The inclusion of White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon on the National Security Council (NSC), as a break from long standing practice, has garnered most of the attention paid to the recent NSC executive order. But there was another precedent set in this memo that is closer to home for those of us who follow international development policymaking. The USAID administrator was named as a regular member of the NSC’s deputies committee, where she or he will sit alongside deputy secretaries from the departments of Defense, State, and Treasury, among other senior officials.

As a starting point, it’s important to recognize that this is likely the first time that the words “USAID administrator” have ever appeared in an NSC organizing directive, so from a development perspective, it is a welcome bit of visibility for the already essential role that development policy plays in national security discussions.

Beyond that, divining the degree to which this represents an early elevation of USAID’s role in the new administration’s architecture remains difficult. Let’s compare the Trump order to what has preceded it. The Bush administration’s 2001 NSC order allowed for the participation of other “senior officials” where appropriate in NSC meetings, as well as meetings of the NSC’s principals (the NSC members minus the president and vice president) and deputies committees. The Obama administration carried forward this construct in its 2009 memo, but in a presidential directive on development policy a year later, the president also said that the USAID administrator (not just an unnamed other “senior official”) would participate in NSC meetings “as appropriate.”

So, if we understand the Obama-era configuration to be that the administrator participates in the NSC itself, then the new order appears to be a demotion. But that might not be entirely fair. The “as appropriate” in the Obama order qualifies the administrator’s participation short of “regular” participation, whereas the Trump order says the administrator will be a regular member of the deputies committee. So Obama gave USAID ad hoc participation at a senior level, and Trump gives USAID regular participation at a less senior level.

In the end, whether this move represents an elevation, demotion, or nothing at all will depend on practice and people. As a matter of public record, we don’t know in practice how frequently the USAID administrator participated in NSC, NSC principals, or NSC deputies meetings during the Bush and Obama eras. The rhetoric of the Obama administration suggests that there was an elevated role for the administrator in practice, following the 2010 policy directive on development. Does that mean the administrator was a regular attendee at NSC and NSC principals’ meetings? Or was attendance more frequent at deputies meetings? We won’t know until records are declassified some years from now.

For the Trump administration, many important questions remain, each of which pertain to whether and how much USAID and development policy will be elevated by this White House. Among them:

  • Will regular participation at the deputies level preclude ad hoc participation in NSC meetings?
     
  • Who will the president nominate as USAID administrator?
     
  • How will the State-USAID relationship be defined?
     
  • How will USAID’s budget fare amidst reports of deep cuts to non-defense discretionary spending?

The drafting of the executive orders during the first days of the Trump administration has widely been reported to be a messy process, and one closely held to a few actors within the White House. So perhaps the most interesting question of all is how on earth did the USAID administrator emerge at all as an entirely new element in the NSC directive?