The next president, regardless of party, must restore mutual respect between the White House and Department of State.

Although the Iran-contra hearings focused on the executive-legislative imbalance, they also revealed a pattern of White House disdain for the Department of State so pervasive that Secretary George Shultz’s own blunt testimony, while preserving his personal reputation, confirmed his department’s emasculation. Never informed by the president of key foreign policy decisions, deliberately deceived by what senators termed a White House "junta" utilizing "rather shady characters" to carry out U.S. foreign policy, the secretary testified to "a sense of estrangement," of not being "in good odor" with the White House staff.

This was no attack of Foggy Bottom paranoia. National Security Adviser John Poindexter had placed the State Department on the list of those "who didn’t need to know" certain overseas actions. His assistant, Oliver North, gave the department the code name "Wimp." Poindexter’s predecessor Robert McFarlane once said North should be secretary of state. Both McFarlane and Poindexter traveled secretly abroad without informing the department. Still other White House aides vetoed Shultz’s trips and suggested anonymously to the press that he resign.


Although the House and Senate committees investigating the Iran-contra affair were assured that new personnel and procedures would halt such conflicts, this was neither the first nor the last time Mr. Shultz was shut out or shot down by the White House. Nor was he the first secretary of state to encounter this treatment.

Indeed, his appointment followed Reagan’s "acceptance" of a resignation frequently threatened, but never tendered, by Alexander Haig. Despite repeated presidential assurances that "you are my foreign policy guy," Secretary Haig found his policy pronouncements publicly disputed by White House assistants (who reciprocated his ill will), his procedural requests unanswered, and his authority over personnel and crisis management—even his place on Air Force One and in presidential receiving lines—downgraded. Like Shultz, Haig at one point felt obliged to acknowledge that he could not speak for the Administration.

Ironically, candidate Reagan had denounced White House-State Department feuding under President Carter, just as candidate Carter four years earlier had pledged that there would be no Kissinger-like "Lone Ranger" in his administration. But Carter’s secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, soon found National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski cabling ambassadors, initiating negotiations, briefing the press, pronouncing policy and giving the president inaccurate summaries of their discussions. Carter thought he could balance Vance and Brzezinski and ride both horses simultaneously, even incorporating inconsistent paragraphs from each in a speech. But the ultimate result was delay and ineffectiveness.

Some say perfect harmony between the secretary of state and national security adviser (more accurately, the assistant to the president for national security affairs) prevailed only when Henry Kissinger briefly held both jobs. But when Kissinger wore his White House hat only, he substantially increased the national security adviser’s visibility and staff, and sought, in his words, to bypass "as much as possible" Secretary of State William P. Rogers, selected by President Nixon specifically for his "ignorance of foreign policy." One senator remarked that Washington was laughing at Rogers, with Kissinger "secretary of state in everything but title." Another said: "They let Rogers handle Norway and Malagasy, and Kissinger would handle Russia and China and everything else he was interested in."

Kissinger’s dominant role—recognized by the press and foreign governments despite White House claims to the contrary—reflected not merely his intragovernmental maneuvering but also the specific preference of a president knowledgeable in foreign affairs, who once remarked he "would have to wait 20 years for a new idea from the State Department."

Even as secretary, Kissinger neglected most of the rest of the State Department, relying largely upon a small coterie much as John Foster Dulles had done two decades earlier. Dulles, though he personally enjoyed unchallenged authority as President Eisenhower’s secretary of state, not only ignored most of the Foreign Service but also permitted it to be gutted by Senator Joe McCarthy and others.

Paradoxically it was Eisenhower—who would not even send his brother or the vice president abroad without checking with Dulles—who expanded the National Security Council staff and its responsibilities and created the position of special assistant to the president for national security affairs (first filled by Robert Cutler). During the Kennedy Administration Cutler’s successor in that office, McGeorge Bundy, assumed an increasingly important role; the NSC staff, described by Cutler as "scrupulously non-policy making" and nonpartisan, became an active part of the president’s own staff, with an increased proportion of non-career officers. Secretary of State Dean Rusk—who, unlike Rogers and Haig, had unlimited access to his president—avoided feuding with Bundy and others whom Kennedy involved in foreign policy, including the president’s brother, the attorney general; but he did not always welcome their participation. (Kennedy once quipped that, even when they were alone, Rusk would whisper to him that there were still too many present.) For his part, Kennedy both admired the State Department’s talent and regarded it as a "bowl of jelly," a vast paperwork machine producing too few innovations and too many delays.

Although Rusk was closer to Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, and Bundy’s successor, Walt Rostow, the concentration of foreign policy authority in the White House escalated along with the Vietnam War. Johnson, more than most presidents, reached outside both State and the White House for emissaries and advice, once tossing a draft U.N. speech onto the White House dinner table and asking assorted guests for revisions.

In the Truman-Marshall-Acheson era, now regarded as the State Department’s Golden Age, two successive secretaries enjoyed true preeminence, coordinating policy and strengthening the Foreign Service with no interference from the newly formed NSC’s technical staff. Nevertheless, even President Truman, who had not tolerated James Byrnes’ failure as secretary to clear a national radio address, occasionally overrode George Marshall and Dean Acheson, for example, reinserting the "Point Four" program in his 1948 inaugural speech after the department had deleted it and taking the Palestine issue largely out of the department’s hands. Long before there was a national security adviser, Secretary Marshall bristled at White House Counsel Clark Clifford’s involvement in Palestine policy.

But Truman’s overall approach contrasted sharply with that of Franklin Roosevelt. Bored by Secretary Cordell Hull, a political appointee, and distrustful of what he termed a "horse and buggy" State Department, F.D.R. inserted his own men to run the department (Sumner Welles, Raymond Moley, Adolph Berle), refused to take the secretary to wartime Allied summit meetings, did not inform him of key diplomatic decisions (or the atomic bomb), created a host of new wartime agencies, and utilized the devoted Harry Hopkins as his coordinator, emissary and principal adviser. Hull, who retained the title and trappings of office, found himself, in his own words, "relied upon in public and ignored in private."

Hull was not the first secretary to find his turf invaded. Woodrow Wilson typed his own diplomatic messages, induced the resignation of both William Jennings Bryan and Robert Lansing (with whom he did not consult about declaring war on Germany), and conducted foreign relations largely through his personal envoy, Colonel Edward House. Theodore Roosevelt often ignored Secretary John Hay, corresponded directly with other heads of state, and personally made all key decisions on Panama. William McKinley initiated war against Spain without consulting Secretary of State William Day. Even our first secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, found his jurisdiction challenged by Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, who regarded himself as George Washington’s prime minister.


Must the next secretary of state face similar treatment? Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter and Reagan all assured their nominees to that office, publicly or privately, that the secretary would be the president’s principal adviser, administrator, formulator and spokesman on foreign policy. No doubt most of those statements, like each new president’s promise of the cabinet’s collective importance (delivered at its only important meeting, when it gathers for its first group photograph), were sincerely intended. But each time hope was followed by frustration.

Why? F.D.R. threatened to be not only his own secretary of state but also his own secretary of war and navy. Yet, with a few notable exceptions, secretaries of defense have more successfully resisted White House direction than their colleagues at State. Indeed, the Defense Department’s (and the CIA’s) increasingly active role in foreign affairs has further aggravated State’s decline. Military matters somehow look less intriguing to a president than diplomacy, more complex and expensive to tinker with, less politically promising.

No president would dream, for example, of anointing a campaign contributor or crony as a military theater commander. But making him an ambassador, and permitting him to bypass the secretary of state, is commonplace. A practice harking back to Benjamin Franklin and Charles Francis Adams is not all that new; a practice utilizing Averell Harriman, David Bruce, Ellsworth Bunker and Mike Mansfield is not all that bad. If "political" ambassadors could be kept below 25 percent of the total (as in the Carter Administration) and dispatched largely to countries more scenic than sensitive, the secretary might tolerate the chagrin of senior officers passed over by unprepared and ineffective amateurs. After all a non-career ambassador with the president’s ear may more easily control those representing other agencies on the embassy staff and more willingly take on the State Department’s critics. But the current postwar peak, with 40 percent of appointees being non-career diplomats, many of them placed in key capitals and even in mid-level Washington posts previously reserved for career specialists, can only accelerate the department’s decline.

A more important reason for that decline is the distrust that stems from each new president’s determination to make new policy, announce his own "doctrine" (four in the last two decades), and change his predecessor’s policies. In the State Department the president all too often encounters an emphasis on caution and continuity from career personnel who served that predecessor. From the Defense Department and CIA, seemingly less bogged down in endless paper, inflexible procedures and multiple clearances, he obtains—sometimes—quicker answers, crisper memoranda and the promise of clearer results.

Thus Kissinger deplored the State Department’s "mushy compromises," Poindexter its "fear of failure" and Arthur Schlesinger its "intellectual exhaustion." White House advisers, Dean Rusk said recently, do not like to hear that the world is too intractable for their proposals "and, not liking the message . . . are inclined to shoot the messenger." But Kennedy, despite his respect for Rusk, occasionally expressed another view of the department: "They never have any ideas over there, never come up with anything new."

In addition to this traditional presidential impatience Kennedy’s more populist successors harbored antiestablishment suspicions of all professional bureaucrats, particularly diplomats. Brzezinski thought Vance represented a soft elite. Poindexter (himself a product of the military bureaucracy) dismissed both State and Defense career services as "not willing to take risks." White House aides for decades have briefed the press and public confident that they can represent the president’s views better than the State Department.

But the principal reason for the increasing concentration of foreign policy responsibility in the White House is our increasingly dangerous world. Since the days when Dean Acheson could serve as both secretary of state and Truman’s personal adviser and coordinator, the overlap between national and international issues, the number and speed of thermonuclear missiles, and the foreign policy pressures from Congress, the press and public, have all mounted to a point where no president can conscientiously delegate to anyone his constitutional responsibilities in foreign affairs.

No president is willing to entrust the nation’s security and survival (and his own political effectiveness and survival) wholly to professional diplomats or to a secretary of state necessarily lacking his perspective. No president, as Kennedy observed, is now willing to become as dependent on one man’s advice as Truman was on Acheson’s.

Alexander Haig, having closely observed Kennedy’s hands-on control of the Cuban missile crisis and Johnson’s personal direction of Vietnam War tactics, should not have been surprised at President Reagan’s insistence that crisis management be based in the White House where greater speed, precision and secrecy are assured. Reagan’s counterparts in Moscow and other capitals are increasingly conducting foreign policy out of their offices and paying less attention to their foreign ministries. It is absurd to accuse the White House of "meddling" in the prerogatives of a department established by Congress in 1789 to fulfill such duties as the president should from time to time instruct.

The modern president’s personal foreign policy needs are threefold. First, to assist him in his public and private consideration and discussions of international issues, he needs someone to organize the flow of information inundating his desk from countless sources, and to relate each issue to his overall foreign and domestic priorities and politics. Second, to help him resolve (not to resolve without him) conflicting or overlapping recommendations from the State and Defense Departments, the CIA and some 40 other agencies responsible for international finance, trade, transportation, communications and other functions, the president needs someone to identify all the problems, options and issues, to define their respective risks and consequences, to monitor the implementation of his decisions, and to act as a catalyst for government action, a clearinghouse for cabinet statements, and a presidential emissary to foreign and domestic leaders. Finally, a strong president needs independent advice and analysis, alternative evaluations of recommendations from the State Department and elsewhere, and new long-term proposals to supplement those of his departments.

These coordinating and other roles are best handled by the national security adviser (and his staff), who can fulfill the president’s need for someone in the White House who, to the maximum extent possible, speaks his language, sees the whole government through his eyes, and understands his political needs. The secretary of state can neither assume that role nor assign one of his people to it (as Reagan’s former chief of staff Donald Regan believed Shultz hoped to do). No secretary of defense, treasury, agriculture, commerce or other department will accept as either fair or final the secretary of state’s decision on their internationally related matters, just as he would not accept their decision on his. No White House will accept as objective the secretary of state’s evaluation of his own department’s proposal, or permit a secretary of state to hog whatever acclaim may flow from a foreign policy success. (The Marshall Plan was so dubbed by Truman only when it faced tough sledding in the Republican-controlled Congress as elections neared.)

George Shultz, like Dulles, believed that the secretary could think "presidentially" by occupying an office adjacent to the White House. But this confuses proximity with perspective. Shultz testified that he already had unlimited access to President Reagan but used that privilege sparingly "because he’s a busy person." (Any secretary of state, with unavoidable administrative, congressional, travel and other commitments, is also a busy person—too busy to fulfill the role of assistant to the president.) An auxiliary office next door to the White House would be convenient for those occasions when his presence is required for a prolonged period; but substituting such an office for his present quarters a few blocks away would not significantly increase the influence in the Oval Office of a secretary highly esteemed by the president, much less one who is not.

More important, Shultz’s proposal confuses the president’s need for staff support in the performance of specific White House duties with his need for a strong professional department fulfilling a broader institutional role. Separating the secretary from his department, either physically or philosophically, would diminish both. Leaving White House duties to the White House staff serves the secretary’s long-run interests as well as the president’s.


But the next president would be ill advised to limit the secretary and Department of State to a housekeeping, clerk and messenger role. The caution, continuity and constant consultations for which the department is chided reflect in large part the reality of a dangerous world that does not change merely because we change presidents. The department’s institutional memory, in-depth planning and orderly procedures can protect an eager president from his errors as well as his enemies. The experienced eye and pragmatic perspective of career specialists—unlikely to view Iranian weapons buyers as "moderates" to be wooed with a Bible, cake and concessions—are needed to balance White House pressures for quick and dramatic solutions that conform with campaign slogans or popular sentiment.

Many on the McFarlane-Poindexter team at NSC had formerly served at the State Department, where, said a colleague, nine out of ten of their unrealistic proposals had failed; but "now suddenly there was no filter between them and the ability to act." A president’s aides, relatively unrestrained by statute and unaccountable to Congress, may please him more often than career officers loyal to the department as well as the presidency. ("Sycophants," wrote Haig, "are knee-deep around the White House.") But they also serve who only stand and say no.

Thus, despite his complaints about the State Department, J.F.K. recognized its strengths, directly telephoning or summoning assistant secretaries, ambassadors and desk officers (including some sub-cabinet officers he had injudiciously named before selecting and consulting Secretary Rusk). Kennedy’s Cuban missile crisis decisions were notably informed by the participation of career experts, particularly Llewellyn Thompson.

In the department described by Brzezinski as the most "turf-conscious" in Washington, productivity is directly proportional to participation. Foreign Service morale was high when Truman looked primarily to his secretary of state to run foreign policy. Its morale is low after years of budget cuts at home and terrorist attacks abroad, investigations from the outside and ideological purges within. The next president, seeking a more supportive department, must offer more support to it.

If he has read recent history as well as the Constitution, he will also know that he needs the support of Congress; and a foreign policy lacking the full participation of the secretary of state is less likely to be trusted and supported by Congress. Unlike the national security adviser and other White House aides governed by the doctrine of executive privilege, the secretary of state is accountable not only to the president but also to the Congress that confirms his appointment (Senate only), provides his funds and statutory authority, and hears his testimony.

A successful secretary of state seeks mutual respect with legislators from both parties, even when resisting their micro-management or criticism. They do not want him, their primary channel of information and influence on foreign affairs, shut out of key decisions. Kissinger, when national security adviser, occasionally provided private informal briefings to Senate Foreign Relations Committee members, sometimes at the home of the chairman, William Fulbright. But congressmen resented the fact that taking testimony from Secretary Rogers was "a rather empty exercise," and further resented Kissinger’s appearing before the press but not the Congress to answer questions. To the extent the secretary of state feels excluded from foreign affairs decisions, Congress feels excluded; and that is ultimately unhealthy for the president.

Moreover, unless the NSC staff becomes as large as the State Department—in which case it would suffer many of the same ills and more—no White House has time to make and implement the myriad foreign policy decisions that a superpower makes daily. The president, with the secretary’s help, will make the choices that affect his place in the headlines or history books. But every single day more than 1,000 cables are sent from the department over the secretary’s signature; the department’s representatives are participating in more than a dozen international conferences; and foreign ministers and ambassadors from more than eight score countries, in Washington, the United Nations and their home capitals—to say nothing of Congress and the news media—are seeking the department’s position on countless issues.

In Dean Acheson’s apt metaphor, the president is head gardener in foreign policy, trying to shape forces he cannot totally control: "If he tries to do it all himself—to be his own secretary of state . . . he will soon become too exhausted and immersed in manure and weed-killer to direct anything wisely." An ancient adage of the legal profession holds that a lawyer trying to represent himself has a fool for a client. A president trying to be his own secretary of state is in much the same position.

Nor can the president be his own chief negotiator. There is glory at the summit. But there is also peril and pressure. A subordinate negotiator from State can better delay a response, risk an offense, repudiate a mistake, provide a buffer and protect the president’s prestige. But as Secretary Shultz testified: "When the president hangs out his shingle and says ‘you don’t have to go through the State Department, just come right into the White House,’ he’ll get all the business."

Finally, a president who overrules or undercuts his secretary of state risks a resignation potentially harmful to the country or Congress. F.D.R. reportedly took pains to avoid driving Hull to the point of resignation. Although Wilson induced Robert Lansing’s resignation, confident that it would be at most "another two-day wonder," he had been less sanguine in 1915 about Bryan’s more stormy departure blasting "pro-war" policies. Bryan, however, neither respected nor effective as secretary, found his resignation assailed by some as too tardy to be an expression of conscience and by others as too helpful to the kaiser to be an expression of patriotism. He could not even be chosen delegate to the 1916 Democratic Convention.

Unlike the British cabinet member who can return to Parliament to combat the policy that triggered his exit, the American secretary of state contemplating resignation realizes that, like Bryan, he will no longer influence that policy from either inside or outside the government. To resign with a blast stirs debate; but most secretaries will regard that course as disloyal and unprofessional.

Yet resignations in protest are not un-American. "My duty will be to support . . . the President’s Administration," John Quincy Adams wrote to his mother when appointed secretary of state. "If I can’t, my duty is to withdraw from public service." Cyrus Vance decided "as a matter of principle"—after President Carter approved the Iranian hostage operation over his opposition—that he "could not honorably remain as secretary of state when I so strongly disagreed with a presidential decision that went against my judgment as to what was best for the country."

That sums up the valid grounds for resignation. Not fatigue or frustration, not a fit of pique or prima donna demands, not losing an internal debate or a seat on Air Force One, but the hypocrisy of publicly supporting a major presidential policy that the secretary cannot conscientiously implement. "You can’t do the job well if you want it too much," Secretary Shultz wisely observed. "You have to be willing to say ‘goodbye’."

Despite being "deliberately deceived" in a "systematic way" by the White House about actions directly contrary to his assurances to other foreign ministers, despite presidential approval of policies he deemed "crazy" and "pathetic," Shultz never said goodbye. His resignation, he believed, would not have reversed the president’s course on Iran but merely denied him Shultz’s help on other issues.

Although others who have resigned in protest may have drawn a different line, presidents rarely do reverse course as the result of a cabinet resignation. Indeed, the threat of resignation may be more effective than the act, assuming the threat is both infrequent and believed. But presidents grow weary of those constantly threatening to submit their resignation and—as Secretary Haig discovered—may ultimately "accept" it whether or not submitted.


Note that Bryan and Vance did not resign because the State Department’s "primacy" had been lost to House and Brzezinski (although Acheson, asked later what he would have done had a powerful national security adviser been installed, quickly replied: "I’d resign"). In fact, "primacy"—the focus of so many studies on State Department authority—can be a misleading term. Haig may have described his battle to become Reagan’s foreign policy "vicar" as a "struggle for primacy between the president’s close aides and myself"; but, in terms of actual decision-making, both reality and the Constitution permit only the president, not the secretary or the White House staff, to be "prime" in the executive branch.

Only the president has ultimate power. If he consistently upholds his secretary of state—as Truman and Eisenhower did—he will bestow a de facto primacy among his advisers. But controversial foreign policy initiatives will still face interminable bureaucratic infighting at the third and fourth levels of government unless they are known to have been decided personally by the president, whoever may have advised him. The NSC staff can monitor and coordinate the implementation of presidential decisions at those levels without usurping whatever advisory primacy the president may have bestowed upon the secretary of state. Thus Mr. Shultz erred in quarreling with the conclusion of the Tower Commission, appointed by President Reagan to determine whether structural changes were needed in the foreign-policy-making apparatus, that coordination by the NSC staff was necessarily at the heart of a decision-making process that needed no substantive revamping.

Decades of earlier studies by high-level commissions and commentators had similarly focused on structure and process. Some had even proposed new offices: a second vice president for foreign affairs, a super-cabinet secretary of foreign affairs above the secretary of state, a first secretary of the government. Other studies, in the best tradition of the Maginot Line mentality, reflected the perceived shortcomings of the previous administration’s machinery. Indeed, the NSC system itself—which has aggravated State’s sense of isolation for nearly 20 years—began as an organizational reform reflecting criticism of State’s mistreatment under Franklin Roosevelt.

But formal, obligatory structures and procedures are neither the problem nor the solution. Alexander Haig may have blamed his difficulties largely on the White House’s refusal to approve the organizational plan he presented to the president on Inauguration Day. But each president will consult whom he wishes to consult. Who gets to write the final options paper, and who gets to read it and when, can influence the president’s choice; but he will often make that choice on the basis of unrecorded and uncontrollable conversations, including those with his spouse, personal secretary or barber. No table of organization can offset human chemistry, incompetence or excessive zeal. No theoretical model can effectively impose on a president a decision-making system unsuited to his needs, interests and experience.

Kennedy was not comfortable with Eisenhower’s approach, and Kennedy’s worked less well for Johnson. In the 1961 Berlin crisis Kennedy preferred not to convene the NSC, which included the director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness. In the 1962 Cuban missile crisis he convened only the dozen or so individuals whose judgment he valued, later formally titling the group the NSC "Executive Committee." Johnson, Carter and Reagan, contrary to today’s recurrent proposal that still more individuals (from Congress or the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for example) be added to every NSC meeting, all devised smaller groups to make the real decisions. Even Truman looked not to the NSC he founded but to individuals—such as Marshall, Acheson, Lovett and Harriman—in making his decisions.

Thus, what matters most is not whether the foreign policy interagency groups or senior interagency groups are chaired by the national security adviser, as urged by the Tower Commission, or by a State or Defense Department representative, as urged by Shultz. Nor is the test whether an advance assurance of unfiltered access is given by the president to his secretary of state (as it was to Vance) or denied him (as it was to Rogers). What matters is whose advice, written or unwritten, the president ultimately values the most on any given issue. No structure can predetermine that.

Nor can any statute, as the Tower Commission wisely concluded. The passage of new laws is not a remedy for the violation of existing laws, and legislative "reforms"—as those statutes seeking to curb the president’s war powers and intelligence activities demonstrate—are not always effective. Congress could no doubt prohibit the national security adviser and his staff from engaging in covert and other operations, or limit the size of that staff. But any attempt to mandate how the NSC should function—in effect, instructing the president whom he must and must not hear—would be both unwise and unworkable. To hear is not to heed. To meet is not to decide. No president should be required to convene a formal body, whose views he does not seek, to reach a decision he prefers to reach elsewhere.

Another legislative proposal—subjecting the national security adviser to Senate confirmation and congressional testimony—would only make matters worse. Either the president would rely on some other foreign policy aide serving under a different title, or the national security adviser and secretary of state would have virtually indistinguishable roles. If his operational functions are returned to the departments where they belong, the national security adviser’s principal function is to give the president confidential advice, for which he should not be—and under the Constitution cannot be—accountable to a separate branch of government.

One advocate of change has asserted that confirmation hearings for John Poindexter might have "smoked out" the qualities that led him into trouble. But what are the qualities that foretell trouble in this post, and what qualities guarantee success? In contrast with the highly visible Brzezinski, Admiral Poindexter was all but invisible, rarely speaking to the public or press. That did not help Shultz. Poindexter’s predecessors under Reagan—Richard Alien, William Clark and Robert McFarlane—were not of the assertive Kissinger mold; but they still clashed with Shultz and Haig (although, as Alien remarked, "Mother Teresa could have been national security adviser and . . . had conflict with Al Haig"). Unlike Nixon, Carter encouraged his national security adviser and secretary of state to argue out their differences in front of him. State still lost ground.

Over the years, some national security advisers have been academics, lawyers or businessmen, others have had a military background. Some have been strategic thinkers, some coordinators, others presidential confidants. In each case, the State Department’s authority receded, usually because the president—not the national security adviser—so ordained, and usually without much resistance from the department.


A foreign policy dominated by a strong national security adviser is not necessarily lacking in initiative and imagination, as Henry Kissinger demonstrated; and a foreign policy dominated by an unchallenged secretary of state is not necessarily one of strength and wisdom, as Secretaries Dulles and Charles Evans Hughes demonstrated. Nor is tension between two Washington officials, a familiar occurrence in a city founded on checks and balances, invariably unhelpful to a president who thrives on competition in creative thinking. Any candidate who promises total consistency in his future administration’s foreign policy statements is unfamiliar with the real world of Washington.

But the "guerrilla warfare" of which Secretary Shultz spoke need not be the inevitable result of this creative tension. The next president, before he takes office, without shortchanging Defense and other departments outside the scope of this article, should reach an explicit understanding with each of his State Department and White House nominees on certain basic principles and practices.

First, the president should select a strong-minded secretary of state who shares his view of the world but possesses independent stature (not, however, presidential ambitions), and then make clear not merely to the secretary but to his cabinet, NSC staff, the departmental bureaucracies and the public that he genuinely wishes the secretary of state to be not his sole but his principal adviser, spokesman, negotiator and agent in foreign affairs—not his coordinator or decision-maker—until such time as he proves unable to fulfill the president’s requirements in that role, at which time his resignation will be accepted. The president should make equally clear that he will respect the following prerogatives: the secretary’s authority over all other State Department personnel, including non-career ambassadors; the department’s authority over the separate overseas information, development and arms control agencies; and each ambassador’s authority over embassy staff members reporting to Defense, the CIA and other departments.

Second, the president should meet with the secretary, with only the national security adviser present, at least several times a week when they are both in Washington and confer by telephone when they are not. Each such discussion should be a candid and confidential exploration of each other’s views (not merely a briefing by the secretary or instructions from the president) on issues large and small, on personalities foreign and domestic. No recommendation from the national security adviser or other presidential aide, and no White House activity in the foreign policy area, should be withheld from the secretary; no recommendation of the secretary should be unheard by the president; and no subsequent rejection of that advice on a major issue should occur without advance notice to the secretary. They need not be chums (Dean Rusk has remarked he thought it appropriate that he was the only cabinet member whom President Kennedy did not address by his first name); but between them loyalty, confidence and respect must flow both ways. Each must recognize the other’s very different role and responsibilities.

Third, the secretary of state must fully exercise the responsibility thus given him, personally participate (like Acheson) in drafting the president’s speeches, deliver the bad news along with the good, and inside the Oval Office question his chiefs views, and the national security adviser’s, whenever he feels they are wrong. But he must also accept the fact that the modern White House—not only the president—inevitably exercises some of the authority once lodged in his department. (Even Marshall and Acheson succeeded in part by making clear their deference to presidential power.) The secretary cannot accommodate every critic or shy away from every controversy, but he should avoid those battles on which he has not yet checked with the president or knows the president must overrule him (not, however, distancing himself, as Shultz did, from a matter on which he has been overruled). He must understand U.S. domestic politics and its impact on both the president and foreign affairs; take blame for all failures while letting the president take credit for all successes; exercise both diplomacy and salesmanship in representing the president with Congress and the press as well as with foreign leaders; make it a high priority to respond to White House requests for new options in both the time frame and the style preferred by the president; and maintain close and candid relations with his cabinet colleagues and particularly the national security adviser. Should he ever conclude that he cannot in good conscience help implement some major presidential decision, then he should not threaten his resignation, but irrevocably submit it.

Fourth, the secretary must truly lead and manage the department (few do), adopt the president’s program and policies as his own, convey them to the department’s professionals, win their cooperation and respect for those policies, and utilize their talents in senior policymaking posts without subjecting them to any ideological test, without regard to who served his predecessor, and without confining all major tasks to a small inner circle. But—again like Marshall and Acheson—he must not hesitate to prod and prune the Foreign Service, reduce its paperwork and procedural delays, and broaden its base.

Fifth, the president—spurning those who insist that he look for strength in either his secretary of state or his national security adviser but not both—should fill the latter post with a skilled and trusted deputy possessing a personal style and outlook compatible with both his own and the secretary’s. In performing the advisory and coordinating functions summarized above, within the limitations prescribed by the president, drawing upon the useful model contained in the Tower Commission report, and mindful of the secretary’s primary role as outlined above, the national security adviser should present his own views to the president without concealing them from the secretary, and convey the views of the secretary and others accurately, taking pains not to permit his own advocacy to diminish theirs, not to forfeit their trust and respect, and not to represent his own thinking as the president’s without knowing his chief’s express wishes. Coordination of process must not again become control of policy. On whatever issues the president wants the national security adviser to cover, he should review, but not duplicate, the cable flow and other work of the State Department as an adviser outside the line of command between the president and secretary. No important matter should be decided at his desk. The "buck" does not stop there.

Sixth, the national security adviser should maintain low visibility, if not the unrealistic standard of "a passion for anonymity": few speeches, still fewer on-the-record press conferences, and even fewer public missions abroad. His meetings with foreign officials should be reported to the secretary. The presidential instructions he relays to U.S. ambassadors should be cleared and transmitted through the secretary. His confidential foreign travels should be coordinated with the secretary. He should appreciate congressional and domestic politics and the talents of a Foreign Service that has, in McGeorge Bundy’s words, an "almost instinctive desire to turn toward the sunlight of presidential leadership." His professional staff should be substantially smaller than the present one (Kennedy and Bundy successfully relied on only a dozen), and selected—without political clearance—from among both specialists outside the government and career servants within. Whether or not the president has a chief of staff or other senior policy adviser, the assistant for national security affairs should report directly to the president as often each day as necessary. He should keep the chief of staff and presidential press secretary informed, but also urge the president to keep the number of White House aides involved in foreign policy meetings and missions to a minimum.

Finally, the president himself must be in command of his own forces, attentive and decisive on international issues, permitting no policy vacuum or power struggle, melding diverse views into one voice, building an atmosphere of team loyalty that minimizes leaks and backbiting, stimulating the thinking of others without suppressing his own. He will not strengthen the Department of State by stifling its creativity. He will not win the confidence of Congress by transferring power to his own unaccountable staff. He must dismiss any White House aides overstepping their bounds. He must devise a suitable system for making decisions but, more importantly, he must make them.

None of these recommendations should be imposed by Congress or adopted wholesale by the president. He must personally tailor the cloth to fit his own frame. Indeed, all of the above boils down to the strength and judgment of our next president. Ultimately he will determine the quality of his principal foreign policy advisers and their advice. We—all of us—will determine the quality of that next president.

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  • THEODORE C. SORENSEN, Special Counsel to President John F. Kennedy, practices international law in New York City. His latest book, co-authored with Ralf Dahrendorf, is A Widening Atlantic? Domestic Change & Foreign Policy.
  • More By Theodore C. Sorensen