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Korean War in 1950

An Introduction to the National Security Council
National Security Council meeting

“The function of the Council shall be to advise the President with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security...”


—Title I of the National Security Act of 1947

1.1 Overview 

The United States plays a critical role in establishing and maintaining international order in an increasingly globalized world. The range of foreign policy issues that require its attention or involvement is vast. From conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria to tensions with North Korea and Iran; from longstanding alliances with European and Asian powers to complex, evolving relationships with Brazil, China, India, Russia, and South Africa; from the stability of global finance to the promotion of economic opportunity in low-income countries; from climate to health to nuclear proliferation to terrorism—there is little around the world in which the United States does not have a vested interest. Furthermore, issues such as immigration, trade, and cybersecurity underscore the fading distinction between domestic and international matters.


U.S. leaders use a range of tools to pursue a foreign policy that they believe will protect national security and achieve U.S. goals. These tools include:


  • diplomatic tools, such as bilateral or multilateral consultations and negotiations, treaties, defense and security agreements, resolutions in global and regional bodies such as the United Nations (UN), and public diplomacy to promote U.S. views and culture;
  • economic tools, such as trade and investment agreements, tariffs, sanctions, embargoes and boycotts, bilateral and multilateral development assistance, loans for the purchase of U.S. exports, and sales of arms, equipment, and technology;
  • military tools, such as missile strikes by manned or unmanned vehicles, nuclear deterrence, ground force deployments, ship and submarine patrols, blockades, unilateral or partnered military exercises, foreign military training, and special operations forces;
  • unconventional tools, which are actions, sometimes secret, taken by the U.S. government and its proxies, such as training and assisting foreign intelligence services, supporting armed nonstate actors, private security contracting, and cyberwarfare.

Effective policymaking and policy implementation require the deft use of different combinations of these tools, depending on the circumstances. To accomplish this, policymakers must clearly define U.S. interests and gauge the interests, resources, and motivations of foreign governments and nonstate actors. The U.S. intelligence community helps policymakers in their work by collecting and analyzing a vast range of information, including satellite images, communications records, documents, data, and personal observations.


Foreign policy successes and failures are often associated with decisions made by presidents. Less explored is the decision-making apparatus that helps the president make those critical choices and coordinate their implementation. This guide will help you understand the system through which the United States creates and implements its foreign policy.

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