Running the World

The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power


By David Rothkopf

Formats and Prices




$16.99 CAD



  1. ebook $12.99 $16.99 CAD
  2. Trade Paperback $19.95 $25.00 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around April 28, 2009. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

Never before in the history of mankind have so few people had so much power over so many. The people at the top of the American national security establishment, the President and his principal advisors, the core team at the helm of the National Security Council, are without question the most powerful committee in the history of the world. Yet, in many respects, they are among the least understood.

A former senior official in the Clinton Administration himself, David Rothkopf served with and knows personally many of the NSC’s key players of the past twenty-five years. In Running the World he pulls back the curtain on this shadowy world to explore its inner workings, its people, their relationships, their contributions and the occasions when they have gone wrong. He traces the group’s evolution from the final days of the Second World War to the post-Cold War realities of global terror — exploring its triumphs, its human dramas and most recently, what many consider to be its breakdown at a time when we needed it most.

Drawing on an extraordinary series of insider interviews with policy makers including Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Henry Kissinger, senior officials of the Bush Administration, and over 130 others, the book offers unprecedented insights into what must change if America is to maintain its unprecedented worldwide leadership in the decades ahead.


"[Rothkopf 's] insider status . . . serves him well; he seems to know everyone in the foreign policy world and had interviewed most of the former national security advisers, as well as various other heavyweights."
New York Times Book Review
"[A]nyone interested in the process of foreign policymaking will want this book on his or her shelf."
Foreign Affairs
"[A]n outstanding history of the NSC. . . . the insights into how this secretive panel operates are authoritative and revealing."
International Affairs
"Running the World does a masterful job of telling the story of our modern Presidents and their inner circles, using meticulous research, lively writing and his extraordinary access to the key players to bring critical events in recent world history alive. The book offers penetrating analysis, valuable perspectives on where we are headed and the equally important human side of the story, providing an unprecedented view of the relationships, partnerships and rivalries that have shaped and driven the National Security Council for the past 60 years. It is likely to be seen as the definitive history of the NSC."
—Samuel R. Berger, former U.S. National Security Advisor
"Running the World is not only an outstanding history of the NSC, it uniquely portrays the personal chemistry among each president's most senior advisers and between those advisers and the presidents they served. . . . [T]his is the best—and most readable—book on the history of the NSC I have seen."
—Robert M. Gates, former Director of the Central Intelligence
Agency, former Deputy National Security Advisor
"An impressively comprehensive, revealing, and insightful examination of the most powerful foreign policy making institution in the U.S. Government and of the key individuals who made it so. Invaluable to scholars, practitioners and concerned citizens."
—Zbigniew Brzezinski, former U.S. National Security Advisor
"Rothkopf expertly captures how the skills and shortcomings of the NSC Staff have over the years translated into America's successes and failures, with real consequences for people around the world."
—Richard A. Clarke, author, Against All Enemies,
former U.S. Counter-Terrorism Czar and senior official
in the administrations of four U.S. Presidents
"At last, a real history of the National Security Council, from its origins after World War II through its transformative Nixon-Kissinger era to its present role at the center of American national security policy-making. As an insider, Rothkopf knows how it works; as a skilled storyteller and historian, he brings it to life, in a book rich with new insights and new information."
—Richard Holbrooke, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations

For Adrean, Joanna and Laura,
the committee in charge of running my world

Good government obtains when those who are near are made happy and those who are far off are attracted.
I must fairly say, I dread our own power and our own ambition; I dread our being too much dreaded . . . it is ridiculous to say we are not men, and that, as men, we shall never wish to aggrandize ourselves in some way or other . . . we may say that we shall not abuse this astonishing and hitherto unheard of power. But every other nation will think we shall abuse it. It is impossible but that, sooner or later, this state of things must produce a combination against us which may end in our ruin.
—Edmund Burke

WE WERE IN a maharajah's garden in Jodhpur. It was a warm January afternoon. Great purple flowers hung over the walls of the garden and filled the air with their fragrance.
My father and I had come a long way across India during the preceding three weeks, laughing and arguing, eating prodigious amounts of delicious but, in one instance, rather toxic food, and hoping against hope that our driver's almost impossible luck would hold. He was a slight young man who was undistinguished by anything other than a single long red fingernail and an astonishing lack of aptitude for his chosen profession. We sped in our small beige Ambassador car at mind-numbing speeds down narrow Indian highways that were marked more often by wrecks and wayward cattle than by signs. Every destination was therefore enthusiastically welcomed with one or more Kingfisher beers, a few silent prayers of thanks, and then the kind of animated discussions that come only with survivor's rush, alcohol, or both.
By the time we got to Jodhpur, several of those discussions blended together to form a kind of intellectual leitmotif for this father-son bonding trip. The central issue: whether men could make a difference in shaping the course of history or whether we were all essentially surfers, riding the tides of our times, acting like we were in charge because we were on top but all the while aware that we could be swept under by any of a countless number of forces beyond our control.
There are a number of reasons why this topic came to dominate our trip. One was that I was relatively young, thirty-three, and my father was sixty-three. I was full of hubris and hope that a chance would come around for me to influence history, to make a mark. My father, an exceptionally accomplished scientist and teacher, had been chastened somewhat by experiences that seemed elemental rather than driven by human choice. He had escaped the Nazis in late 1939 and four years later returned to Europe as a lieutenant in the U.S. field artillery. There he combed through the wreckage of a battered continent, looking for signs of the almost three dozen relatives who had died in the concentration camps. Back in the United States, he conducted scientific research on how we learn, and over the years the course of his research was buffeted by the fads and fashions of the times and the changing funding priorities of the military or of Bell Laboratories, where he worked.
Our India trip also took place during a period of considerable change globally. It was January 1989, the beginning of the end of the Cold War. The first stirrings and demonstrations of Czechoslovakia's velvet revolution had begun. The Berlin Wall would fall only eleven months later. The Soviet Union was tottering.
Although around us were the trappings of the Raj, we were in an India that was warming to globalization. Two decades earlier, my father had been part of a project to put a television satellite above Gujarat in an effort to bring new channels of education to the impoverished students of that province. By 1989, investment bankers had begun to root around, agitating for reforms that would come over the ensuing decade and help India position itself as a player to be reckoned with in the information age.
Our rambling, trans-India debate was thus in character and in step with the times. And so we jousted, with heat, vindaloo, mysterious ingredients, and East Coast Jewish intellectual dinner battle intensity bringing beads of sweat to our foreheads: Was Gorbachev driving Russian reform or were the exigencies of ruling a faltering empire driving Gorbachev to reform? Were the charming playwright Vaclav Havel or the rough-around-the-edges shipyard worker Lech Walesa people who could actually mobilize a nation or redirect destiny, or were they selected by circumstance—active, visible, contributing—but far less important than greater forces that were harder to put a face on? What about Napoleon, I would ask, or Newton, or Einstein? Wasn't Napoleon simply a reaction to the French Revolution, just another vainglorious Frenchman seeking to reclaim the crown of Charlemagne? Wasn't Leibniz inventing the calculus at the same time as Newton? Did Einstein's wife write his papers? And wasn't he himself just a symptom of a global cultural movement toward relativism made possible by increased technological capabilities that allowed us to measure things more precisely, see greater distances, see smaller objects, tie theories of the unseen to evidence of what really was?
I fought with a kind of existential intensity on these issues, feeling that if human beings couldn't really affect history, then we were doomed not only to effective passivity but also to knowledge of our own helplessness, which was even worse.
To this day, I'm not really sure where my father stands on this question, whether he was just baiting me or whether he was really convinced that we're merely passengers who can perhaps choose the fish or the meat main course but otherwise have to sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight.
My own feeling that you can make a difference ultimately brought me to Washington, a city full of people who share this belief (or delusion) despite all its history and pathologies, which inevitably confound the efforts of the best intentioned. The question has arisen again and again: In this day and age, can any one individual or any small group of individuals alter the course of history, shape great outcomes, or make a difference?
If any one individual could claim to have decisive impact it ought to be the president of the United States. History has given the United States awesome power and resources, and the U.S. Constitution has given the president an enormous array of rights, privileges, and responsibilities when it comes to wielding that power or drawing on those resources. In a number of areas, of course, the president's power is constrained by congressional or judiciary checks and balances. But in one area in particular, the management of U.S. foreign policy, the president's power has always been great, and it has grown over time.
During the Cold War, the power of the United States to act internationally was constrained by the countervailing interests and strengths of the Soviet Union. We could act, but we always had to anticipate and compensate for a reaction from our large adversary. With the demise of the Soviet Union—a historical trend that was unfolding unbeknownst to my father and me as we sat in that maharajah's garden—the global power of the United States and its leaders grew to unprecedented heights.
Indeed, in the new global environment, not only was the power of the U.S. leadership unprecedented, it was also unanticipated. In a system in which the legitimacy of the leaders derives from the consent of the governed, American leaders were effectively making decisions affecting the lives and fortunes of tens and hundreds of millions, of billions, who did not choose them, did not understand what they were doing or how they were doing it, did not, in many cases, even know who they were. We were the de facto leaders of the global community, crowned by history and circumstances but lacking the confirmation of any global referendum on the matter.
Here in the United States, the president and the small group around him who helped make foreign policy decisions had a unique status in the U.S. government. Even though our national security apparatus had been devised after the Second World War to help ensure that power was not too concentrated around the president and that it was wielded via a transparent, measured process, even though the Constitution gave Congress the powers to ratify treaties and to declare war, even though the War Powers Act attempted to constrain the president's ability to undertake hostile actions without congressional approval, even though Congress had budget-approval power and attempted to increase its role in almost every aspect of federal operations—despite all this, the national security advisor and his or her staff remain among the most influential entities in the federal bureaucracy that are not subject to direct congressional oversight. They were part of the Office of the President. The president's decisions with regard to their policies and actions were considered privileged, part of the authority granted him by the Constitution.
This group also operated, even in the midst of the information age, beyond the understanding of many Americans. The world of the National Security Council is a shadowy one, shrouded in mystery and mystique, the inner sanctum of the most powerful ruler the world has ever known. It is home to some of the president's most influential partners and collaborators, yet perhaps fewer books have been written about it than any other of the major components of the U.S. government. National security advisors have rivaled secretaries of state and defense in influence for decades, and yet few have been profiled or examined.
Indeed, the term National Security Council itself can be misleading. To some, it is the body created by statute in 1947 to manage U.S. national security policy; this advisory body consists of the president, the vice president, the secretary of state, and the secretary of defense, with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of central intelligence as observers. To others, it is the larger group of agency heads sometimes called to NSC meetings. To still others, it is the staff of the NSC—once a tiny support team, now a force unto itself—the organization by which the various views and capabilities of the U.S. government are reconciled, harmonized, and, ideally, knit together to create effective action. To the most knowledgeable, the National Security Council is all these things and it is also the de facto NSC, which is the group of officials and friends of the president, those close to him from family, politics, or other walks of life who are his decision-making collaborators and the implementers of decisions that are made.
This little-understood group is perhaps in the best position of any group of a few human beings anywhere to influence history, to shape our times and our future. The ever-shifting "committee" is the most powerful the world has known—and yet, paradoxically, to most it is unknown, and even to those who know of it, it is misunderstood. Many of those who participate in it, including notably many presidents, don't fully understand its importance or know how to make the best use of it, and this failing has had disastrous consequences both domestically and internationally.
I had written about the NSC as a journalist even before my trip with my father to India. Four years later, I found myself invited to Washington to join the Clinton administration and began to have the chance to view it more closely. Indeed, I began to participate in its actions, not as a member of its inner circles, but as someone active at the edges of those circles.
Initially I came to Washington to serve as Deputy Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade Policy Development—a mouthful, to be sure. As a result of having such a wonderful title, I quickly learned that the longer your title in Washington, the less important you were likely to be.
My first full day on the job, I settled into the very large chair at my very large desk in my very large office in the very large and dusty Commerce Department and waited for the action to come to me. Nothing happened. I looked around the huge office—its drab wood paneling and the two flags that hung limply behind my desk—and I knew that I had really arrived. Still, for a little while nothing happened. Flies buzzed. The lights on the phone did not blink on. And then, a staffer appeared at the door and asked to speak with me.
I beckoned him in and said, "How can I help you?"
"I have a matter that needs your attention, Secretary Rothkopf," he said. Or at least I recall he said that. As a deputy under secretary I was technically entitled to be addressed as Secretary Rothkopf by staffers but seldom was unless they were really trying to butter me up or we were in some public setting in which they felt it made them look more important. So maybe I just hope he said that. Or maybe I was just hallucinating. But, in any event, he went on: "We have some documents you need to sign."
I inquired as to what matter of global significance I would now be asked to weigh in on, feeling certain that in just moments I could call my father to tell him that, indeed, I was one of those who would be moving history around, at least in small increments.
"It is a trade sanction issue, Sir," he said, which sounded good, important, worthy of a big office with flags in it.
"Really?" I intoned because in such situations one intones rather than merely reply. "Give me the background . . ." I said this because it seemed businesslike and because it could be very helpful, since I had absolutely zero experience with trade sanction issues of any type.
And so he laid out what was to be the first great action of my career at the periphery of the center of the most important government in the history of the world. It was, if I recall correctly, a matter pertaining to tiger penises. Yes, penises. Of tigers. Some country was illegally exporting tiger penises. Apparently there is an active market for big-cat genitalia in Asia, where men consider it an aphrodisiac and women no doubt consider it further proof that men are ridiculous.
My first official act as a government official was to sign a memo opining on why the United States needed to impose sanctions against trafficking in the reproductive organs of large animals.
And I learned an important lesson. Government may seem rather institutional and imposing on the outside (and it appears even more gray, institutional, and boring inside the Commerce Department), but on the inside it can be absurd. Not always, of course. Sometimes it is a place where great people struggle to do great things. That happens far more often than you would imagine.
But quickly I learned one of the most important lessons of Washington, namely, that the men and women who occupy important offices are not, as I once thought, all Olympian figures who have it all figured out, who have worldviews and philosophies and who reference Hobbes and Locke in their minds as they calculate how to best serve the greater good. Very often they are just people like you or me (or even worse).
This message was driven home to me shortly after the tiger penis sanctions episode when I was told to attend what my memory tells me was my first meeting of one of the joint deputies committees of the National Security Council and the National Economic Council. The deputies committees are where various deputy secretaries and under secretaries gather to help put together policy formulations and suggestions for their "principals," the cabinet secretaries they serve. The group of principals then uses this material as the basis of its advice for the president. Often the deputies would bring their own deputies to these lesser but nonetheless important gatherings (I was a deputy to a deputy, which is the bureaucratic equivalent of a double negative).
I will admit that every time I went to one of these meetings during the three years that I was in the government, and every one of the many times I have gone to the White House in the years since, I have been thrilled to be there. You have a sense of history and the grandeur of the place and that doesn't fade, even in the face of the intrigues, absurdities, and frustrations of working within those halls.
The first meeting I attended of the deputies committee was, I think, co-chaired by Deputy National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, who would later serve as national security advisor, and by Bo Cutter, who was Bob Rubin's international deputy at the National Economic Council. Present were a variety of senior officials, including, if I recall correctly, Under Secretary of the Treasury (later Treasury Secretary) Larry Summers, Assistant Treasury Secretary (and later Under Secretary) Jeffrey Shafer, Under Secretary of State Joan Spero, Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Tarullo, Deputy U.S. Trade Representative (later U.S. Trade Representative) Ambassador Charlene Barshefsky, and a group of other support players and people whom I have no doubt forgotten.
It was a hot day for autumn, and the room in the Old Executive Office Building was disappointingly dusty and institutional. There was just a beat-up conference table, some file cabinets around the walls, dirty windows with venetian blinds, and, in one corner, an overflowing wastebasket. I cannot remember the subject.
What is remarkable about the meeting and what is relevant to our discussion here is precisely how unremarkable it was. As I looked around the table, I was struck by the fact that while this was a distinguished and intelligent group of people I would come to know as very able public servants, they all looked like people I had gone to high school with. They joked and teased each other like people I went to high school with. They bickered like people I went to high school with. One of them had his shirttails untucked and remnants of what looked like a pretty unappetizing lunch cascading down his shirt, tie, and jacket front. One stared at the ceiling for the whole meeting, mumbling to himself, and later tried to launch an empty soda can into the overstuffed wastebasket from across the room—unsuccessfully, I might add. He did it without any regard for the discussion then going on. I was a bit taken aback, I'll admit it.
They yawned, they said absolutely inane things, and they talked without moving the issue forward. They made a fairly compelling case for the view my father had argued: If these were people at the pinnacle of power, almost certainly we were all being swept along by events outside human control. In short, they were fairly ordinary people.
Now this may not be a startling revelation to everyone, but it was an eye-opener for someone who had grown up as a kid participating in dinner table discussions in which we referred to Henry Kissinger as a kind of epic character, the way other families might have referred to Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron.
Over the years, in meetings of significantly greater consequence, while I got to understand the enormous strengths of many of my colleagues in the government and came to know others of exceptional capabilities who had served in other governments, the lesson of this meeting never left me. The people in these high offices were not a breed apart. They were human, prone to foible, sometimes grew tired, sometimes grew tiresome, sometimes were capable of inspired and inspiring acts, and always were changed by their interactions by their other, very human colleagues.
After I left the government, I joined Kissinger Associates, the consulting firm founded by former Secretary of State Kissinger, as a managing director. I actually had the office next to Henry. After that I started a company with another former national security advisor, Tony Lake. In working with them and getting to know many of their peers, I also came to see more closely that even those who have made a lasting impression on history are full of quirks and idiosyncrasies and a panoply of flaws and even endearing traits.
And so the question of how human beings influence history became even more interesting to me because the human beings in question became more human. I have had the opportunity, for over a decade, to view the small clusters of people who comprise this "most powerful committee in the history of the world" especially closely, and to consider how personality and process, structure, and historical context interact.
That is the context for this book. Its goal is to contribute to a better understanding of the nature of the group of American policymakers who are charged with deciding how the world's greatest nation makes its way in the world at a time when the actions of that group have come under great scrutiny. With some luck it will help bridge the gap between understanding the great import of what is going on and how matters of such import are and can be handled by fairly ordinary people.
Over the past year, I have interviewed over 130 individuals who have played prominent roles in the interagency process that shapes U.S. international policy. Among them are many cabinet secretaries, almost all living national security advisors and their deputies, National Security Council members, policy-level officials from many agencies, and foreign officials who have interacted with them. In recalling excerpts from those interviews, it is my hope thus to collaborate with the members of "the committee" as it evolved during the Cold War to help tell the story of the group, its failures, its strengths, and its development. The primary focus of this story is the post–Cold War period in the life of the National Security Council. What happened earlier is explored to the extent that it affects or informs where we are today.
This account is therefore not a moment-by-moment retelling of the story of the National Security Council. Rather it is an impressionistic, collaborative portrait of the leaders of the modern world engaged in the politics, court intrigue, and drama of any Shakespeare play. But I hope it is more than that. It also aspires to give a sense of the story of "the committee" and of some of its most interesting and important members and their beliefs, ambitions, conflicts, and downfalls. It is also, however, about more abstract but still important subjects: how power ebbs and flows, how processes evolve and influence outcomes, and how such an organization comes to view itself, its role, its rights, and its responsibilities. In short, it is a story of American leaders grappling with American leadership.
In a way, this story is a small, narrowly focused attempt at answering the question my father and I debated as we made our way across Rajastan. If any human beings are in a position to actually drive history, it is the members of this committee who find themselves in charge of the realities of leading the world. This is a look at them with an eye toward their influence and the factors that have influenced them. Almost certainly it will not resolve the debate between me and my father. But hopefully it will shed a little light on one dimension of it and do so in a way that is beneficial to both policymakers and average citizens who are interested in the nature of power in the modern world.
Bethesda, Maryland
Spring, 2005

The Committee in Charge of Running the World
Gentlemen, you can't fight in here—this is the war room.
—Pres. Muffley in


On Sale
Apr 28, 2009
Page Count
304 pages

David Rothkopf

About the Author

David J. Rothkopf  is a professor of international relations, political scientist and journalist. He is the founder and CEO of The Rothkopf Group, a visiting professor at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of The Great Questions of Tomorrow, National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear​, and most recently, Traitor: A History of American Betrayal from Benedict Arnold to Donald Trump. He is also the podcast host of Deep State Radio. 

Learn more about this author