Rediscovering Defense Policy:
A Public Policy Call to Arms

Brandon J. Archuleta


Since 9/11, policy scholars have made significant inroads with tremendous insights into U.S. homeland security policy, especially in the areas of counterterrorism and disaster relief. But as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan raged on, the public policy field largely ceded questions of traditional defense policy to international relations and security scholars. This was a mistake. The time has come for policy scholars to rediscover defense policy and rejoin America’s national security conversation. With defense spending in decline, the All-Volunteer Force in transition, and emerging threats on the rise, research on defense budgeting and management, military social policy, and cyber bureaucracy are all ripe for scholarly examination. This research note reviews the latest work in the field, reinvigorates national security research agendas for the twenty first century, and explores several ideas for the way ahead in defense policy scholarship.

Key Words

institutions, processes, defense, national security, foreign policy


With the official end of the Iraq War, continued fighting in Afghanistan, the rise of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL), Russian aggression in the Crimean Peninsula, China’s dispute over the Senkaku Islands, and a myriad of other security concerns around the globe, defense and national security research remains an ever important field of study for scholars aiming to inform both the policy studies literature and contemporary policy debates. In this journal’s previous defense and public policy review, Ripberger (2011, p. 78) rightly notes that the attacks of September 11th 2001 “propelled defense and security back onto the [policy studies] research agenda.” More importantly, “[M]odern policy scholars are beginning to focus on defense and security in a way that informs policymakers and advances policy theory (p. 79).” This is especially true with regard to civil defense and homeland security policy.

Traditional defense policy studies includes questions related, but certainly not limited to, employment of the armed forces, military force structure, chain of command, defense budgets and spending, strategic plans and policy, program evaluation, research and development, weapons procurement and acquisitions, innovation and logistics, civil-military relations, and personnel readiness. Despite this robust and ever growing research agenda, however, the public policy field largely ceded questions of traditional defense and national security policy to international relations and security scholars. This was a mistake. Indeed, the frameworks, theories, models, and methods policy scholars bring to bear on these vital issues will make a significant contribution to the discipline’s body of defense and national security scholarship.

While international relations purists and policy studies skeptics may be content with this status quo, a public policy approach to defense and national security questions is long overdue in the field. Unlike many international relations scholars who still attribute rationality to unitary actors at the state level of analysis, policy scholars have long forgone such assumptions and embraced bounded rationality (Simon, 1945; Baumgartner and Jones, 1993, 2009) and the policy subsystem as a preferred level of analysis (Freeman, 1955; Redford, 1969; McCool, 1995), which includes the actors and institutions that compete over intrastate policymaking processes. Acknowledging this reveals that defense, national security, and foreign policymaking all occur within and between policy subsystems. Although defense and national security policy subsystems are far more insular and less pluralistic than domestic policy subsystems, the construct still applies. For instance, military personnel and pension policies for the roughly 2.2 million active duty, national guard, and reserve service members across the U.S. armed forces are controlled by a “small and insular cabal of actors and institutions” that form an autonomous military personnel policy subsystem (Archuleta, 2015, p. 6).

Understanding and appreciating how competing subsystem actors and institutions within a state manage to generate national defense and security policies is fundamental to addressing these important research questions. This is why the Comparative Agendas Project has managed to gain such traction in the field of comparative politics (Baumgartner, Jones, and Wilkerson, 2011). Simply assuming that a state will choose the utility maximizing, “rational” course of action belies centuries of international history. There should be little doubt, the time has come for policy scholars to rediscover defense policy and rejoin America’s national security conversation.

Defining Defense

Any scholarly research note naturally casts a wide net in search of relevant literature. This one is no different. Defining “defense policy” will help focus the scope of this review. Smith and Larimer (2009, p. 75) loosely define public policy as “any deliberative action (or non-action) taken by government to meet some desired end.” Naturally, the desired end of U.S. defense policy is to “protect the integrity of [American] democratic institutions and promote a peaceful global environment in which they can thrive (NSC, 1986, p. 1).” Defense policymakers aim to effectively leverage the various instruments of national power – diplomacy, economics, information, and the military – to ensure American liberty, security, and prosperity. Thus, defense policy is broadly construed as deliberative actions (or non-actions) taken by government to “protect fundamental values” and meet core (and peripheral) national security interests “necessary to the continued existence and vitality of the state (Jordon, et al., 2009, p. 4; Nye, 1999).” These national interests include defending the homeland, growing the U.S. economy, promoting universal values, and maintaining a liberal international order (NSC, 2010).

Selection Methodology

With this operating definition of defense policy as a guide, policy scholars have paid particular attention to the political institutions and processes that drive defense and national security policy in the United States and abroad over the past several years. For brevity sake, however, this research note places primary emphasis on American defense and national security policy.1 As such, this article reviews works by public policy scholars and moves off the beaten path to include relevant scholarship by international relations scholars, diplomatic historians, and scholar-practitioners as well. Through an institutions and processes framework to structure discussion, this review examines significant contributions to the policy studies literature on defense, national security, and foreign policy from January 2011 to August 2015. Further, an institutions and processes structure offers broad appeal and accessibility for scholars and practitioners of all stripes.2

Beyond structure, judging an article’s relative significance as a criterion for incorporation, whether found in a policy-relevant journal or off the beaten path, begs three simple questions: Based on the aforementioned definition of defense policy, is this author attempting to tell a defense, national security, or foreign policy story? If so, does this article reveal anything new for public policy scholars, especially those who specialize in defense, national security, or foreign policy? If not, does a defense and national security lens at least help explain a broader political phenomenon of interest to policy scholars in general? (See Figure 1 below). Therefore, this research note excludes articles that only tangentially touch on defense, national security, or foreign policy issues.

Figure 1. Selection Methodology

With a policy studies focus in mind, the initial search criteria for this review incorporated several policy-relevant journals in pursuit of worthy articles related to the governmental institutions responsible for developing defense and national security policy (i.e. bureaucracy, interests, industry, media, etc.) and the processes by which these institutions craft such policy (i.e. agenda setting, decision making, implementation, evaluation, etc.). This exploration began with the some of the most prominent journals in the policy studies field, including Policy Studies Journal, Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, Review of Policy Research, Politics & Policy, Public Administration Review, American Political Science Review, and American Journal of Political Science, among others. Next, the author expanded the search for relevant scholarship in publications like Presidential Studies Quarterly, Armed Forces & Society, Foreign Policy Analysis, International Studies Perspectives, Homeland Security & Emergency Management, and even recent doctoral dissertations in the field.

This review follows with three subsequent sections. The first section examines journal articles related to defense and national security institutions, including the National Security Council and Department of Homeland Security. The second section explores several defense and national security processes, including presidential agenda setting and policy entrepreneurship. The final section of this research note concludes with several ideas for the way ahead in defense and public policy scholarship.


Political institutions offer a helpful lens through which to view and understand defense and national security policymaking. But as Elinor Ostrom (2007, p. 23) points out, “It is hard to make much progress in the study of institutions if scholars define the term ‘institution’ as meaning almost anything.” Rather than focus on institutions as a socially embedded system of rules or norms that structure individual behavior (Riker, 1980; North, 1990; Ostrom, 1998; Scott, 2001), this review draws from Hodgson’s (2006) more inclusive definition that identifies institutions not just as conventions, but also as organizations. In this sense, organizations are special kinds of institutions with additional features, including principles of sovereignty, hierarchical chains of command, and boundaries for membership. With the president’s constitutional duty as commander-in-chief, the hierarchical structure of organizations within the defense community, and the sensitive nature of national security policymaking that includes only a select few, defining “institutions” in the organizational sense is especially appropriate given the topic and scope of this research note.


The National Security Council (NSC) is often a favorite subject for diplomatic historians, not political scientists. But recent works by both diplomatic historians and political scientists offer revealing insights for policy scholars interested in the inner-workings of one of the most important national security institutions in America. Nearly 70 years have passed since the NSC first came into being. Pointing to the attacks of September 11th 2001 and the faulty Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) intelligence leading to the disastrous “war of choice” in Iraq (Haass, 2009), a growing chorus of scholars and policymakers has called for institutional reform within the aging NSC and beyond (Locher, 2008; Drezner, 2009; Miller, 2013). Paul Miller (2013, p. 593) describes recent NSC reform efforts as “piecemeal, haphazard, and patchy, focused on individual agencies rather than systemic reform.” He argues that policymakers would do well to reinstate the long forgotten Eisenhower NSC system, including a Planning Board and Operations Coordinating Board, to more effectively coordinate the interagency planning and implementation processes. This enabled a “highly structured and meticulous” NSC process during the Eisenhower years that has been sorely missing ever since (Miller, 2013, p. 597).

Discounting rational choice and “new institutionalist” explanations popular in the international relations field (Zegart, 1999), Bryan Mabee (2011) relies on historical institutionalism to examine the creation (timing) and development (longevity) of the NSC. As such, the NSC’s statutory purpose is to:

[A]dvise the President with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security so as to enable the military services and the other departments and agencies of the Government to cooperate more effectively in matters involving the national security (NSA, 1947; Miller, 2013).

Borrowing concepts from punctuated equilibrium theory, Mabee argues, “[E]xogenous shocks are crucial in providing the necessary freedom to change existing institutions, which are then set on new contingent paths (p. 27).” Immediately after President Truman signed the National Security Act into law, the nascent NSC set about on a path dependent course of development. Mabee offers two conclusions. First, the immediate aftermath of the Second World War created a moment in time, or “critical juncture,” whereby major institutional change across America’s national security establishment was possible. Second, the NSC has managed to endure over time as a result of “positive feedback mechanisms” which enable increased presidential power and more effective foreign policy coordination across the interagency (p. 28-29). These are important points considering modern U.S. presidents tend to consolidate wartime decision making at the White House in the face of a deferential Congress (Fisher, 2000).

These two pieces on the NSC spur interesting questions regarding bureaucratic information processing that future scholars should consider exploring. Given the sensitive work that takes place within the NSC, institutional structures like coordination boards and interagency planning committees may detrimentally stovepipe information all the way up to the president through the national security advisor, thereby preventing the necessary exchange of classified information across agencies earlier in the process. If this is the case, elite interviews with former NSC staffers may offer insights into how government can overcome these classified stovepipes and distribute information to key stakeholders sooner rather than later.

Policy scholars continue to make impressive inroads into understanding homeland security in the United States. To better understand policy coherence within policy regimes, Peter May, Ashley Jochim, and Joshua Sapotichne (2011) leverage their work on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to explore two “boundary-spanning” questions: “What is homeland security? And have policymakers advanced a shared understanding for homeland security (p. 285)?” From terrorist attacks and disaster response to public health epidemics and other crises, the complex realities of the homeland security regime naturally cut across several policy subsystems and are hamstrung by overlapping and competing policy jurisdictions. The authors offer, “We suggest that policy regimes that crosscut elements of different policy subsystems and induce players within them to pursue similar ends – boundary-spanning policy regimes – hold the prospect for overcoming these limitations (p. 290).” Regime strength rests on policymakers’ ability to focus attention on a shared vision of homeland security. May, et al. write:

[T]he relevant players in each of the subsystems we consider were largely pursuing separate homeland security agendas that reflect their particular concerns and historic ways of doing business…in trying to do too much, little is accomplished in the way of shared purpose, supportive interests, and unified institutions (p. 302).

Rather than rallying behind the broad concepts of “homeland security” and “all-disaster preparedness,” the authors conclude that the homeland security regime is really quite “anemic.”

Peter May and Chris Koski (2012) continue this research on policy regimes by examining the implementation of homeland security policies through the public-private “communities of interest” responsible for protecting the nation’s critical infrastructures by mobilizing attention and engagement and creating planning partnerships. The authors write, “Planning partnerships are as much about crafting policies and programs as they are about implementing them (p. 140).” Their analysis finds that the federal government’s planning partnership approach fosters cross-sector collaboration to “pursue common sets of solutions for risk reduction and mitigation (154).” In related work, May and Jochim (2013, p. 441) declare, “Stronger communities have a clear sense of their common interests, institutional arrangements for information sharing, and interdependencies that reinforce their shared fate.” Taken together, these findings lend credence to the notion that the bureaucratic planning process is often more important than the plan.

Interested in questions of public administration in a democratic society, Scott Robinson, et al. (2012) examine public trust in the Department of Homeland Security. Their research suggests that public trust in DHS is “not driven by the behavior of the agency (p. 728).” Rather, trust in DHS stems namely from “political attitudes, policy salience, religiosity, and demographic characteristics, even when controlling for trust in government in general (p. 713).” Their findings suggest that public trust in bureaucratic agencies is a new and fruitful area of research for the public policy and administration fields and they encourage others to participate. Interested scholars might extend this research into an examination of the U.S. military as America’s most trusted public institution (Gallup, 2011).

Subsequent research by Scott Robinson and Nicola Mallik (2015) move the growing homeland security field from the federal level to the state level by cataloguing the confusing “diversity of definitions” for the term “homeland security.” They find a clear divergence at the U.S. state level with regard to operational and statutory definitions. This presents potential problems for policy scholars studying homeland security and policy practitioners concerned with “inter-state” and or “state-federal” homeland security coordination in the midst of crisis. In other words, “[I]n states where multiple definitions exist, the possibility of confused management and action – such as in the case of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina – remains (p. 78).”

While ongoing research into DHS continues to make helpful contributions to the field, policy scholars should note that there were practically no published articles relating to the Department of Defense – the nation’s largest bureaucracy – during the 2011 to 2015 review window. This is both revealing and disturbing. With massive budgets, throngs of people, and reams of data, the Pentagon ought to become a point of focus for policy scholars interested in defense institutions over the next several years. And lest scholars forget, the armed services and foreign relations committees in Congress serve as policy venues for defense and national security issues. These subsystem institutions also merit scholarly attention.

Interests and Industry

Ever since President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell address to the nation warning of the perils of the “military-industrial complex,” a specialized defense industry has been a centerpiece of the American war machine and national security establishment. But beyond bombs and bullets, defense companies also play an important role in post-conflict reconstruction. For instance, Christopher Witko’s (2011) piece discusses the Halliburton/Kellogg, Brown, and Root restoration of the Iraqi oil infrastructure in 2003-2004. He finds that the most important factors in determining the award of a defense contract include campaign contributions, firm reputation, and past contracting history. In fact, from 1999-2002 Halliburton donated some $2 million in soft money to republicans and none to democrats (p. 766). Meanwhile, political connections and favoritism can lead to inflated contracting costs, as was the case with Iraq’s oil infrastructure.

Like Witko’s exploration into the immediate aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, Timothy LaPira (2012) uses the post-9/11 creation of the homeland security policy regime to explain the “timing and sequence of interest group mobilization and lobbying activities (p. 227).” No doubt, the terrorist attacks of September 11th mobilized interests groups of all types seeking to contribute to – and profit from – U.S. homeland security. Interestingly, LaPira finds that even after an exogenous shock, well-established interest groups that span various policy jurisdictions only temporarily shift focus to newly formed policy regimes before ultimately returning to their organic policy subsystems. Without meaningful competition, new interest groups are able to emerge and mobilize in order to fill the new policy regime’s advocacy vacuum (LaPira, 2012).


From yellow journalism in the Spanish-American War to embedded reporting in Iraq and Afghanistan, wartime media coverage has been a cornerstone of the American way of war for more than a century. Two recent studies offer new insights into the media’s role in foreign policymaking and wartime coverage, especially with regard to focusing events and framing. In her analysis on media attention and the policymaking process, Michelle Wolfe (2012) finds that increased media attention on policy issues generally “put the brakes” on the policy process by expanding the scope of conflict and slowing legislative debate through negative feedback. Unlike other issues areas (i.e. infrastructure, social welfare, environment, and government operations), Wolfe’s data suggest increased media attention actually speeds up the policy process with regard to foreign policy focusing events, including defense and international affairs. She finds this is in line with the foreign policy literature, concluding, “foreign policy issues elevated to the national stage will speed up lawmaking (Wolfe, 2012, p. 117).”

With regard to frames, Amber Boydstun and Rebecca Glazier (2013) employ an original two-tiered method to understand media framing during the War on Terror. Common approaches to media and agenda setting employ either issue-specific frames or generalizable coding schemes. Rather than subscribe to just one, the authors “focus on the benefits that generalizable coding procedures can deliver when utilized in conjunction with issue-specific coding procedures (Boydstun and Glazier, 2012, p. 709).” To maximize use of their model, the authors rely on a four-pronged framing typology which ties gain-based versus loss-based frames to self-referential versus other-referential frames (p. 716). While their analysis reveals a decrease in total media attention to the War on Terror over time, it also “illustrates the importance of events in influencing frame selection: 9/11, the deployment of troops to Iraq, and the breaking of the Abu Ghraib scandal (p. 717).” More interestingly, media frames shifted from loss-based following 9/11 to gain-based during the nation building counterinsurgency effort in Iraq. Loss-based media frames prevailed early-on but dissipated over time. Similarly, the media also relied on self-referential frames early in the war. This speaks to the “inward focus” Americans felt following 9/11. “Yet,” the authors conclude, “self-referential frames also decline over time. As the war wore on, the media began to report on the war from different angles, including ones that took into account the impact on other countries and citizens (p. 721).”

Advocacy Coalitions

A special 2011 issue of The Policy Studies Journal celebrated a quarter century of Paul Sabatier’s Advocacy Coalition Framework (ACF). This issue included two articles worth noting here for their relevance to U.S. foreign policy. In the first article, Jonathan Pierce (2011) applies the ACF beyond environmental and domestic policy to U.S. foreign policy – an important and welcome step forward in the ACF literature. In his research on the creation of Israel, Pierce uses the ACF to better understand belief systems and coalition stability over time by exploring deep-seated political conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine from 1922 to 1949. Leveraging a mixed methods approach, Pierce makes three findings. First, advocacy coalition structures – the lineup of allies versus opponents – remains “relatively stable over time (p. 430).” Second, among the three advocacy coalitions in question – pro-Zionist, anti-Zionist, and pro-Arab – new policy core beliefs “emerge over time as changes to the subsystem made them more salient among coalition members (p. 430).” Third, the convergence of multiple belief systems within a single advocacy coalition may signal future policy change. Extending Pierce’s analysis beyond Israel-Palestine, this sort of work also suggests that with so many international issues galvanizing groups of like-minded people to take action, the ACF could potentially offer a helpful construct to study and understand other hotly contested political movements around the world, including Kurdish nationalism in Iraq, Iran’s Green Revolution, and even the Arab Spring.

While the focus of this review article is primarily American in scope, the second ACF article of note is Daniel Nohrstedt’s (2011) piece on Swedish signals intelligence policy. Norhstedt adds an important comparative defense policy perspective that is worthy of inclusion here. His case examines the National Defense Radio Establishment (NDRE) responsible for all Swedish cross-border signals intelligence. This issue is a perfect candidate for an ACF analysis; “it is technologically complex and politically controversial (p. 466).” He contends that the factors that led to major intelligence policy reform in 2009 – changes in NDRE responsibility from mere military communication to all cross-border cable traffic – included shifts in coalition resource distribution and access to new policy venues. First, Norhstedt finds, “[R]edistribution of political resources within a subsystem increases the likelihood for major policy change (p. 473).” Second, “opening new policy venues is a factor that can explain policy change (p. 479).” Taken together, Pierce and Nohrstedt’s articles are important ACF contributions to the foreign policy and comparative defense policy subfields.


Studying public policy requires an inherent appreciation for the complex and unstructured nature of the policymaking process. Indeed, the policy studies literature is full of helpful frameworks, theories, and models that bring ordered explanations to the policy process. Among these is stages theory, an approach the field has long since dismissed as a mere heuristic (Sabatier, 2007). While the stages heuristic is rightly criticized for incorrectly portraying a linear approach to the policymaking process without acknowledging the potential for feedback loops (deLeon, 1999), Smith and Larimer (2009, p. 32) acknowledge, “The common patterns [in the evolution of stages theory] all portray public policy as a continual process, one where problems are never solved, they are only addressed.” Recurring national security problems are rarely solved; they are merely addressed time and time again. As such, this section relies on a simple outline of the oft-cited stages heuristic to guide the following discussion – “usually agenda setting, policy formulation and legitimation, implementation, and evaluation (Sabatier, 2007, p. 6).”

Agenda Setting

Beyond traditional studies of presidential attention and policy tools, Heather Larsen-Price (2012) examines the varied use of presidential policy instruments (i.e. presidential messages, administration hearings, executive orders, and amicus briefs) to understand how presidents allocate their limited attention across issue domains to address crises and further their policy agendas. In fact, no single policy tool dominates presidential response to defense and foreign affairs. Rather, the president uses policy instruments like administration hearings and executive orders in conjunction with a heavy reliance on presidential messages to address attention spikes on matters of defense and foreign affairs (Larsen-Price, 2012). This is especially interesting considering the president’s typically steady attention to defense and foreign policy as commander-in-chief. Of course, the president works with Congress to shape defense policy. But this steady attention to defense, among other issues, “indicates that it is the president who leads in setting the domestic agenda (Rutledge and Larsen-Price, 2014, p. 459).” However, presidential agenda-setting stops at the water’s edge. According to their study, Rutledge and Larsen-Price find that “international affairs is the only area in which the president responds to increased congressional attention with an increase in attention.” They posit this increase in presidential attention protects the commander-in-chief’s jurisdiction from congressional encroachment.

Policy Formulation: Policy Entrepreneurs Shape Decision Making

Over the past several years, there has been quite a bit of impressive research examining the role of influential policy entrepreneurs in shaping national security decision making. Individually, these works shed new light on important national security decisions like the Iraq invasion and the Afghan surge. Collectively, these works create an interdisciplinary crossroads where political science, history, and biography can all come together and bring the policymaking process to life. No doubt, this is an important development in the literature.

Policy entrepreneurship is an important, yet understudied and underappreciated, component of the national security policymaking process (David, 2015). The Multiple Streams Approach (MSA) emerged in response to the garbage can model of institutional decision making whereby solutions often search for problems (Cohen, March, and Olsen, 1972). MSA holds that policy entrepreneurs rise to prominence to combat these “organized anarchies.” They are power brokers with the requisite access and resources to manipulate the problem, policy, and politics streams of an issue – through an appropriate policy window – to successfully generate policy change (Kingdon, 1995; Smith and Larimer, 2009; Baumgartner and Jones, 2009; Zahariadis, 2014). But in his recent review of the policy entrepreneurship literature, Zahariadis (2014, p. 46) laments, “[P]olicy analysts systematically neglect the area of foreign policy.” Closing this gap in the literature will help policy scholars “get inside” and better understand the complex national security policymaking process.

Charles-Philippe David (2015) addresses this systematic neglect in his examination of national security policy entrepreneurship during the George W. Bush administration. He writes, “In studies relating to national security, entrepreneurs are usually defined as decision makers who are able to reorient policies according to their perceptions and win majority acceptance for their positions.” Naturally, these entrepreneurs “are alert to opportunities, they frame the agenda (define the problem and the solution), they organize coalition building, they influence the public and private debate, and they act (p. 165).” Through two extensive case studies, David argues that Vice President Dick Cheney’s policy entrepreneurship, in particular, deserves much of the credit (and or blame) for the decision to invade Iraq and the legal redefinition of torture during President Bush’s first term from 2001 to 2005. Positioned atop America’s national security establishment, Cheney and his compatriots in the administration “were successful because they manipulated the policy process so that the decisions reflected both their cognitive preferences and bureaucratic influence (p. 185).”

Beyond the decision to invade Iraq, President Bush’s 2007-2008 Iraq troop surge is easily one of the most consequential foreign policy decisions of the post-9/11 era (Marsh, 2012a). Kevin Marsh “employs a bureaucratic politics model” to assess the role surge advocates and opponents played in President Bush’s decision making process (Marsh, 2012b, p. 414). Any close observer of U.S. national security policy could attest to the fact that bureaucratic politics play at least some role in presidential decision making. But Bush’s decentralized management style – heavy on vision, light on details – exacerbated this reality. Marsh writes, “The president’s prolonged detachment from details and the formulation of policy options allowed for advisers to compete politically in an attempt to persuade the president to adopt their particular policy preference (p. 433).” Bureaucratic politics absolutely played a key role in President Bush’s decision to surge troops in his effort to reverse the deteriorating war effort. Marsh continues this line of research with parallel work applying the same bureaucratic politics framework, hypotheses, and model to President Barack Obama’s decision to surge troops in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011. He concludes, “[T]he final outcome in the Afghanistan surge case was an example of a political compromise and the product of political pulling and hauling…the final strategy represented a lopsided compromise as the president’s new strategy far more resembled the policy preferences of surge advocates than those of surge opponents (Marsh, 2014, p. 284).

Clearly, policy scholars have played an important in evaluating and explaining some of the most important national security and foreign policy decisions and events in modern history. Steven Redd and Alex Mintz (2013) present a comprehensive review of the works on decision making in the policy studies literature as related to national security and foreign policy. The authors discuss several theories and models, including rational choice, cybernetic model, prospect theory, poliheuristic theory, organizational and bureaucratic politics, groupthink and polythink, analogical reasoning, applied decision analysis, and biased decision making. While their work indicates that rational choice theory is the point of comparison for most studies in the field, it is also the point of departure that takes the field in very different directions. As a result, the authors speculate, “Perhaps these considerations help to explain the diversity of decision-making theories and the lack of a central theme in how they are applied to real-world events (p. S30).” They conclude by suggesting that future work on national security and foreign policy decision making should apply multiple theories to single events in order to maximize explanatory power. Studies like this would fall in line with Graham Allison’s (1969) “seminal approach” to the Cuban Missile Crisis and surely make significant contributions to decision making’s well-trod, but still fertile, field.

Beyond decision making itself, similar works on policy entrepreneurship highlight former National Security Advisors Brent Scowcroft and James Jones for their ability to steer (or inability to steer) national security policy from the White House. In a seminal biography, Bartholomew Sparrow (2015) depicts Brent Scowcroft – a West Point graduate and retired Air Force lieutenant general – as a skilled bureaucratic tactician, faithful policy entrepreneur, and wise grand “strategist” during the Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush administrations. Scowcroft effectively managed the complex interagency national security policymaking process from the West Wing by fostering a close relationship with the president, serving as the administration’s “honest broker” through accurate portrayals of the issues, and structuring the president’s decision making, especially in a time of crisis. As a result, Scowcroft endeared himself to the nation’s foreign policy elite and became the most important national security figure of the twentieth century that most Americans have never heard of.

James Jones – a retired four star general and former commandant of the Marine Corps – was heralded by the foreign policy community as having the professional experience necessary to effectively manage the same complex interagency national security policymaking process as Scowcroft had done years before. “Yet, for all the initial promise,” Marsh (2012b) notes, “James Jones would become one of the weakest and most isolated [National Security Advisors] since the creation of the National Security Council (NSC) in 1947 (p. 828).” In short, Jones simply managed NSC operations, neither coordinating the interagency process nor generating meaningful policy options for the administration. What is more, Jones, an administration outsider, never developed the sort of close relationship with President Obama necessary to guide the new commander-in-chief’s decision making process (Marsh, 2012b). Effective national security decision making is paramount for a global hegemon like the United States. This undertaking is so important in fact, some colleges have begun offering semester-long simulation exercises replicating the NSC process and fostering the next generation of national security leaders (DiCicco, 2014).

Policy Implementation

Implementation studies are among the most informative, yet difficult, for scholars to conduct. First, like the policy process itself, implementation is iterative and without end. Where is one to begin? Second, measuring implementation “success” or “failure” often requires a normative judgment that policy scholars can be loathe rendering. This is tied to the third point: policy implementation yields not just short term outputs but also long term outcomes. Thus, context and policy environments matter. Today’s success can be tomorrow’s failure and vice versa. The best implementation studies offer a thorough understanding of the implementation process as it played out on the ground, where street and mezzo-level bureaucrats adopt, administer, adjust, and often fail (Pressman and Wildavsky, 1973).

Scholars hoping to contribute to a deeper understanding of policy implementation for the “fourth generation” (Smith and Larimer, 2009) ought to look for ways to incorporate the sort of qualitative, field-based research that policy scholars have recently been calling for (Goertz, 2012; Jones and Baumgartner, 2012). Complementing the extensive quantitative work already in this area, in-depth single-case or comparative-case studies will help bring the policy implementation process to life. This is exactly what Brook and King (2011) do in their examination of the failed the National Security Personnel System (NSPS) during the George W. Bush administration.

Following the attacks of September 11th and in the midst of the run-up to war in Iraq, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld charged the Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, Dr. David Chu, with transforming the Pentagon’s civilian personnel system to include more flexible starting salaries, performance pay, extended probationary periods, academic and term appointments, and sabbaticals, among other features (Brook and King, 2011). The Bush administration managed to exploit overlapping committee jurisdictions to muster enough congressional support to enact the NSPS through the 2004 National Defense Authorization Act in the name of national security. However, policy reform takes on an unpredictable life of its own after enactment (Patashnik, 2008; Berry, Burden, and Howell, 2010). The authors find that the NSPS implementation process was marred by a lack of transparency with labor unions, problematic interagency collaboration between the Department of Defense and the Office of Personnel Management, rigid timelines, aggressive execution schedules, and a series of law suits. Once the NSPS’ last remaining proponents left office (i.e. Rumsfeld and Chu), the Obama administration ultimately halted and repealed the controversial program in 2009. The authors conclude, “[P]roponents of future reform might consider…[developing] a proposal collaboratively and present Congress with a detailed reform plan that can be debated and amended with the participation of all stakeholders (p. 906).” Though simple enough, common sense implementation strategies like this seem to be the exception, not the rule, in government.

Policy Evaluation: Blue Ribbon Commissions

Policy studies evaluating the inputs, outputs, and outcomes of various public policies are fairly common in the field. These evaluation studies offer especially helpful insights vis-à-vi policy efficacy and target populations. While policy evaluation is and ought to be an internally driven subsystem process, the most effective policy evaluations often come by way of external subsystem bodies – i.e. blue ribbon commissions. By definition, blue ribbon commissions are independent and bipartisan in nature and comprised of government and non-government officials of “significant stature (Tama, 2011b, p. 136).” Despite the popular view that blue ribbon commissions are merely exercises in futility, scholars have recently shown them to be particularly effective institutional venues for policy change in the realm of defense and national security (Zegart, 2004; Tama, 2011a, 2011b, 2014; Archuleta, 2015). For instance, using an original data set, Jordan Tama (2011a, p. 71) finds, “[S]tatistical analysis indicates that national security commissions are much more likely to influence policy when they are formed in response to crisis, established by the executive branch, or given a narrow mandate.”

In one of the definitive accounts of the 2006 Iraq Study Group, Tama posits, “[T]he distinct political credibility of commissions can enable them to shape public opinion and drive policy change (Tama, 2011b, p. 135).” Using a case study approach, he finds that the Iraq Study Group’s effectiveness stemmed from its post-crisis charter, internal consensus, bipartisanship, unanimity, and influence on public opinion. Tama argues that the Iraq Study Group’s thorough evaluation process and final report indicating a “grave and deteriorating” situation in Iraq pressured the Bush administration to shift gears and initiate a new counterinsurgency strategy with a temporary surge of 20,000 troops (p. 146). Unanimous commission reports of this sort establish blueprints or “focal points” for post-crisis policy change and organizational reform (Tama, 2014). Defense policymakers looking to “kick the can” and avoid action should take note: blue ribbon defense commissions can, and often do, usher in policy change.

Forging the Way Ahead

This research note has sought to highlight the most interesting and relevant work on defense and national security in the public policy field over the past several years. While many of the articles cited in this review explore specific questions of defense and national security, many others explore much broader questions about political institutions and processes, simply using defense and national security as a lens through which to view larger political phenomena. Both approaches prove quite useful in informing policy scholars and policy practitioners alike. Before offering any final thoughts, this concluding section follows with a series of potential defense and public policy research topics worthy of consideration for future scholarly agendas, to include defense management and budgets, military social policy, and cyber bureaucracy.

Defense Management and Budgets

Managing the Pentagon’s vast, yet shrinking defense budget has been and will continue to be a significant challenge for national security policymakers (Carter, 2009; Schake, 2012; Friedman and Logan, 2012). As bloated Pentagon procurement programs and escalating personnel costs crowd out money for the personnel training and unit readiness necessary to meet future threats, defense policymakers cannot shift their attention between all the problems in the Pentagon fast enough. For example, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates writes, “Even though the nation was waging two wars, neither of which we were winning, life at the Pentagon was largely business as usual when I arrived (Gates, 2014, p. 115).” This begs the question, how do combat related focusing events and policy tragedies (Carpenter and Sin, 2007) speed up or slow down the Pentagon’s sluggish bureaucratic processes, especially with regard to procurement and acquisitions policy? Punctuated equilibrium theory offers a useful set of tools to study the impact of exogenous shocks on static and entrenched bureaucratic processes.3

Military Social Policy

For all its organizational focus on war fighting, the U.S. military is also one of the nation’s largest social services providers. With a “deserving” social construction (Schneider, Ingram, and deLeon, 2014, p. 111), the American military is arguably the most socialized institution in the country. Military social policy is understudied, underappreciated, and ripe for review by scholars interested in democratic policy design and the distribution of benefits and burdens in society. From food stamps and day care to pensions and health care, lawmakers have understandably been more than willing to provide wrap-around social services for the one percent of Americans who serve in harm’s way and bear the physical, social, and emotional burdens of war. Service members offer a well-defined, socioeconomic microcosm of society for scholars to easily zero-in on.

Beyond social programs, the Department of Defense continues to wrestle with racial and gender equity. Two potential topics of interest come to mind. First, with the size of the military drawing down, recent reports indicate that African American personnel are overrepresented in the group of officers receiving pink slips. What is more, African American officers are underrepresented in the general officer ranks (Brook, 2015). While military sociologists have offered thoughts on why this might be (Moskos and Butler, 1997), few scholars have bothered exploring the bureaucratic and cultural preferences that structure military promotions and separations. Second, although three women shattered a glass ceiling by graduating from the elite U.S. Army Ranger School in 2015, sexual harassment and assault in the ranks remain significant issues for the uniformed culture and bureaucracy to overcome. While the Pentagon has fielded several programs and surveys to better understand the root of the problem, mixed-method policy implementation studies offer the perfect means by which to chip away at this complex issue.

Building a Cyber Bureaucracy

Like the Department of Homeland Security in the years after 9/11, the cyber defense community is rapidly growing at every level of government. Similar to May and Koski’s (2012) aforementioned work on critical infrastructures, cyber defense spans the public and private sectors. One need only look to the 2014 Sony Pictures hack to see the military implications of an attack on a vital private sector entity in the U.S. As the Pentagon stands up cyber units across the military, there is the potential danger that interservice rivalry plagues the entire enterprise. Public policy and administration scholars should apply a policy regime and subsystems lens to the burgeoning cyber bureaucracies across the services to understand how differences in organizational mission, structure, and policy coherence contribute to, or detract from, jurisdictional encroachment across competing military bureaucracies.

Final Thoughts: A Public Policy Call to Arms

Policy scholars have largely been silent on traditional defense and national security questions not necessarily for want of interest or lack of available data. Rather, policy scholars have been silent because of the norms and structures that make up political science as an academic discipline. International relations and security studies scholars have been rewarded for their defense-related research for decades. Consequently, doctoral students drawn to defense and security questions have naturally matriculated into the international relations field where they can explore these issues freely. Meanwhile, policy scholars have largely focused their work on questions of domestic policy and politics as the burgeoning public policy field has been treated as a mere subfield of American politics. As political science departments continue to introduce proper public policy fields into their programs and bring about greater parity in the discipline, students interested in defense and security will have a public policy alternative (or complement) to the international relations field. Policy scholars must maintain this momentum.

In closing, the public policy field has no doubt expanded its scope of interest in U.S. defense, national security, and foreign policy since this journal’s last research note on the subject. This recent defense scholarship in the policy studies field should be cause for hope that the structural tides are finally turning and policy scholars are rejoining America’s national security conversation. But there is still much to do. For too long, policy scholars ceded national security questions to colleagues in other fields. But it is not too late to reverse course and make significant contributions to the study and practice of defense and national security policy. The stakes are simply too high for policy scholars to sit on the sidelines.

Brandon J. Archuleta is an active duty U.S. Army officer and Assistant Professor of American Politics at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He is a Term Member of the Council on Foreign Relations and National Security Fellow with the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin.


The author would like to thank Hank Jenkins-Smith, Sarah Trousset, Nina Carlson, and Sam Workman from the University of Oklahoma for the opportunity to write this very important and very personal research note.

1 Much of the scholarship relating to comparative defense and national security policy from 2011 to 2015 comes from the field of international relations. While informative, most of these works were of limited utility given the policy studies nature of this review.

2 An alternative means for structuring discussion might be to separate articles out along theoretical lines (e.g. PET, policy diffusion, etc.). While this might be useful for policy scholars, it would likely render the article less accessible to external audiences, i.e. international relations scholars, diplomatic historians, and defense practitioners.

3 Secretary Gates’ rapid fielding program for Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs) presents an interesting case study for scholars interested in PET and bureaucracy.


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