What is the Role of the National Security Advisor?

Author: Notre Dame International Security Center

When a new Federal law creates or restructures government agencies, it’s not uncommon for the law to create a new role within that agency. Such was the case upon the passing of the National Security Act of 1947. The law, signed by President Truman in the wake of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War, restructured the US military and intelligence agencies—merging the Departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force into the National Military Establishment and establishing the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency. One high-profile position the National Security Act created is the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs—more commonly known as the National Security Advisor.


First, Current, and Notable National Security Advisors

The first person to serve as the National Security Advisor was Robert Cutler, during the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower. At the time of this writing, there have been 28 permanent National Security Advisors; Jake Sullivan currently holds the role. During his time as a student at Yale, Sullivan studied international studies and political science. Other recent National Security Advisors have studied law, history, philosophy, and management science. Two Notre Dame alumni have served as National Security Advisors: Richard V. Allen ‘57 [BA] and ‘58 [MA] (Ronald Reagan) and Condoleezza Rice ‘75 [MA] (George W. Bush).

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The National Security Advisor's Office is located in the White House's West Wing

The 2009 White House Transition Project says that the National Security Advisor and staff is among the most important White House offices due to its impact on policy. “In some administrations, that impact is so strong that foreign and national security policymaking is essentially centralized in the hands of the national security advisor, with minimal input from cabinet-level departments such as State or Defense,” John P. Burke of the University of Vermont wrote. Burke observes how Presidents differ on the roles and responsibilities of the National Security Advisor within their administrations.

Burke continues, “Few could identify President Nixon’s first secretary of state... Yet Nixon’s National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, was a household name and a recognizable media figure.” While this media attention is somewhat unusual, other high-profile National Security Advisors include Trump appointees Michael Flynn (who holds the record for the shortest term at 24 days), John Bolton, and Robert O’Brien; Obama appointee Susan Rice; George W. Bush appointment Condoleezza Rice; and Ronald Reagan appointee Colin Powell. Condoleezza Rice and Powell, though, primarily gained notoriety through the role they would hold later: that of Secretary of State.

While the role of National Security Advisor is often the highest office held, Kissinger would also become Secretary of State; William P. Clark and Frank Carlucci also served as President Reagan’s Secretaries of the Interior and Defense, respectively; a George H.W. Bush appointee, Brent Scowcroft became President Clinton’s Chair of the Intelligence Oversight Board and later George W. Bush’s Chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board. Susan Rice, at the time of this writing, holds the role of Director of the Domestic Policy Council for President Biden.


What is the National Security Advisor’s Role?

So, what is the role of the National Security Advisor? Ultimately, there is no one answer—it is a dynamic role with different demands depending on current affairs during the President’s term. The Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001, for example, posed an unprecedented challenge. The White House Transition Project is again cited, saying “there is no historical precedent to draw upon for insight for the changed organizational context in the aftermath of 9/11. Nor is there one fraught with such a heavy degree of uncertainty and future danger.” In other words, during her time as National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice had to operate within the context of the beginning of the War on Terrorism.

In contrast, when Obama appointed Susan Rice, Washington Post writer Scott Wilson says the President was elevating a “proponent of a larger American role in preventing humanitarian crises and protecting human rights.” Wilson also directly mentions the War on Terrorism saying, “The ideological shift signaled... a central quandary for Obama as he seeks to make a mark on the world at a time of austerity—and war weariness—at home.” Finally, Wilson observes the different roles the National Security Advisor serves at different times, specifically between the first term and the second term. He says, “The changes come as Obama struggles for political momentum in his second term, a period when US presidents have traditionally focused first on domestic issues before turning more of their attention overseas.”


The role of the National Security Advisor is an ever-changing one. And while this presents a challenge to everyone who has held the office, either on a permanent or temporary basis, it continues to be an important component of the United States’ national security. If you want to learn more about national security, diplomacy, and current affairs, the Notre Dame International Security Center teaches undergraduate and graduate students the complexities of national security.


Originally published by Notre Dame International Security Center at ndisc.nd.edu on April 28, 2022.