Books, International Relations, National Security, Politics

Book Review: The National Security Enterprise


Roger George and Harvey Rishikof’s The National Security Enterprise: Navigating the Labyrinth is a unique book.  It provides unprecedented breadth and depth regarding the organization and functions of the national security community, or national security enterprise (NSE) as the authors call it.

The editors and authors deserve credit for the undertaking itself.  Any book that seeks to cover the byzantine structures of the national security community runs two risks: becoming a monotonous walk though of ever-changing line-and-block diagrams; or, alternatively, becoming a collection of scandalous insider accounts about the irrationality of bureaucracy, amounting  to little more than community gossip.  In both cases, the result would be fleeting, rapidly becoming irrelevant with the creation of new organizations or the rewiring of old ones, and providing little in the way of understanding how past battles may recur as a result of enduring interpretations of role, responsibilities, precedents and prerogatives.

George and Rishikof have managed to find a third course.  The National Security Enterprise provides readers with a detailed understanding of the contemporary organization of the NSE, giving readers a map of today’s organizational structures responsible for making and executing policy, while providing a tour of the various cultures or tribes within the community that will shape future reforms and endure in whatever niches they can construct.  In doing so, it demarcates sources of continuity and change within the NSE, providing readers with a lens for understanding why collective decision-making within the community is so difficult.  Indeed, if there is one essential theme that permeates the book’s chapters it is that the entire NSE is in conflict with itself, and that policy-making is a combative process.  Indeed, conflict occurs at every level of the community, from the well-known and established macroscopic rivalries between the three branches of government, to the microscopic contests that occur within the sub-cultures of various organizations, e.g. the civilians vs. the military, political appointees vs. career civil servants, rival military services, intelligence analysts vs. collectors, etc.  Ironically, and importantly, it is this cross-scale competition that leads to cooperation and compromise between competitors.

The National Security Enterprise is not the first book to argue the importance of bureaucratic politics and institutional rivalries in national security, but it may be the most comprehensive with respect to its emphasis on culture and history.  I have never seen a text that provides such broad coverage of the players in the system.  While it is commonplace to read about relations between the Department of Defense, Department of State, and the Central Intelligence Agency, or the struggles over defining the powers and authority of the Director of National Intelligence, the roles and cultures of the Office of Management and Budget, the courts, think tanks, media, and lobbyists are rarely given equal treatment to the National Security Council, Office of the Secretary of Defense, the uniformed services, and other established executive branch agencies.  Indeed, these external, non-governmental players are often treated as corrupting forces that distort an otherwise rational process.  While none of the chapters in The National Security Enterprise should be regarded as the last word on any of their subjects, their clear writing, emphasis on culture and history, and excellent sourcing makes them the logical starting point for anyone interested in the inner workings of interagency rivalries and policies.

Although The National Security Enterprise is not a theoretical work, it is of great theoretical importance.  It provides no model of intra-government bargaining or interagency negotiation, outside of its general exposition of the combative undercurrents that characterize every level of the community.  Yet, it forcefully challenges the vision of the state as a unified, rational actor whose internal politics stop at the water’s edge.  From the perspective of those interested in Agent-Based Modeling, the NSE framework provided by the authors presents intellectual support and a significant challenge—a high bar to clear with respect to the way the competing agents interact in a policy process.  The National Security Enterprise supports the notion of policy-making as a multi-agent system, composed of competing and cooperating actors with distinct preferences capable of autonomous decision-making and action.  However, it also highlights the fact that most agent models emphasize competition between agents with opposing objectives, rather than competition over the means for achieving a common goal, i.e. rival cultures, decision-making heuristics, and senses of right and wrong, proper and improper.  This lower level competition, often occurring in accordance with higher-level agreement, suggests a need for much richer and culturally sensitive and sophisticated agents that simultaneously operate within a hierarchy of authority and a network of peers.

The National Security Enterprise provides a great service to anyone with a serious interest in national security strategy and policy.


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