Over the past three years, President Trump has courted controversy with his efforts to wrest control of American foreign policy—coming into conflict with US national security institutions and, at times, his own Cabinet officers. Although this headline-grabbing drama has often been characterized as without precedent, the question of how a President imposes his national security vision on an often recalcitrant Executive branch has long been part of American history.

In his classic work, Presidential Command, Peter Rodman—a veteran of multiple administrations—provides an insider’s account of how a succession of commanders-in-chief employed a range of tactics and strategies, with varying degrees of success, to ensure they were the ones setting the direction of American foreign policy rather than their underlings. When is it appropriate for the President to overrule career bureaucrats versus deferring to their expertise? What is the role of political appointees in channeling—or ignoring —Presidential direction in foreign policy? What are the trade-offs between coherence and collegiality, and between persuasion and coercion, as a President tries to establish himself as the “decider-in-chief”?

In this online seminar led by foreign policy scholar Vance Serchuk, students will use Rodman’s case studies to explore the historical experience surrounding presidential control over foreign policy and the meaning of executive power. From Richard Nixon’s secretive back-channel diplomacy that bypassed the State Department to George H. W. Bush’s more collaborative team-based approach, they will examine how each president’s character, worldview, and management style influenced the direction of events and outcomes. They will also study the relationship between presidents and the diplomatic, military, and intelligence bureaucracies they have to deal with—and work through—and how that affects the success or failure of their policies.

Image courtesy Gerald R. Ford Library

A conversation about Peter Rodman's Presidential Command


Vance Serchuk

Vance Serchuk is Executive Director of the KKR Global Institute and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Prior to joining KKR, Mr. Serchuk served for six years as the senior national security advisor to Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-Connecticut).

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session

Questions to consider for each administration:

  1. What previous experience did each President bring to the Executive, whether prior experience in government or more broadly in life? How did this influence their approach to national security policy?
  2. Describe the President’s management style. What was his strategy for establishing control over the Executive branch and setting the direction of his foreign policy? How successful or unsuccessful was he—and why? Do you agree or disagree with the approach he took?
  3. Who were the key officials the President had working for him in national security policy? How did they interact with the President and with each other?
  4. What was the foreign policy vision of the President upon taking office? What were his instincts or convictions about the world? In your judgment, how successful was the President in imprinting his foreign policy vision on the Administration he led?
  5. How did the President and his Administration respond to moments of crisis? Did the management style and internal processes of each Administration serve them well or ill in such moments?

Other Courses You Might Be Interested In

Russia: A Return to Rivalry

Examine U.S.-Russia relations since the end of the Cold War.

The Yom Kippur War: A Case Study in Strategy, Power, & Character

Explore the Yom Kippur War, one of the great understudied hinge points of history.

Lessons of the Iraq War

Examine how the United States grappled with the challenges presented by Iraq.

War Studies Program

Learn the theory, practice, organization, and control of war and military forces.