The most fundamental purpose of national security policy is not to keep the nation safe from physical attack but to defend the constitutional order. At least, that is what President Reagan wrote in a Top Secret 1986 directive.
“The primary objective of U.S. foreign and security policy is to protect the integrity of our democratic institutions and promote a peaceful global environment in which they can thrive,” President Reagan wrote in National Security Decision Directive 238 on “Basic National Security Strategy,” which was partially declassified in 2005.
In a list of national security objectives, the directive does note the imperative “to protect the United States… from military, paramilitary, or terrorist attack.”
But that is not the primary objective, according to the Reagan directive. Defense of the Constitution evidently takes precedence.
The first purpose of national security policy is “to preserve the political identity, framework and institutions of the United States as embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution,” President Reagan wrote.
This is a remarkable statement, for several reasons. First, it recognizes that the political identity and institutions of the United States are not simply a given, but that they are vulnerable to many types of threats and must be actively defended and sustained. This task is not normally assigned the urgency or the priority given to “national security.”
Second, the directive distinguishes between constitutional governance and physical security. Not every measure intended to promote security is constitutional. And not every act in defense of democratic self-governance is likely to promote public safety. (The American Revolution was not calculated to increase “homeland security.” Quite the opposite.) Sometimes a choice between the two is required. President Reagan indicated what he thought the choice should be.
And third, the directive is remarkable because its rhetoric was so imperfectly realized by the Reagan Administration (and egregiously defied in the Iran-Contra Affair) and has been largely abandoned by its successors.
“Defending our Nation against its enemies is the first and fundamental commitment of the Federal Government,” wrote President George W. Bush in his 2002 National Security Strategy, skipping over President Reagan’s “primary” objective.
Likewise, “As President, I have often said that I have no greater responsibility than protecting the American people,” President Obama wrote in his National Strategy for Counterterrorism.
The Reagan directive invites reflection on what U.S. national security policy would look like if it were truly structured above all “to protect the integrity of our democratic institutions.”
In a section of the directive that was only classified Confidential, President Reagan contrasted the U.S. with the Soviet Union, which was described as its polar opposite.
“Our way of life, founded upon the dignity and worth of the individual, depends on a stable and pluralistic world order within which freedom and democratic institutions can thrive. Yet, the greatest threat to the Soviet system, in which the State controls the destiny of the individual, is the concept of freedom itself.”
“The survival of the Soviet system depends to a significant extent upon the persistent and exaggerated representation of foreign threats, through which it seeks to justify both the subjugation of its own people and the expansion of Soviet military capabilities well beyond those required for self-defense,” President Reagan wrote.
Numerous Presidential directives from the Reagan Administration have been declassified in recent years and have released by the Reagan Library, though others still remain partially or completely classified. Many of the declassified directives provide a fascinating account that enlarges and enriches the public record of events of the time.
Only last year, for example, a 1985 directive (NSDD-172) on “Presenting the Strategic Defense Initiative” was finally declassified.
This year, NSDD 159 on “Covert Action Policy Approval and Coordination Procedures” (1985) was declassified.
NSDD 207 on “The National Program for Combatting Terrorism” (1986) was declassified in 2008. Among other things, that directive ordered the Attorney General to “Review the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and determine whether terrorist movements or organizations are abusing its provisions.”