The most significant shock to the international order last week—amid the latest Brexit dustups, a North Korean missile test, protests in Hong Kong, and a hurricane in the Caribbean—might have been news of a meeting that did not happen. President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, was denied a briefing on the negotiations to end the Afghan War, The Washington Post reported. After Trump publicly sidelined Bolton earlier this summer, the latest indignity was further proof that national security adviser is not the job it used to be.
Yet Bolton’s humiliation also signals something more important: The United States is no longer capable of being the global leader it once claimed to be. The national security adviser, the official charged with organizing and integrating all discussions of U.S. foreign policies, has been an essential piece of how the United States has tried to lead the world for more than 70 years, and why the world was willing to be led at all. As a result, the breakdown in the way that Washington works could prove more destabilizing than any of the crises dominating the headlines today.
The U.S. national-security system was created in the aftermath of World War II. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who called himself a “juggler … perfectly willing to mislead and tell untruths it if helps win the war,” led that massive effort with a handful of aides and by the seat of his pants. But that ad hoc style worried many in Washington—and most of Congress, the military brass, and the rest of government agreed it was no way to govern in a postwar world. So Congress created the National Security Council in 1947, bringing everyone into one room for discussions, and a few years later, the White House established the position of national security adviser to coordinate the conversations.