terrorism and rogue states perceived to support terrorism.

It is clear that Obama’s effort to establish and implement a concrete national security policy is likely to be delayed by these events. Therefore, in the four-year period, it is possible to find that the role that the incumbent president has played on the development of national security policy is minimal and even if that were possible, the implementation process for such policy is likely to be hampered by many factors and is likely to be delayed.

In other words, during the four-year presidential cycle, presidents are often constrained in implementing a major national security policy since the time required to study and analyze the existing policies as well as to implement new ones is limited.

Think- Tanks in National Security Strategy

Richard N. Haass observes that many aspects contribute and influence the formulation and development of the US policy process17. One of the influential elements the author outlines is the role of think tanks in the entire process of policy formulation. According to the author, think tanks provide five critical benefits to the process of policy formulation, development, and implementation.

Some of these critical benefits include generating and fostering ‘new thinking’ among the various persons involved in the decision-making process.

Specifically, those actively involved in providing expert guidance that serves and helps the administration and Congress create opportunities for policy-makers to build and share an understanding concerning policy option and development while providing a critical mediating role in policy development18.

The rise of think tanks in the US has a parallel with the rise of US position in global leadership and, for many years, think tanks have executed their mandate as avowed apolitical groups that are determined to advance public interest by largely providing government officials with unbiased and balanced positions as far as matters of policy formulation are concerned.

Think tanks in the US, especially their role in national policy formulation process can be seen to play a critical role. For example, think tanks possess the ability to participate both directly and indirectly in the policy-making process and many policy-makers in the country turn to think tanks for policy advice.

As a result, think tanks today in the larger American society and world at large have become avenues and instruments of shaping public policy.

The role and broad impact of think tanks in the process of policy formulation is likely to be affected by the political and philosophical orientation of the think tank19. It has been observed that although many think tanks differ in terms of organizational structures and other aspects, almost all think tanks can be classified into categories of conservative, libertarian, centrist and progressive20.

There have been instances when think tanks have assumed and propagated a liberal or conservative position and no ideological ground has been spearheaded. As a result, it can be said that the political and philosophical basis of a majority of think tanks does not only affect the perspective from which the wider research of national security policy is conducted but also its overall outcome21.

In some cases, some think tanks have provided the larger public with reasons as to why ‘ideological bent’ occur but, in other cases, think tanks have appeared to have no particular political orientation.

In formulating national security policy, think tanks can either assume a conservative or progressive position and the activities of each of these positions are likely to have a significant impact.

In the past, non-performance or missed opportunities in national security processes have resulted largely from divergent positions; these two categories have undertaken the national security policy process of implementation whereby, with a new president coming to power, security policy orientation seems to change.

This, in turn, has led to a scenario, whereby the majority of national security policies lack a firm and permanent foundation upon which they can be built and implemented for an unforeseeable amount of time.

A conservative administration is likely to adopt a policy formulation structure that leans greatly to conservative views and, as a result, the security policy is likely to ignore new developments and dynamics, which may be explained to be critical in understanding and explaining the security scenario.

This position is again likely to be replicated by the progressive-leaning government and its president who upon assuming power is likely to do away with the conservative-based national security policy and adopt a progressive-based national security policy.

In this entire process, it has to be recognized that major critical developments are likely to be limited by time since the period the president and his administration are in office is likely to be inadequate to put in place a more permanent and long-term policy.

How to Establish a Long-term National Security Policy

The process of developing national security policy is not an easy task that should be left to an individual or one group of decision-makers. The process should incorporate diverse input of expertise and interests groups22.

For example, national security policy cannot be regarded to be only a set of well-integrated subject matters arranged in a long, single and consistent policy continuum but rather, should be viewed to be a complex set of diverse subject matters that cross many different policy lines.

This scenario further raises the different issues and concerns that have to be factored in the entire process of policy formulation and such factors include institutional interests and costs of such policies.

Leadership from the president is seen to be critical in developing and implementing a successful national security policy23.

The president, unlike other institutions like Congress, heads a unitary hierarchical system that has less divergent opinions and interests and it is from this basic fact that, as the head of the National Security Council, the president has an opportunity to provide necessary leadership to foster the national security policy-making process. Meanwhile, the president should not ignore other related agencies and institutions.

In establishing a good relationship with key institutions and agencies, the president has to employ different styles of leadership and approaches that have the ability and capacity to garner formidable support for the national security policy process24.

In this way, the president has to build and develop relationships that support, encourage, and foster trust and confidence. In doing so, the president should be in a position to organize the National Security Council in a manner that convinces Congress it has the ability, knowledge, skills, and critical support in matters of national security policy25.

On the other hand, there should also be mutual trust and confidence among the president and the national security staff, the military and intelligence bodies that have great ability in influencing national security policy development and implementation.

In addition, in building a strong relationship with Congress, the president has the duty to execute his leadership and inspire confidence and trust among the diverse members of Congress 26. As a result, the president has to consult Congress frequently in developing or modifying national security policy and in doing so; the president should invite the contribution, opinions and suggestions of the members of Congress.


The above-described environment has had great impact on US national security policy and priorities, which have become complicated, ambiguous, and inconsistent. At the same time, developing and implementing national security policy and priorities have largely been dictated by the incumbent presidential administration, a situation that has led to constant changes.

In this situation, each president prefers, and would want to pursue a unique policy strategy, perceived appropriate among the various interests groups of his administration. It is known, however, that developing a US national security policy and priorities is not an easy task.

It constitutes a process that is road-blocked and derailed by the existence of unpredictable, uncertain, and confusing characteristics in the international arena, disagreements and frequent disputes within the national security establishment, Congress, and the public at large, and the evolving political environment in the country.

The international political environment remains fluid and uncertain and the situation has greatly complicated the process of national security policy-making. For instance, the concerns of the US in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and North Korea, remain and reflect how the US faces challenges in developing a comprehensive and effective national security policy.

At the same time, the role of ‘think-tanks’ or ‘group think-tanks’ in the entire process of national security policy-making has been established as another source that compounds the process of developing an effective policy as well.

Regardless, the US will be able to develop an effective and workable national security policy that reflects its capacity and ability to address the pertinent issues such as US national interests, national security concerns and needs, US’s role in global matters, terrorism threats, and the increased availability of nuclear weapons technology.


Andrews, Richard. 2003. Research Questions. NY: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Bartolotto, John, K. 2004. The Origin and Developmental Process of the National Security Strategy. NY: USA Army War College.

Bolt, Paul, J., Coletta, Damon, V. & Shackelford, Collins, G. 2005. American Defense Policy. USA: JHU Press.

Bush, George, W. 2009. The National Security Strategy of the United States of America: September 2002. NY: Wordclay.

Floyd, Rita. 2010. Security and the Environment: Securitization theory and US Environmental Security Policy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jordan, Amos, A., Taylor, William, J., Meese, Michael, J., Nielsen, Suzanne, C., & Schlesinger, James. 2009. American National Security. NY: JHU Press.

McGann, James, G. 2005. Think Tanks and Policy Advice in the USA. PA: Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Sarkesian, Sam, C., Williams, John, A., & and Cimbala, Stephen, J. 2008. US National Security: Policymakers, processes and politics. NY: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

The White House. 2007. National Security Council: , 1947-1997. WA: The White House. Web.

USA Department of State. 2002. USA Foreign Policy Agenda: The Role of Think Tanks in USA Foreign Policy. NY: DIANE Publishers.


1 George W Bush, The National Security Strategy of the United States of America: September 2002 (USA: Wordclay, 2009) p.1

2 George W Bush, ibid.

3 George W Bush, ibid

4 Sam C. Sarkesian, John A Williams and Stephen J Cimbala, US National Security: Policymakers, processes and politics (USA: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2008) p.4.

5 Richard Andrews, Research Questions (USA: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2003) p.2.

6 Amos A Jordan, William J Taylor, Michael J Meese, Suzanne C Nielsen and James Schlesinger, American National Security (NY: JHU Press, 2009) p.41.

7 Sam C. Sarkesian, John A Williams and Stephen J Cimbala, ibid.

8 Sam C. Sarkesian, John A Williams and Stephen J Cimbala, ibid.

9 John K Bartolotto, The Origin and Developmental Process of the National Security Strategy (USA: USA Army War College, 2004) p.1

10 John K Bartolotto, ibid.

11 John K Bartolotto, ibid.

12 The White House, National Security Council: History of the National Security Council, 1947-1997 (WA: The White House, 2007) p.1

13 The White House, ibid.

14 Amos A Jordan, William J Taylor, Michael J Meese, Suzanne C Nielsen and James Schlesinger, ibid, p.101.

15 Amos A Jordan, William J Taylor, Michael J Meese, Suzanne C Nielsen and James Schlesinger, ibid.

16 Amos A Jordan, William J Taylor, Michael J Meese, Suzanne C Nielsen and James Schlesinger, ibid.

17 USA Department of State, USA Foreign Policy Agenda: the Role of Think Tanks in USA Foreign Policy (NY: DIANE Publishers, 2002) p.5.

18 USA Department of State, ibid.

19 James G McGann, Think Tanks and Policy Advice in the USA (PA: Foreign Policy Research Institute, 2005) p.11.

20 James G McGann, ibid.

21 James G McGann, ibid.

22 Rita Floyd, Security and the Environment: Securitization theory and US Environmental Security Policy (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010) p.62.

23 Paul J Bolt, Damon V Coletta and Collins G Shackelford, American Defense Policy (USA: JHU Press, 2005) p.148.

24 Paul J Bolt, Damon V Coletta and Collins G Shackelford, ibid.

25 Paul J Bolt, Damon V Coletta and Collins G Shackelford, ibid, p.149.

26 Paul J Bolt, Damon V Coletta and Collins G Shackelford, ibid.

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