Stephen Hadley and Kurt Campbell on National Security Transitions

October 12, 2020

Stephen Hadley held key national security positions in three Republican administrations before working on the George W. Bush transition in 2000-2001 and serving as Bush’s national security advisor. Kurt Campbell is an expert on East Asian affairs who served in the Clinton and Obama administrations, and co-authored, “Difficult Transitions: Foreign Policy Troubles at the Outset of Presidential Power.” In this episode of Transition Lab, Hadley and Campbell join host David Marchick to discuss their experiences during presidential transitions and their concerns about the potential fallout from 2020 election. They also offer advice to Joe Biden’s transition team and those planning for a second term for President Trump.

Read the highlights:

Marchick asked Hadley how national security transitions have changed since the 1970s.

Hadley: “There’s been enormous improvement. …I came into the office the day after the [1976] election and I went to my file cabinets where I had all these classified papers. …They were all empty because these [had] become presidential records and [were] taken off to the presidential library. [Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s national security advisor] showed up with no documents, no paper and no staff. …I think we’ve gotten a lot better at developing the art … of transitioning from one administration to the next.”


Marchick asked Campbell to describe his transition into the Department of State after the 2008 election.

Campbell: “The State Department has it down to a science. You’re assigned a young officer, you’re checked in, he or she brings you readings every day [and] you have careful meetings you go through. …You talk a little bit about what’s expected in terms of what your role and mission would be. …It had a quality that was a little bit like going through orientation, but I found it extraordinarily interesting.


Hadley explained how he worked closely with President Clinton’s national security team during the 2000-2001 transition to the Bush administration.

Hadley: “…We took [National Security Advisor] Sandy Berger’s terrorism group … and basically said, ‘Stay on, be part of the Bush administration, keep doing what you’re doing to defend the country. We’re going to probably relook strategy and take some different approaches, but in the interim, keep doing what you’re doing to keep the country safe.’ I think that is important so that you’re not standing down a capability in a transition, but you’re able to continue to do those operational things where the country might be vulnerable.”


Hadley described the relationship between political appointees and career employees in a new administration.

Hadley: “Political employees are supposed to intermediate between the political agenda that has come out of the election, and the expertise and judgment that is inherent based on the experience of the permanent government. …It’s not that the deep state is subverting the political appointees. They’re supposed to actually live in a certain amount of dynamic tension. That’s how our system has been designed. I think it’s served us well, but … is not understood well by a lot of Americans today.”


Hadley and Campbell discussed their concerns about the 2020 transition

Hadley: “I think … China [and] Russia don’t want to do anything that looks like they’re intervening in our election in a decisive way … I do worry about once the votes are in. …It looks [like] we’re going to be in a period of fairly extended uncertainty as to who has actually won this election with a lot of contested lawsuits and contested ballots being recounted. …I’m more worried about a country trying to take advantage of us during that kind of period.”

Campbell: “I tend to agree with Steve. …You don’t realize how much of our transition is built on a degree of goodwill. When [Jim Steinberg and I] wrote [our] book, the worst that we could imagine was something like the Iran hostage crisis, the Taiwan Strait issue. But I think the real issue this time is not the threat externally.”


Marchick asked Campbell and Hadley to offer advice to Democrat Joe Biden’s transition team and those planning for President Trump’s second term.

Campbell: “Simpler is better. The key [for Biden] is to… focus on the right people. Build your teams. Make sure you understand what you’re trying to achieve. Have a few general policy aspirations laid down, but understand that really detailed plans that stretch out beyond what the eye can see are unlikely to be valuable to the incoming team.”

Hadley: “If the president is re-elected, I would say, ‘Mr. President, you were elected to be a disruptor in chief. …Your second term is an opportunity to be a builder in chief. Don’t be afraid to change personnel, to bring in people who can help you build on the foundation of the first term.’ For the Biden team, I would say, ‘Don’t think that you’re coming in and writing on a blank sheet of paper. You’re going to have a lot of the same problems that your predecessors had. There are a lot of good things that your predecessors did [that would] be smart [to] build on and make … your own. Don’t be afraid to do that.”