The Interagency Process
History of the Interagency Process for Foreign Relations in the United States
Will you please tell me what in hell the State Department has to do in an active theater of war?
—Question posed to diplomat Robert Murphy in North Africa, 1942
The processes for making and executing foreign policy in the United States have grown more centralized, more rationalized, and more inclusive of multiple institutional viewpoints since World War II. Nevertheless, they remain remarkably dispersed and their coordination dependent on personality and specific circumstance. This situation results in part from the constitutional fragmentation of power between and among the executive and legislative branches of government, reinforced by customs and precedents forged when the geography of two oceans alone provided the Republic significant security and masked institutional limitations. The demands of global engagement in World War II and the Cold War, however, prompted presidents and Congress to experiment with new legal and institutional forms for coordinating policymaking, diplomacy, and military efforts. Chief among these forms have been the National Security Act of 1947 and the National Security Council (NSC) that it created. Reorganizations and reforms within the nation’s military, diplomatic, economic, and intelligence arms have also had significant impacts. Since the Cold War the challenges of state disintegration and transnational threats, punctuated by the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, have prompted further innovation in the interagency system, from presidential directives on complex emergencies to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and sweeping intelligence reform. The advent of cyberspace as a prominent domain for political, economic, and social action presents the latest set of challenges. Although these have resulted in greater exchange of views and information (and increased cooperation in the field), the difficulties of coordinating the plans and actions of highly independent cabinet departments endure.
ORIGINS OF THE INTERAGENCY PROCESS IN THE UNITED STATES
Veteran diplomat Robert Murphy had a good answer to the question posed to him by an American major general not long after the Anglo-American invasion of North Africa in 1942.
In his memoir Murphy explained that the State Department “had direct responsibility in the preparatory stage leading to the invasion. It was directly concerned in the political decisions inevitably made during the military operations, and will have to deal with the postwar political effects of this campaign. . . . And that is why I am here.”1
Murphy’s experience encapsulates a history of interagency relations in American foreign and security policy. He compensated for the irregularity of his formal authorities (“Don’t bother going through State Department channels,” President Roosevelt had told him) and his scant preparation (“I became aware of my appalling ignorance of military matters”) by dint of tireless work, personal grit, and indomitable common sense. By and large his colleagues in the army, navy, State Department, and Office of Strategic Services did likewise, fashioning ways to work together in common cause with their British (and, ultimately, French) allies. Their effort saw its share of missteps and even comic opera episodes, but it worked, if sometimes only by the narrowest of margins.
Before considering the history of the interagency process, it is important to consider a framework for analysis of its form, because form shapes its operation and, ultimately, the resulting policy outcomes. The interagency system can be considered as comprising two dimensions: dynamics and levels. The dynamics of the interagency system are the function of six structural factors: the nature of the threat environment and a state’s geostrategic position, constitutional frameworks, leadership proclivities, technology (particularly its military character), and prevailing public management paradigms. As these factors evolve, so does the interagency process. In addition, the interagency process operates at three levels, corresponding to the place (both physical and institutional) at which the interaction occurs. At the strategic level, policy planning and coordination happen in the national capital, where they are dominated by domestic political and institutional dynamics. At the intermediate or operational level, initiatives to implement policy are conceived and managed by a regional or country-level headquarters, influenced by the relationships among that area’s principal power brokers. At the tactical level, personnel deployed in the field execute plans (for war, diplomacy, development, trade, etc.) that contribute to those initiatives, in accord with the specific capabilities and authorities allocated to them. At all three levels, states are increasingly conjoined by foreign governments, inter- and nongovernmental actors, and business interests whose objectives may or may not always converge with those of the United States.
The historical circumstances of the United States’ founding decisively shaped its inter-agency process. Born from a revolutionary separation from Great Britain, America has mistrusted central authority at home while recognizing the need for unified leadership abroad. With good reason the Founding Fathers feared tyranny from both kings and the masses. Article I of the Constitution gave Congress explicit powers to “provide for the common Defence,” “declare War,” “raise and support Armies,” “provide and maintain a Navy,” and “make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces,” backed by its exclusive power of the purse. Though the Senate held the right to advise the president in appointing certain officers and to approve treaties (with the high bar of a two-thirds majority), these formal powers were essentially passive; the chief executive held the initiative to act or not in the myriad cases and ways of his office.
The president was to serve as commander in chief to represent and advance US interests abroad. Thus, the executive branch naturally assumed primacy in national security affairs. For the nation’s first 150 years, the national security establishment comprised the State Department, War Department (for the army), and Navy Department (for the navy and marine corps). All reported directly to the president. His authorities were few but clear: the power to negotiate treaties, to appoint the heads of the several government departments, and to exercise command in war. Once Congress appropriated funds, the president did not have to share these powers or seek approval or advice before he ordered diplomats abroad or the nation’s forces into harm’s way. Presidents could keep their own counsel or ask aides to help reach decisions; no formal coordinating or decision-making machinery existed under them. The lack of advanced technological or analytical means to amass, analyze, or disseminate information reinforced presidential autonomy. Matters of national importance might well be discussed by the department secretaries forming the cabinet, a body that could be counted on to bring a broad range of experience and political instincts to bear on a topic but rarely offered much in the way of expertise in foreign affairs.
The congressional committee structure, organized around oversight of a defined set of departments, reinforced this separation of institutions. The segmented approach allowed committees to exert influence over the executive branch and to reflect constituent interests. When Congress created committees in 1816, it fashioned one for each of the three main departments: Foreign Relations for the State Department, Military Affairs for the War Department, and Naval Affairs for the Navy Department. Under this model the departments submitted appropriations requests directly to their respective committee of jurisdiction, with little input from the president or his staff. This division of labor suited the strategic landscape of the Republic’s early decades and hewed to congressional interests to keep the executive branch fragmented, and thereby constrained. It also led, however, to each tool of national power developing its own institutional narrative, organizational ethos, and operational coda.
Early US foreign policy focused on supporting the nation’s westward expansion, winning the Civil War, and protecting trade. The secretaries of state held an enviable position as primus inter pares relative to their fellow cabinet secretaries, as State also discharged diverse domestic duties (for a time these included supervising the census and the US Mint). With notable exceptions, such as Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams, secretaries of state typically had little direct diplomatic experience. Instead, they were selected because of their achievements in business or law—and their support for the president’s ticket and party. They generally made up in ability what they lacked in experience.
Secretaries of state oversaw a bifurcated department. The diplomatic service represented the president in foreign capitals, while the consular service promoted opportunities for American business and protected US citizens abroad. Secretaries of state since Jefferson have lodged bureaucratic power with the diplomatic service. Ambassadors and diplomats typically won their appointments through political connections, leading to some very able men and some appalling embarrassments for carrying America’s interests overseas.2
Continuity and competence instead was provided through career staff in Washington. As Dean Acheson observed, by 1940 the real power in the department “had come to rest in the [geographic] division chiefs and the advisers, political, legal, and economic.” The result of this “nineteenth-century” arrangement, argued Acheson, was that “most matters that concerned the Department arose from specific incidents or problems and then evolved into policies, rather than beginning as matters of broad decision and ending in specific action. In this way the departmental division having jurisdiction to deal with the incident became the basic instrument for the formulation and execution of policy.”3
With little impetus for a robust overseas presence as the early American Republic grew, Congress only reluctantly spent money on overseas missions and activities. The foreign service was “traditionally ill-chosen, ill-treated, ill-paid, ill-housed, ill-coordinated, and undermanned.”4
It became a home away from home for the nation’s elite, who paid most of their
overseas expenses but who also had unambiguous authority to represent the United States in foreign capitals (at least before the telegraph allowed Washington to exert influence directly). In general, diplomacy served as the principal tool of statecraft, unless and until armed conflict erupted, in which case armies and navies were raised and the military departments oversaw the conduct of combat. In short, Congress and the Department of State were preeminent in peace, with the president and the armed services preeminent in war.
The military developed its own organizational ethos. This evolution was based on four enduring characteristics. First, the armed services were small, surging in size and deploying abroad only in wartime. Second, they fought different and independent forms of war; the army fought one kind on land, and the navy another at sea, with little coordination between their methods or objectives. This bifurcation reinforced their unique cultures and operational models.5
Third, the army and navy, at least in peacetime, were decentralized structures, dominated not by their line commanders but by their several service and support bureaus. Appointed civilians set strategy, policy, and doctrine, while staff officers ran the military service bureaus. This arrangement in the American military not infrequently resulted in inefficiency, unclear command relationships, and friction between the War and Navy Departments.6
The military’s fourth structural feature was its interdependent relationship with technology. Two nineteenth-century inventions provided new opportunities for coordination by shrinking the distance between Washington and the field. Steam power allowed the rapid transport of supplies to far-flung territory. The telegraph, moreover, enabled communication to distant outposts, including ambassadors and military field commanders, to provide policy direction in a matter of minutes.
The three departme...