Can Goldwater-Nichols Reforms for the Interagency Succeed?

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By Peter J. Roman – Over the past decade, American national security officials and
experts have repeatedly characterized interagency processes as “broken.”
The inability of departments and agencies to implement national
security policies in a coordinated and integrated manner has been cited
across a wide range of incidents and policy areas, from the September 11th
attacks to post-invasion Iraq, and countless others. This has led to
calls for interagency reform modeled after the Department of Defense
Reorganization Act of 1986 (or “Goldwater-Nichols”), from the 9/11
Commission Report, the Iraq Study Group Report, Joint Chiefs of Staff
Chairman General Peter Pace, as well as other think tanks and

It is unlikely that reforms modeled after the Goldwater-Nichols Act
alone would be sufficient to correct our national security interagency
problems. In fact, it is possible that such reforms would not have a
significant long-term positive impact. Interagency problems may not be amenable to intradepartmental solutions-in this case, from the Department of Defense.


Congress passed the Goldwater-Nichols Act in 1986 in an effort to
improve military advice to civilian leaders, reform defense procurement
and budgeting, and enhance the effectiveness of military operations. A
key, but not singular, element for achieving these objectives was by
strengthening joint military professionalism across the military
services. The bipartisan legislation represented the culmination of the
defense reform movement that marked the early 1980s.


Compared to other government reorganizations, such as the National
Security Act of 1947 or the Homeland Security Act of 2002,
Goldwater-Nichols was modest in scope. The drafters emphasized
reallocating authorities among existing offices over the creation of new
offices or institutions. They also established both top-down and
bottom-up incentives for military officers to seek assignments in joint
billets. Goldwater-Nichols’ measured approach alienated some ardent
defense reformers at the time, but it has also been the basis for the
Act’s success in the two decades since its passage.


Goldwater-Nichols’ successful promotion of joint military
professionalism, in both operations and advice, is seen by some as a
model for promoting an integrated interagency perspective and operations
across national security institutions. Advocates of interagency reform
have recommended such measures as establishing interagency task forces,
creating interagency professional education programs, and requiring
interagency assignments prior promotion to senior ranks, among other


These and other interagency reform proposals cannot have a positive
impact akin to Goldwater-Nichols unless other larger, systemic issues
are addressed as well. Most important is the issue what office or
institution is assigned the authority and responsibility for
implementing the new reforms. Other associated issues or
responsibilities would include whether the office or institution can
establish metrics and enforce compliance across the requisite national
security departments and agencies. In other words, this is the
fundamental question of “who owns the interagency?” The most logical
place to assign such a role would be the National Security Council,
although it was not designed to perform this function. Further,
historical precedent and the routine change in administrations present
additional challenges to expanding the NSC.


This issue illustrates the difficulty of applying intradepartmental
solutions to interagency problems. Ultimately, Goldwater-Nichols
succeeded because the top civilian and military leadership in the
Defense Department were determined to implement the legislation. Had
other leaders no been so inclined, the new authorities in the 1986
legislation would have languished, like previous reforms in 1953 and
1958. The institutions to implement Goldwater-Nichols already existed;
they didn’t have to be created or even significantly enhanced by the
legislation. This is the principal challenge that interagency reform
will have to overcome if it to succeed.


Peter Roman is a senior associate at the Stimson Center and
directs the Domestic Preparedness program. He serves as the Director of
Research for Lessons Learned Information Sharing (, the national network of Lessons Learned and Best Practices for emergency response and homeland security professionals.



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