Log in to get started!

Don't have an account yet? You can create one below.

Student Instructor
Display Title
Infectious Disease Outbreak in Colombia

The threat of a potentially large-scale pandemic caused by a mysterious new disease in Colombia has persuaded some governments to impose strict restrictions on trade and travel to South America.


News reports have begun to trickle out of northern Colombia, near the border with Venezuela, about a disease that is spreading fast among nearby farm workers. The Colombian government is working with the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the regional office of the World Health Organization (WHO), which is, in turn, pressing the Venezuelan government to allow an assessment team to visit. Fearful that news of the latest outbreak may lead to an influx of refugees, especially from Colombia and Venezuela’s urban centers, neighboring countries are moving quietly to secure their borders and to restrict trade and travel with the two countries. The president has called a National Security Council meeting to discuss a response, particularly regarding whether and how to restrict travel to the United States.

Lead Image
NSC-OUTBREAK-Profile photo

The Situation

Several crises over the past decade have highlighted the inadequacy of global health governance and pandemic preparedness. Globalization and its consequences—among them population growth, global warming, urbanization, and easier trade and travel—have all contributed to outbreaks of infectious disease. Since 2000, a series of epidemics, including SARS, H1N1, Zika, and Ebola, have taken a significant toll, prompting experts to call for increased investment in global health security—efforts to help prepare countries to prevent, detect, and respond to potentially pandemic and epidemic diseases.. Moreover, debate still exists over the proper strategies to address outbreaks of infectious disease, with national health officials often divided over the proper way to respond to a certain outbreak. With this division, and coordination of international pandemic response still ad hoc, an infectious disease with a greater lethality than those seen in the past decade could have devastating consequences. With an outbreak of Venezuelan equine encepalitis wreaking havoc in northern Colombia and threatening to spill over into already unstable Venezuela, the National Security Council needs to decide how to prioritize and pursue the U.S. interests at stake. Crucially, NSC members must decide whether and how to implement travel restrictons into the country, weighing the benefits of containing the outbreak with the potential of imposing significant costs on Colombia and Venezuela. 



  • Global health
  • Pandemic preparedness
  • Weak states
  • Multilateralism
  • Oil and other natural resources
  • Public opinion



  • Pandemic preparedness
  • Global health governance
  • Colombian health-care system
  • Costs, benefits, and risks of military and other interventions
  • Stable flow of oil
  • Regional security in the Americas
Guide Sections
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 long-standing 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; and 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. Further, 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 safeguard national security and achieve U.S. goals:

  • diplomatic, such as bilateral or multilateral consultations and negotiations, treaties, defense and security agreements, resolutions at global and regional bodies such as the United Nations, and public diplomacy to promote U.S. views and culture
  • economic, such as trade and investment agreements, tariffs, sanctions, embargoes and boycotts, development assistance, loans for the purchase of U.S.-manufactured products, and sales of arms, equipment, and technology
  • military, such as missile strikes, nuclear deterrence, ground force deployments, ship and submarine patrols, blockades, unilateral or partnered military exercises, foreign military training, and special operations forces
  • unconventional actions, sometimes secret, undertaken 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 requires a deft combination of these tools. To accomplish this, policymakers need to 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 presidential decisions. Less explored is the decision-making system 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.

Learn More
See More
National Security Council meeting
CIA Director George Bush discusses the evacuation of Americans from Beirut

“....I envisioned a special role for the national security advisor, who is the manager of the National Security Council. I needed an honest broker who would objectively present to the president the views of the various cabinet officers across the spectrum.”

— George H.W. Bush, “A World Transformed,” p. 18

1.2 The Interagency Process

Whether it aims to respond to an immediate crisis or to advance a long-term objective, a successful foreign policy–making process starts with a clear articulation of interests and goals. Policymakers and their advisors then formulate policy options to meet those goals and consider each option’s strengths and weaknesses. This process is challenging in the best of times. Information may be unreliable or incomplete, an adversary’s intentions may be unclear, and a decision’s consequences may be unknowable. Leaders often have to choose from a list on which every option is imperfect. Adding to this uncertainty is the complexity of the U.S. government’s foreign policy machinery: numerous agencies—each with its own interests and biases—seek to influence how policy is decided and carried out. In these circumstances, it takes considerable effort to run a process capable of producing sound policy decisions.

The National Security Council (NSC) plays a critical role in this effort. Its mission is to help the president effectively use a variety of instruments—military, diplomatic, or otherwise—to forge policies that advance U.S. national security goals.

The NSC was created by the National Security Act of 1947, which defined it as an interagency body intended to “advise the president with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security.” Following World War II, in an age of expanded American interests and responsibilities, the NSC was expected to provide a place where the heads of federal departments and agencies could cooperate to develop and recommend to the president policies that would advance U.S. aims. The NSC and its staff were also meant to manage the policymaking process so that the president would receive a full range of advice and opinion from the departments and agencies involved in national security.

The NSC has evolved significantly over the years, adapting to the preferences of successive presidents and the challenges they faced. Variables such NSC meeting attendees, the frequency of meetings, the amount and format of information passed to the president, the importance of consensus, and the relative dominance of the NSC over other government institutions have changed over the decades.

During this time, the NSC has evolved to comprise various interagency committees and a large staff to prepare analysis and coordinate policymaking and implementation. The NSC is at the center of the interagency process, one through which relevant government agencies address foreign policy issues and help the president make and execute policy choices.

I. National Security Advisor

The national security advisor (formally assistant to the president for national security affairs), a senior advisor to the president, is at the heart of the NSC structure. Ideally, the national security advisor’s role is twofold: to offer advice to the president and to coordinate and manage policymaking. Because they have direct access to the president and do not represent a cabinet department such as the State Department or Defense Department, national security advisors are in a unique position to drive foreign policy decisions, manage the actors involved, and mitigate conflict throughout the decision-making process.

II. National Security Council Staff

The NSC staff consists of individuals from a collection of agencies that support the president, the vice president, and the administration. NSC staff members are generally organized into directorates that focus on regions or issues. The size and organization of the staff vary with each administration.

The NSC staff provides expertise for the variety of national security policy matters considered by the committees and the president. It manages numerous responsibilities, including preparing speeches, memos, and discussion papers and handling inquiries from Congress on foreign policy issues. Staff members analyze both immediate and long-term issues and help prioritize these issues on the interagency agenda.

III. Committee Structure

Committees are at the core of policy deliberation and policymaking in the NSC. They fall into four categories:

  • The highest-level is the National Security Council itself. Formal NSC meetings are chaired by the president and include individuals named by the National Security Act of 1947 as well as other senior aides the president invites.
  • The principals committee (PC) comprises cabinet-level officials who head major government departments concerned with national security, such as the secretaries of state and defense. The national security advisor traditionally chairs the principals committee.
  • The deputies committee (DC) includes the deputy leaders of the government departments represented on the principals committee and is chaired by the deputy national security advisor.
  • Policy coordination committees (PCCs) cover a range of regional areas and issues. Each committee includes officials who specialize in the relevant area or issue at one of the departments or agencies in the interagency system. PCCs are generally chaired by senior directors on the NSC staff. Much of the day-to-day work needed to formulate and implement foreign policy across the U.S. government happens at the PCC level.

This committee structure tackles both immediate crises such as an outbreak of conflict and enduring issues such as climate change. In the normal course of events, PCCs conduct analysis on an issue, gather views on it and its importance from various departments, formulate and evaluate policy options, and determine what resources and steps would be required to carry out those options. The deputies committee, meanwhile, manages the interagency process up and down. It decides what PCCs to establish and gives them specific assignments. It also considers information submitted by the PCCs, ensuring that it is relevant, complete, and clear, before relaying it to the principals committee or the full NSC.

The principals committee is the highest-level setting, aside from the NSC itself, for debating national security issues. It consists of the heads of the NSC’s component agencies—essentially all the members of the NSC except the president and vice president. Formal NSC meetings, which the president chairs, occur whenever the president sees fit. They consider issues that require the president’s personal attention and a direct presidential decision.

The goal of this committee structure is to foster consensus on policy options or highlight where and why consensus cannot be reached. If officials at one level agree on an issue, it may not need to go to senior officials for a decision. This practice reserves the president’s time, and that of the principals, for the most complicated and sensitive debates.

When a crisis erupts, however, issues may not follow the usual path up from the PCCs. In these cases, NSC staff members and officials in government departments and agencies generally draft papers drawing on their expertise, available intelligence, and any existing contingency plans. Policy options are then debated and decided at the appropriate level, depending on the nature and severity of the crisis. The policymaking process may also deviate from this model based on the preferences of each president.

For the purposes of Model Diplomacy’s NSC simulation, you will role-play the NSC meeting with the assumption that the committees described have already done their jobs and passed critical information to the highest-level decision-makers.

Presidential Decisions

When the president makes a policy decision, it may take the form of a verbal instruction recorded in a NSC staff document and shared with relevant departments and agencies. The president may also issue formal decisions in documents that lay out the administration’s policy and explain its rationale and goals. These documents have gone by different names under different presidents. President Donald J. Trump issues national security presidential memoranda, which replace the presidential policy directives and presidential study directives that President Barack Obama issued.

The president may also issue an executive order. In the past, presidents have issued executive orders for such purposes as facilitating sanctions against foreign individuals and establishing new offices in government departments to achieve foreign policy aims. For federal agencies, both national security directives and executive orders carry the full force and effect of law, though the president’s authority to issue these kinds of documents is sometimes questioned.

National Security Council meeting
President Bush leads a meeting of the National Security Council.

“These complex times have made clear the power and centrality of America’s indispensable leadership in the world.”

— Obama 2015 National Security Strategy

1.3 Departments and Agencies

Although many executive branch departments and agencies are involved in foreign policy and, depending on the issue, play a role in the NSC process, the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and the intelligence community form the core of the foreign policy bureaucracy. The Department of the Treasury, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Justice often play crucial roles as well.

Department of State

The Department of State conducts the United States’ relations with other countries and international organizations. It maintains U.S. diplomatic presence abroad, issues visas for foreigners to enter the country, aids U.S. citizens overseas, and manages cultural exchanges and other programs to promote American interests. As head of the department, the secretary of state is the president’s principal foreign affairs advisor and has a keen understanding of the United States’ international relations, the relationships between foreign countries, and the behavior and interests of their governments.

Department of Defense

The Department of Defense carries out U.S. defense policy and maintains U.S. military forces. It includes the U.S. ArmyNavyMarine Corps, and Air Force, as well as an array of agencies with missions ranging from advanced technological research to defense cooperation with friendly countries. The department employs more than two million military and civilian personnel and operates military bases across the United States and abroad. The secretary of defense, the head of the department and the president’s principal defense policy advisor, stays up-to-date on the security situation in foreign countries and the possibilities and implications of U.S. military involvement. The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff is the highest-ranking member of the U.S. armed forces and the president’s top military advisor.

Intelligence Community

The U.S. intelligence community consists of seventeen agencies and organizations, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Agency (NSA), and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which gather and analyze intelligence to help policymakers formulate and implement U.S. foreign policy. Each of these agencies has its own mission; for example, the NSA focuses on signals intelligence (information gathered from communications and other electronic signals) and the Defense Intelligence Agency on military information. The director of national intelligence, the president’s principal advisor on intelligence issues, oversees this network of agencies with the aim of ensuring that they work together and deliver the best possible information to U.S. policymakers.

Department of the Treasury

The Department of the Treasury carries out policy on issues related to the U.S. and global economies and financial systems. The secretary of the treasury, as head of this department, serves as one of the president’s chief economic advisors and is responsible for addressing a range of economic concerns, including growth, trade and investment, and the position of the U.S. dollar. The Treasury’s ten bureaus, which include the U.S. Mint and the Internal Revenue Service, do much of the department’s work, which ranges from collecting tax to printing currency and executing economic sanctions.

Department of Homeland Security

Created soon after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Department of Homeland Security works to counter and respond to risks to American security. It focuses on issues such as terrorism prevention, border security and immigration, disaster response, and cybersecurity. Familiar agencies within the department include U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which checks travelers and goods coming into the United States; the U.S. Secret Service, which protects the president and investigates financial crimes; and the Transportation Security Administration, which ensures security at airports. The secretary of homeland security oversees the department and advises the president on relevant issues.

Department of Justice

The Department of Justice investigates and prosecutes possible violations of federal law, represents the U.S. government in legal matters, oversees federal prisons, and works more broadly to prevent and respond to crime. Agencies such as the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration are part of the department, as are divisions focusing on particular areas of law, such as national security and civil rights. Leading the department is the attorney general, who offers legal advice to the president and the heads of other departments, including on matters under discussion in the NSC.

Learn More
See More

Guide Glossary


alliance:an official partnership between two or more parties based on cooperation in pursuit of a common goal, generally involving security or defense.
attorney general:head of the Department of Justice and chief lawyer of the U.S. government. Among other duties, he or she offers advice on the legal aspects of proposed policies to the president and other department heads.


bilateral:undertaken between two entities, generally countries.
blockade:an act of war wherein a foreign military cuts off access to a specific location, usually a port, to impede deliveries of supplies. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy ordered a blockade of Cuba—calling it a “quarantine” to avoid the implication of declaring war—in response to Soviet missile activity on the island.


Cabinet:the group comprising the vice president of the United States and the heads of all fifteen federal executive departments, such as the secretaries of state, defense, commerce, labor, and education. Other officials may also have cabinet rank, depending on the administration.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS):the highest-ranking member of the U.S. armed forces. The CJCS does not exercise command authority over U.S. troops, but instead works with the leaders of the U.S. military services to fulfill his function as the top military advisor to the president and other senior officials.
chief of staff to the president:a close advisor to the president who is responsible for coordinating the implementation of presidential policy and managing the Executive Office of the President (EOP), which includes the national security staff among many other entities.
cyberwarfare:defensive and offensive actions taken by a government or nonstate actor in the realm of information network systems and digital infrastructure. Specific actions include planting computer viruses, mounting denial-of-service attacks to disrupt internet and network activity, and conducting electronic surveillance.


deputies committee (DC):the intermediate-level setting, below the principals committee, for debating issues in the National Security Council (NSC) system. Chaired by the deputy national security advisor, it comprises the second- and third-ranking leaders of the departments and agencies represented on the National Security Council. It manages the interagency process up and down, answering to the principals committee and assigning and reviewing the work of interagency policy committees.
director of national intelligence:the president’s principal advisor for intelligence-related matters and the head of the intelligence community, a network of seventeen agencies and organizations, such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), that collect and analyze information to assist policymaking.


executive order (EO):a decision issued by the president that carries the full force and effect of law. An executive order usually instructs government departments and agencies to implement or modify particular policies or procedures.


foreign policy:a country’s attitudes and actions in the international arena. Foreign policy includes two principal elements: goals or interests as the country defines them, such as peace with one’s neighbors, and the means pursued to advance these interests, such as diplomatic negotiations, trade agreements, and military alliances. A country carries out its foreign policy through its dealings with other countries, international organizations such as the United Nations (UN), and nonstate actors such as corporations and advocacy groups.


interagency:involving two or more agencies. The National Security Council (NSC), for example, is an interagency forum, not a forum internal to any one agency.


multilateral:undertaken among three or more entities, usually countries. The term frequently describes organizations such as the United Nations (UN).


National Security Act:a law signed by President Harry S. Truman in 1947 to reorganize the agencies and processes related to intelligence, foreign policy, and the military. Among its reforms, the act established the National Security Council (NSC) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
national security advisor (NSA):the so-called honest broker of the national security policy process and the president’s principal advisor on national security issues. The NSA manages the National Security Council (NSC) staff, chairs the principals committee, and coordinates and manages policymaking with the goal of ensuring effective policy development and implementation.
National Security Council (NSC):an interagency body that serves as the forum for the president to discuss and take action on the most critical national security issues facing the United States. Its membership has varied since its creation in 1947, and now includes the president, vice president, national security advisor, secretaries of state and defense, and a variety of other senior officials.
National Security Council (NSC) staff:the president’s national security and foreign policy personnel. The NSC staff receives direction from the president via the national security advisor, provides expertise on issues and regions, and collaborates frequently with employees from other government departments and agencies to carry out the interagency policymaking process.
national security presidential memorandum:a type of presidential directive, or official order from the president, on matters related to national security. Called different names by different administrations, these documents may initiate a review of current policy, reorganize the structure of the national security policy apparatus, or lay out new strategies.
nonstate actors:individuals or groups that do not belong to or act on behalf of a state. This may refer to nongovernmental organizations such as Amnesty International, media outlets such as the New York Times, or terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda.


policy coordination committees (PCCs):the lowest-level setting for debating issues in the National Security Council (NSC) system and the home of much of the day-to-day work needed to formulate and implement U.S. foreign policy. Often chaired by a senior director on the NSC staff, PCCs develop, coordinate, and carry out policy options in distinct regional and functional areas.
principals committee (PC):the highest-level setting, aside from the National Security Council (NSC) itself, for debating issues in the NSC system. Generally chaired by the national security advisor, it comprises cabinet-level officials who head major government departments concerned with national security, such as the secretaries of state, defense, and homeland security, and other senior officials.


sanction:a tool of statecraft, frequently involving economic measures such as asset freezes and trade restrictions, used to exact a certain behavior or outcome from another party. The U.S. and EU sanctions against Russian companies and individuals that aim to encourage Russia to end its interference in Ukraine are an example.
secretary of defense:the principal defense policy advisor to the president and head of the Department of Defense, which oversees the formulation and execution of defense policy and manages U.S. military forces.
secretary of energy:the head of the Department of Energy, which executes U.S. policy on energy, environmental, and nuclear issues and oversees seventeen national scientific research laboratories.
secretary of homeland security:the head of the Department of Homeland Security since its creation after the attacks of September 11, 2001. This department works to protect U.S. security by implementing federal policy concerning terrorism prevention, border security, immigration, disaster response, and cybersecurity.
secretary of state:the president’s chief foreign affairs advisor, the country’s chief diplomat, and the head of the Department of State, which conducts the United States’ relationships with foreign countries and international organizations.
secretary of the treasury:one of the president’s chief economic advisors and head of the department of the treasury, which carries out policy on issues related to the U.S. and global economies and financial systems. The department is home to the U.S. Mint and Internal Revenue Service, among other agencies.
special operations forces:elite U.S. military units, such as Navy Sea, Air, and Land (SEAL) teams and Army Special Forces, grouped under U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). They conduct specialized and often sensitive missions that include guerrilla warfare, counterterrorism raids, counterproliferation, and advanced reconnaissance.


tariff:a tax on goods arriving from a foreign country, generally used as a tool of trade and foreign policy to penalize adversaries or favor allies or domestic producers.


U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations (UN):the ambassador-level official who advances U.S. foreign policy interests in the bodies and forums of the UN system.
unilateral:undertaken by only one entity, generally a country.


vice president:the second-highest-ranking official of the U.S. government and first in line to assume the presidency if the president dies, resigns, or becomes unable to serve. Though given only one responsibility in the Constitution—to serve as president of the U.S. Senate, with the power to break ties—the vice presidency has become a visible part of the modern White House. Today’s vice presidents undertake a variety of functions, from serving as an all-purpose presidential advisor to carrying out diplomatic trips abroad. The personality of the individual who occupies this post and his or her relationship with the president define the scope of the role.
Case Notes Sections
Sylvia Matthews Burwell
NSC-OUTBREAK-Profile photo

Infectious diseases know no borders. In this age of global hyper-connectedness, a disease outbreak anywhere is a threat everywhere. With just a sneeze, a hug or a plane ride, a deadly germ can travel from West Africa to North Texas before we even realize the threat exists.” — Liz Schrayer, president, U.S. Global Leadership Coalition

2.1 The Issue

The number of infectious diseases outbreaks has been rising for several decades. As populations grow and expand into previously forested areas, more people are contracting zoonotic diseases—infections that can be passed from animals to humans. Given increasing trade and travel to and within low-income countries, outbreaks of  infectious diseases such as Ebola and Zika viruses in remote rural villages are more likely to reach crowded cities with limited health systems, which are the ideal incubators for diseases. Since 2000, a series of epidemics, including severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), H1N1, Zika, and Ebola, have taken a significant toll, prompting experts to call for increased investment in global health security—efforts to help prepare countries prevent, detect, and respond to epidemic and potentially pandemic diseases.

U.S. government support for global health security has increased significantly in recent years. After an outbreak of Ebola killed eleven thousand and infected twenty-seven thousand in West Africa in 2014, the United States invested $1 billion in building capacity to detect and respond to dangerous disease events in low-income and weak states as part of an international initiative known as the Global Health Security Agenda. Those investments have helped nations make measurable improvements in their preparedness for dangerous disease events, but significant gaps and risks remain. The coordination and funding of the U.S. and international response to outbreaks is still largely ad hoc, which limits its effectiveness. Without a robust, predictable, and well-coordinated international response, an emerging and lethal infectious disease in a country without the capacity to respond and control that outbreak—a fragile or failed state, one that is mired in civil war, or one that is subject to a significant influx of refugees—could have devastating consequences for that country and its neighbors.

NSC-OUTBREAK-Profile photo

“The global response to new pathogens has continued to be limited, uncoordinated, and dysfunctional.”—Laurie Garrett, journalist

2.2 Background

Infectious diseases can take a variety of forms and spread in many different ways. They are caused by pathogens— microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses— which can live in animals, such as livestock or mosquitoes, and can sometimes travel through water or suspended in particles in the air. Humans who come into contact with these pathogens can become infected, and in turn spread the disease to others. Over history, as human populations have grown and come into closer contact with animals and each other, infectious diseases have spread quicker and infected greater numbers.

Governments began imposing quarantines and isolating the sick in the fourteenth century but did not make formal diplomatic efforts to coordinate local and national measures with their foreign counterparts’ efforts until roughly four hundred years later. In 1918, an outbreak of influenza became the twentieth century’s deadliest pandemic, killing tens of millions of people and infecting a third of the world’s population. The high death toll was caused in part by the lack of meaningful global health infrastructure—or even well-functioning domestic public health programs. As a result, the public health field grew rapidly. Many countries created or revamped their health departments in the 1920s. Governments also recognized the need to improve the coordination of public health at the international level. In 1919, the Health Organization, an international bureau for fighting epidemics and a precursor to the World Health Organization (WHO), was established as part of the League of Nations.

The World Health Organization itself came into existence in 1948. Throughout the 20th century, the WHO had a number of successes [PDF], including wide-ranging child vaccination programs, the eradication of smallpox in 1979, and a reduction of polio infections by 99 percent by 2006. Today, the WHO has 193 member countries, six regional offices, and partnerships with NGOs and other UN agencies around the world. Despite these successes, however, the WHO has a limited budget, and relies on countries to voluntarily comply with its protocols and report potential outbreaks of disease; it has no legal authority to dictate or enforce its recommendations and regulations.

The 2014 outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, for instance, underscored many of the current weaknesses in global health infrastructure. First identified in 1976 in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Ebola virus resurfaced in 2014, killing more than ten thousand people and spreading to Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Past outbreaks were generally confined to more remote areas. In 2014, however, the virus spread to several communities before it was identified as Ebola. By the end of 2015, more than twenty-eight thousand people across eight countries had been infected, in large part because of the affected countries’ poor health infrastructure. Many health officials argued that the epidemic was further worsened by the travel bans and restrictions implemented by countries in response to the outbreak. Most other African countries banned people and trade from Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone; Australia and Canada declined all visa requests from the region; all but two commercial airlines and all air freight services ceased fights to the area; and insurance companies declined to pay for air rescue services. These actions clearly violated WHO regulations, but the organization was unable to do anything about them. This underlined the organization’s powerlessness and inability to enforce its own regulations.

Global health infrastructure failed to adequately respond to the challenge of Ebola and damaged the legitimacy of the WHO, raising questions about the current state of global health and its future. The operational capabilities of the WHO have improved since the Ebola outbreak, but the global infrastructure needed to respond to a major epidemic of a new pathogen remains uncoordinated and underfunded.

Today, many scientists speak of Disease X, a yet-undiscovered pathogen that could cause an international epidemic. These scientists and other public health experts maintain that it is almost certain that another disease like the 1918 pandemic influenza will eventually appear, arguing [PDF] that “even with modern antiviral and antibacterial drugs, vaccines, and prevention knowledge, the return of a pandemic virus equivalent in pathogenicity to the virus of 1918 would likely kill [more than] 100 million people worldwide.”

NSC-OUTBREAK-Profile photo

“There is no such a thing as trying to be isolationist when it comes to infectious diseases. Infectious diseases, by their definition, are a global problem.”—Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

2.3 Role of the United States

The United States has been involved in global health efforts for more than a century; today, it is the largest funder of global health programs worldwide.  The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) both monitors and combats disease within the United States and coordinates with international organizations to respond to global health threats. Federal programs such as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) provide funding and aid to fight the spread of disease abroad. Philanthropic organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, along with other nongovernmental organizations, also greatly increased funding for global health efforts including research and vaccination programs. Between 1992 and 2015, U.S. global health funding increased from $2 billion to more than $11 billion. 

The 2009 swine flu pandemic highlighted the risks that disease outbreaks, wherever they originate, can pose to the United States. It also reaffirmed the need for increased attention to global health security. Although the CDC estimates that the disease inflicted more than twelve thousand casualties worldwide, analysts praised U.S. and global response, saying that initial forecasts predicted a death toll of between thirty thousand and ninety thousand. In 2010, President Barack Obama issued the first U.S. Global Development Policy, officially making U.S. global health and development programs a “core pillar of American power” and elevating them to the status of diplomacy and defense. In the same vein, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton created the Office of Global Health Diplomacy in the U.S. Department of State in 2012 and boosted the role of U.S. ambassadors on health. 

The United States has many interests in responding to the outbreak in Colombia. First, the United States prioritizes reducing unnecessary deaths in Colombia and the surrounding region and stopping or slowing the spread of the disease. In the long term, U.S. interests include promoting security, prosperity, and political and economic stability in Colombia. The United States is Colombia’s largest trade partner and provided substantial aid to support Colombian governments’ efforts to end decades-long conflict with armed groups.

The United States also has strong interests in Venezuela. An epidemic that enters the country (if it is not already there) could have devastating impact, accelerating the collapse of Venezuela’s economy and the massive outflow of refugees, destabilizing the economies, health systems, and security of the region. 

The question posed to the National Security Council (NSC) and the accompanying policy options center on the use of travel ban or travel restrictions to curb the spread of infectious disease. Proponents of this option believe that restrictions are necessary to prevent a deadly epidemic from reaching U.S. soil or to isolate it if it has already arrived. Opponents argue that restrictions put economic strain on afflicted countries and make it harder to get qualified health-care professionals in and out. Moreover, a ban could provide an incentive for individuals to intentionally conceal their travel history and evade screenings in order to enter the United States. 

With these interests and debates in mind, the NSC has the following policy options to consider in dealing with the outbreak in Colombia.

Adopt no travel restrictions

The NSC could decide not to implement any travel restrictions between the United States and South and Central America but to take immediate steps to screen air passengers arriving from the area for symptoms and fevers, placing those suspected of infection in quarantine. This would reduce the economic risks to Colombia and its neighbors that a full travel ban would carry as it would still allow for the flow of goods and people. It would also allow health-care workers and aid to more easily reach the areas that need it than if a ban were implemented.

However, the decision to forgo travel restrictions could be seen as a failure to protect American lives and heighten the already rising U.S. public concern about the Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus (VEEV). Adopting screening procedures would require the construction and operation of quarantine centers. Moreover, it could be difficult to separate suspected sufferers of VEEV from those with seasonal flu, and individuals with other illnesses could also be erroneously quarantined.

Ban all travel from Colombia and neighboring countries

The United States could decide to ban all travel to and from Colombia and its neighbors. This could entail a number of actions, including suspending any visa or asylum requests to travelers from Colombia and its neighbors, restricting aircraft coming from the region from entering U.S. airspace, and closing ports to all tourism and shipping traffic. Evidence is scant that travel bans stopped past epidemics of swine flu or severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) from spreading, but the strategy could slow the spread of the outbreak of airborne VEEV to the United States, perhaps allowing time for health-care workers to bolster quarantine procedures and research potential treatments or a vaccine for VEEV. Travel restrictions might also quell the public outcry. 

However, this action would impose significant costs on Colombia, its neighboring countries, and even the United States, leading to job losses. Travel restrictions could reduce the willingness of the Colombian and neighboring governments to cooperate and could intensify the refugee crisis in that region. Moreover, if the United States choses to impose travel restrictions, it would do so in clear violation of the International Health Regulations. Such an action could prompt other countries to follow suit, inflicting more economic damage and weakening the credibility of global health governance in future outbreaks. 

Wait for the WHO to make a recommendation

The United States could decide to wait on restricting trade and travel until the WHO makes a recommendation on how to proceed. This option would uphold WHO regulations and would further avoid the economic costs of imposing a travel ban. However, the WHO may not issue its recommendation until it has gained permission to assess the situation fully, which might not be for some time, given  the reluctance of some neighboring countries to acknowledge the situation or accept aid. Additionally, given the consequences of the WHO’s slow responses to past epidemics, especially during the 2014 Ebola epidemic, waiting to take action could result in public outcry that U.S. officials are allowing the disease to spread further or could put people in the United States at risk of infection. If NSC members decide to wait for guidance from the WHO, they will need to consider what steps they can take to increase domestic preparedness and assuage public concerns.

Case Notes Glossary


airborne:transmitted through the air.


communicable disease:an infectious disease that is contagious, meaning that the infecting pathogen can be passed from person to person via direct or indirect contact. Communicable diseases, such as the flu, can result in isolated outbreaks or widespread pandemics.


Disease X:an undetermined disease, caused by a pathogen yet to emerge, that could potentially cause a devastating pandemic. Despite modern technology and the availability of antiviral and antibacterial drugs and vaccines, a virus as severe as the one that caused the 1918 flu would likely kill more than one hundred million people worldwide. The concept of “Disease X” is often used by global health scholars to underscore the dangers of an unprepared and uncoordinated global pandemic response framework.


Ebola:a virus that can cause severe bleeding, organ failure, and death after an initial fever and muscle pain. Ebola spreads through direct contact with bodily fluids. The most widespread outbreak of Ebola took place in West Africa in 2014, causing major disruptions in the region and prompting a global response.
epidemic:widespread occurrence of a disease within a population, usually involving the sudden and rapid spread of an infectious disease. When an epidemic spreads throughout the world, it is called a pandemic.
epidemiology:branch of medicine that studies the incidence, distribution, and control of health conditions such as disease within a population.


Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia):left-wing, nominally Marxist guerrilla group that has fought against the government of Colombia since it was established in 1964. Designated by the United States as a terrorist organization in 1997, the FARC derives most of its revenue from kidnapping and drug trafficking, for which it uses the Venezuelan-Colombian border region as a safe haven. The Colombian government and the FARC signed a peace deal in 2017, though criminal gangs and other guerilla groups have expanded their activities in the dissolved group’s wake.


H1N1:a type of influenza virus that can be found in birds, pigs, and humans. Strains of H1N1 can mix with other flu viruses within the host to form new strains. This rapid mutation and the ability of H1N1 to infect multiple species can make predicting flu pandemics difficult and prevent the creation of a single vaccine effective against all H1N1 strains. H1N1 is believed to have caused the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. In 2009, a strain of H1N1 virus believed to have originated in pigs broke out in Mexico and spread to the United States, where it was declared a national emergency. The 2009 swine flu pandemic, as it was called, claimed 203,000 lives.
HIV/AIDS:a spectrum of conditions resulting from infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). HIV infection causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) and is spread through sexual contact, sharing of needles or syringes, and blood transfusion, among others; AIDS, in turn, weakens the immune system and prevents the body from fighting infections. If HIV is diagnosed early enough, it can be prevented from developing into AIDS, allowing HIV-positive people to live otherwise healthy lives.


incubation period:time between exposure to an infection and the onset of symptoms.
infectious disease:an illness caused by pathogens—including bacteria, fungi, or viruses—that invade tissue. Infectious diseases can be transmissible between humans but are not always so.
influenza:a contagious viral respiratory infection, commonly known as the flu. In severe cases, flu can be life-threatening. Seasonal occurrences of the flu are partly preventable by vaccination. In other cases, such as in 1918 and 2009, flu can result in a high volume of fatalities before being brought under control.
International Health Regulations:a set of international laws that seek to help countries prevent and respond to global health risks and require countries to report disease outbreaks to the World Health Organization. These regulations, which came into force in 2007, are binding for 196 countries, including all WHO member states.


mass vaccination:a campaign that involves the administration of a vaccine to a large population over a short period of time. Mass vaccination campaigns help to rapidly protect as many susceptible people as possible in the event of an outbreak. They require less surveillance than a ring vaccination strategy and could quickly establish control over an outbreak. However, mass vaccination campaigns require more resources than a ring strategy to be effective, and they require the consent of every individual who is to be vaccinated.


Nicolas Maduro:the president of Venezuela since 2013 and Hugo Chavez’s longtime deputy and handpicked successor. Many Venezuelans and observers see Maduro as less charismatic than Chavez, and his tenure has suffered from a shortage of legitimacy and decreased influence on party leadership, the military, and government institutions, compounded by Venezuela’s worsening economic crisis.
noncommunicable disease:a medical condition or disease that is not caused by infectious agents and is not transmissible. Noncommunicable diseases are often chronic conditions, such as cancer and diabetes, that are caused by genetic, physiological, environmental, or behavioral factors.
notifiable conditions:diseases and conditions that must be reported to government authorities or health organizations once identified. The reporting allows authorities or health organizations to monitor the disease and provide early warning in case of an outbreak. Governments have differing regulations that specify which diseases are considered to be notifiable. Under the International Health Regulations, diseases or outbreaks that meet certain criteria are notifiable to the WHO.


Organization of American States (OAS):a regional organization whose membership consists of the thirty-five countries of the Americas. Founded in 1948 to strengthen peace, democracy, and cooperation among its members, the OAS today works on such issues as human rights, security, development, and democratization. Over the decades it has undertaken initiatives to monitor human rights, provide electoral oversight, promote development, and enhance security in the region.


Pan American Health Organization (PAHO):an international public health agency that seeks to improve public health standards in the Americas. PAHO was founded in 1902 as the Pan American Sanitary Bureau. Today, it serves as the regional office of the World Health Organization for the Americas.
pandemic:spread of an infectious disease around the world. However, the term is also often used to describe the spread of a disease across a large region or a continent.
pathogens:viruses, fungi, or microorganisms such as bacteria that cause diseases.
polio:a contagious viral disease caused by the poliovirus. In severe cases, polio can cause nerve damage leading to paralysis and sometimes death.
public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC):a formal designation from the World Health Organization that signifies a public health event that may endanger public health globally. The 2009 swine flu pandemic, for instance, was declared a PHEIC.


quarantine:isolation of individuals who have been exposed to an infectious disease to prevent the spread of the disease, sometimes maintained by government regulations. Quarantine has historically been a controversial measure, as some lawyers and epidemiologists believe it is often unnecessary and infringes on individual liberty.


refugee:an individual forced to leave home due to conflict or natural disaster who, unlike an internally displaced person (IDP), crosses a recognized international border and does not stay in his or her home country.
ring vaccination:a strategy to control an outbreak by vaccinating and monitoring people who have contact with each infected person to create a buffer of immune people (a ring) that would prevent the spread of disease. This strategy was successfully used to eradicate smallpox in the late twentieth century. A ring vaccination strategy can make efficient use of limited resources in the event of an outbreak, but it requires extensive surveillance to be effective.


severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS):a contagious and potentially fatal respiratory disease caused by the SARS coronavirus, which spreads when people cough or sneeze and release droplets of liquid into the air. People with SARS exhibit flu-like symptoms.


Venezuelan equine encephalitis (VEE):a mosquito-borne virus found in the Americas that affects equine animals, such as horses and donkeys, though it can also infect to humans. VEE causes flu-like symptoms and can be fatal in severe cases.
virus:an infectious agent that can only reproduce within the cells of a host, such as a human body. A virus enters a healthy cell and reprograms it to produce more viruses by integrating its own genetic material into the DNA of the cell.


World Health Organization (WHO):specialized UN agency that acts as the coordinating and directing authority on international health. The WHO works in the areas of health systems, communicable and noncommunicable diseases, and emergency preparedness and response. Delegates from its 194 member states meet annually at the World Health Assembly, its decision-making body.


Zika:a virus that can be transmitted through mosquitoes and sexual contact. It can also be passed from a woman to her fetus, and infection during pregnancy can lead to birth defects such as microcephaly. The most common symptom of a Zika infection is fever, though many people show no symptoms.
Role Play Sections
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.1 Role

Welcome to your role as a participant in the National Security Council (NSC)! You should have received an email with your role assignment, but if you did not, you can view your assignment by clicking on the “My Simulations" tab on your account page. At this point, you should have reviewed essential background information about the NSC, read the case, watched the accompanying videos, and perused some of the additional reading. Whether you have been assigned a specific role as an individual or part of a group, or as a general advisor to the president, we suggest you read the case once again to identify material that is particularly relevant to your role or that requires further investigation. After that, you will conduct independent research as you write your position memo and prepare for the role-play.

There are four subsections that follow. Research and Preparation (3.2) will aid your research for the position memo and provide additional reading to guide your research; the Guide to the Memoranda (3.3) provides information about position memos and an example; and the Guide to the Role-Play (3.4) provides more information on the in-class role-play.

You can learn about your role by reading the information provided on your role sheet, which can be found in the Guide to the Role-Play section (3.4). Review this information thoroughly and often, as your objectives and strategy in the position memo and role-play will be shaped by the institutional perspective of the role you have been assigned (unless you are playing a general advisor). After you finish the role-play and subsequent debrief, you will have an opportunity to share your personal thoughts and recommendations on this case in a policy review memo (Section Four, Wrap-up).

Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.2 Research and Preparation

Your role sheet contains three parts: a description of your role, issues for consideration, and research leads. The role description details the position you will portray in the role-play. The issues for consideration will guide your thinking and assist you in approaching the case from the perspective of your assigned role. Most relevant, however, are the research leads. Going beyond the reports and articles linked to throughout the case and in the reading list, these research leads provide suggested materials and topics for further research specifically relevant to your assigned role. Below are some tips to review as you prepare for the role-play exercise.

Research and Preparation

  • Draw on the case notes, additional case materials, and your own research to familiarize yourself with

    • the goals of the NSC in general and of this NSC meeting in particular;
    • the U.S. interests at stake in the case and their importance to national security;
    • your role and your department or agency, including its purpose and objectives in the government and on the NSC;
    • the aspects of the case most relevant to your role;
    • the elements that a comprehensive policy proposal on the case should contain; and
    • the major debates or conflicts likely to occur during the role-play. You need not resolve these yourself, of course, but you will want to anticipate them in order to articulate and defend your position in the NSC deliberation.
  • Set goals for your research. Know which questions you seek to answer and refer back to the case notes, additional readings, and research leads as needed.
  • Make a list of questions that you feel are not fully answered by the given materials. What do you need to research in greater depth? Can your classmates help you understand these subjects?
  • Using the case materials, additional readings, and discussions with your classmates, weigh the relative importance of the U.S. interests at stake in the case. Determine where trade-offs might be required and think through the potential consequences of several different policy options.
  • Conduct your research from the perspective of your assigned role, but be sure to consider the full range of U.S. interests at stake in the case, whether diplomatic, military, economic, environmental, moral, or otherwise. This will help you strengthen your policy position and anticipate and prepare for debates in the role-play.
  • Consider what questions or challenges the president or other NSC members might raise regarding the options you propose and have responses ready.



  • Consult a wide range of sources to gain a full perspective on the issues raised in the case and on policy options. Seek out sources that you may not normally use, such as publications from the region(s) under discussion, unclassified and declassified government documents, and specialized policy reports and journals.
  • Remember: Wikipedia is not a reliable source, but it can be a reasonable starting point. The citations at the bottom of each entry often contain useful resources. 
  • Just as policymakers tackle issues that are controversial and subject to multiple interpretations, so will you in your preparation for the writing assignments and role-play. For this reason, evaluate your sources carefully. Always ask yourself:
    • When was the information produced? Is it still relevant and accurate?
    • Who is writing or speaking and why? Does the author or speaker have a particular motivation or affiliation that you should take into account?
    • Where is the information published? Determine the political leanings of journals, magazines, and newspapers by reading several articles published by each one.
    • Who is the intended audience?
    • Does the author provide sufficient evidence for his or her analysis or opinion? Does the author cite reliable and impartial sources?
    • Does the information appear one-sided? Does it consider multiple points of view?
    • Is the language measured or inflammatory? Do any of the points appear exaggerated?
  • Take note of and cite your sources correctly. This is important not just for reasons of academic integrity, but so that you can revisit them as needed.
  • Ask your teacher which style he or she prefers you use when citing sources, such as Modern Language Association (MLA), Chicago Manual of Style, or Associated Press (AP).

Reading List


2.1 The Issue

Ed Yong, “The Next Plague Is Coming. Is America Ready?,” Atlantic, July/August 2018, 58, http://theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/07/when-the-next-plague-hits/561734.

Ezra Klein, “The Most Predictable Disaster in the History of the Human Race,” Vox, May 27, 2015, http://vox.com/2015/5/27/8660249/gates-flu-pandemic.

“Public Health,” CFR Global Governance Monitor, 2016, http://cfr.org/interactives/global-governance-monitor#!/public-health.


2.2 Background

Esteban Londono and Patricia Molano, “Are Colombia’s Reforms Enough for a Health-Care System in Crisis?,” Correspondence, Lancet 385, no. 9981 (May 16–22, 2015): 1943, http://thelancet.com/pdfs/journals/lancet/PIIS0140-6736(15)60952-7.pdf.

Laurie Garrett, “Ebola’s Lessons: How the WHO Mishandled the Crisis,” Foreign Affairs 94, no. 5 (September/October 2015): 80–107, http://foreignaffairs.com/articles/west-africa/2015-08-18/ebolas-lessons.

Kevin Loria, “The World Health Organisation Is Worried About Disease X and You Should Be Too,” World Economic Forum, March 15, 2018, http://weforum.org/agenda/2018/03/a-mysterious-disease-x-could-be-the-next-pandemic-to-kill-millions-of-people-heres-how-worried-you-should-be.


2.3 Role of the United States

Michael John Garcia, “Can the President Bar Foreign Travelers From the Ebola-Stricken Countries From Entering the United States?,” CRS Legal Sidebar, October 23, 2014, http://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/travelers.pdf.

Josh Michaud, Kellie Moss, and Jen Kates, “The U.S. Government and Global Health Security,” Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, November 2017, http://files.kff.org/attachment/Issue-Brief-The-US-Government-and-Global-Health-Security.

Nicola Twilley, “The Terrifying Lessons of a Pandemic Simulation,” New Yorker, June 1, 2018, http://newyorker.com/science/elements/the-terrifying-lessons-of-a-pandemic-simulation.


Further Reading

Julia Belluz and Steven Hoffman, “The evidence on Travel Bans for Diseases Like Ebola Is Clear: They Don’t Work,” Vox, October 18, 2014, http://vox.com/2014/10/18/6994413/research-travel-bans-ebola-virus-outbreak.

Donna Bowater and Priscilla Moraes, “Brazil’s ‘Broken’ Healthcare System,” Al Jazeera, February 5, 2016, https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2016/02/brazil-broken-health….

Martin Cetron et al., “Isolation and Quarantine: Containment Strategies for SARS 2003,” in Learning From SARS: Preparing for the Next Disease Outbreak, eds. Stacey Knobler et al. (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2004), 71, http://ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK92450.

John Dean, “Travel Bans and Mandatory Quarantines: Ebola Panic Calls for Clarifying the Law,” Verdict, October 31, 2014, http://verdict.justia.com/2014/10/31/travel-bans-mandatory-quarantines.

R. Evan Ellis and Roman D. Ortiz, “Why the U.S. Can’t Ignore Latin America’s Security Challenges,” World Politics Review, March 28, 2017, http://worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/21672/why-the-u-s-can-t-ignore-latin-america-s-security-challenges.

Joshua M. Epstein et al., “Controlling Pandemic Flu: The Value of International Air Travel Restriction,” PLOS ONE, no. 5 (May 2, 2007), http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0000401.

Maria-Luisa Escobar et al., “Colombia: After a Decade of Health System Reform,” in From Few to Many: Ten Years of Health Insurance Expansion in Colombia, eds. Amanda L. Glassman et al. (Washington, DC: Inter-American Development Bank and Brookings Institution, 2010), 1, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/fromfewtomany_chapter.pdf.

Seth Gannon, “H1N1 Influenza and the U.S. Response: Looking Back at 2009,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 12, 2010, http://csis.org/blogs/smart-global-health/h1n1-influenza-and-us-response-looking-back-2009.

Jennifer Grubb and Bethany Hines, “How You Can Fight an ‘Unseen Enemy’,” CNN, last updated August 18, 2017, http://cnn.com/2017/04/01/health/iyw-unseen-enemy/index.html.

Healthmap (website), http://healthmap.org.

Diedtra Henderson, “Travel Restrictions Slow, but Do Not Stop, Pandemic,” Medscape, December 5, 2014, http://medscape.com/viewarticle/835964.

Everaldo Iamprea and Johnattan Garcia, “Closing the Gap Between Formal and Material Health Care Coverage in Colombia,” Health and Human Rights Journal 18, no. 2 (December 2016): 49–65, http://ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5394995.

Hilary D. Marston, Catharine I. Paules, and Anthony S. Fauci, “Monoclonal Antibodies for Emerging Infectious Diseases: Borrowing From History,” New England Journal of Medicine 378, no. 16 (April 19, 2018): 1469–1472, http://nejm.org/doi/pdf/10.1056/NEJMp1802256.

Ana L.P. Mateus et al., “Effectiveness of Travel Restrictions in the Rapid Containment of Human Influenza: a Systematic Review,” Bulletin of the World Health Organization 92, no. 12 (December 2014): 868–880D, http://who.int/bulletin/volumes/92/12/14-135590.

Chiara Poletto et al., “Assessing the Impact of Travel Restrictions on International Spread of the 2014 West African Ebola Epidemic,” Eurosurveillance 19, no. 42 (October 23, 2014): 8–13, http://eurosurveillance.org/content/10.2807/1560-7917.ES2014.19.42.20936.

Liz Schrayer, “Why America Could Become Vulnerable to the Next Major Pandemic,” Time, February 27, 2018, http://time.com/5177802/cdc-budget-cuts-infectious-disease.

Susan Scutti, “World Health Organization Gets Ready for ‘Disease X,’” CNN, last updated March 12, 2018, http://cnn.com/2018/03/12/health/disease-x-blueprint-who/index.html.

David Shuckman, “Colombia Warns on Zika Baby Risk,” BBC, February 4, 2016, http://bbc.com/news/science-environment-35498424.




Liz Schrayer, “Why America Could Become Vulnerable to the Next Major Pandemic,” Time, February 27, 2018, http://time.com/5177802/cdc-budget-cuts-infectious-disease.



Laurie Garrett, “Ebola’s Lessons: How the WHO Mishandled the Crisis,” Foreign Affairs, August 18, 2015, http://foreignaffairs.com/articles/west-africa/2015-08-18/ebolas-lessons.



Anthony Fauci, “Threat of Global Pandemics,” interview by Steve Scully, Washington Journal, C-SPAN, April 2, 2017, http://c-span.org/video/?426292-3/washington-journal-dr-anthony-fauci-j….


Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.3 Guide to the Memoranda

A major goal of the Model Diplomacy program is to strengthen your ability to write concise, articulate, and persuasive documents that busy colleagues can absorb quickly. In completing this section and Section Four, you will write two memoranda, or memos. These assignments will improve your writing skills and give you a taste of how U.S. foreign policy is conceived, coordinated, and executed.

What is a memorandum?

  • A memo is a formal, succinct written message from one person, department, or organization to another. It is an important form of formal, written communication in the workplace. A memo is generally short, to the point, and free of flowery language and extraneous information. A memo is typically informative or decision-oriented and is formatted in a way that helps readers quickly grasp the main points.
  • In the National Security Council (NSC), memos consider, coordinate, and articulate policy options. They help analyze, evaluate, advocate, and channel those policy options and decisions within the bureaucracy.
  • Memos also function as historical record. Many memos related to NSC discussions and presidential decisions are filed in government archives. Some are later declassified and released to help people understand how policy was devised at a given time in U.S. history. You can access historical examples of memos online. One such resource is maintained by the Federation of American Scientists and offers links to memoranda and directives that various U.S. presidents have issued.

Position Memo 


  • The first memo everyone (except the president) writes is called a position memo. It is written from the perspective of your assigned role. It presents a set of policy options for consideration by the NSC and recommends one of them to the president. The recommendation, or position, outlined in this memo is the one you will present during the role-play. (Keep in mind you may change your position as a result of the role-play discussion.)
  • The position memo will help your fellow NSC members consider the issue efficiently and facilitate decision-making by the president. Equally important, it will help you clarify your understanding of the case by forcing you to identify the essential facts and viable policy options.
  • If you have been assigned a specific role, remember that you are writing from the point of view of the department, agency, or office you represent. Using your institutional position as a lens, you will outline a set of options to address the crisis. Make sure you take into account the pros, cons, and ramifications of each option as it pertains to your role and as it is informed by your reading of the case materials and further research. Also, anticipate critiques of your proposed policy and incorporate your response into the memo. Doing so will help you prepare for the role-play.

Note: If you are assigned the role of president, you will not write a position memo. Instead, you will write a two-page presidential directive, or PD, at the conclusion of the role-play. You will address the PD, which will follow a memo format, to the NSC members and inform them of your final decision regarding the policy option or options to be implemented (see below).

If your teacher has chosen to assign everyone the role of general advisor to the president, you will not need to write the position memo from a particular institutional position. Instead, you will have the flexibility to approach the issue from your own perspective, incorporating a comprehensive assessment of the crisis into your argument.


Position Memo Guidelines

Total length: approximately one thousand words

  • Subject and background (two short paragraphs): Summarize in the first paragraph the significance of the issue in the context of U.S. foreign policy and national security. Identify in the second the central policy question or questions to be decided. Provide just enough information about the crisis so that the reader understands your memo’s purpose and importance; do not attempt to discuss the case in any depth.
  • Objectives (bullet points): Succinctly state your department’s objectives in the current crisis. These can be general national security objectives (such as preventing war) or more specific goals tied to your department’s mission (such as protecting U.S. citizens). They should be important to U.S. national security, directly tied to the case, and feasible. These objectives should guide the policy analysis and recommendation that make up the rest of your memo.
  • Options and analysis (one paragraph for each option): Present and analyze several options for U.S. policy. Discuss their costs, benefits, and resource needs where possible. To illuminate the trade-offs inherent in complex policy decisions, be sure to acknowledge the weaknesses or disadvantages of each proposed option. No option is likely to be perfect.
  • Recommendation and justification (several paragraphs): Identify your preferred policy option or options and describe how you think it or they could be carried out. Explain your reasoning, keeping in mind that you aim to convince the president to follow your recommendation. Addressing the weaknesses or disadvantages you identified in the options and analysis section can help strengthen your argument.

Click here to see a sample position memo.

Presidential Directive


The format of the presidential directive is simpler than that of a position memo. A directive contains a record of the policy option or options that the president has chosen as well as the accompanying orders to various parts of the government with details on how to carry out these decisions.

  • Start with a short paragraph describing the purpose of the memo. Everyone you are writing to was in the NSC meeting, so only brief context is needed.
  • Explain in numbered paragraphs the decisions you have made, why you have made them, and any details regarding how you want the decisions carried out.
  • Explain the communications strategy for the decision, considering both relevant foreign governments and the public. Also, consider that you may wish to keep certain elements of the decision secret from the public.
  • Include any additional details before you sign.
  • Be sure to include all the information necessary for NSC members to understand and carry out your intentions.

Click here  to see a sample presidential directive.

Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.
Students at a Model Diplomacy simulation.

3.4 Guide to the Role-play

During the simulated NSC meeting, you will meet to debate and discuss U.S. policy options in response to the issues outlined in the case. Consistent with the NSC’s mission to advise the president, you should raise the issues that are most important for the president to consider. This will enable him or her to make the most informed decision on policy options. Though you may or may not agree with this decision, your responsibility as an NSC member is to provide the best possible analysis and advice from the perspective of your role.

Role-play Guidelines

  1. Stay in your role at all times.
  2. Follow the general protocol for speaking.
    1. Signaling to Speak

      1. The National Security Advisor (NSA) will administer the meeting and should decide on a speaking order. Wait to be called on by the NSA.
      2. If you would like to speak out of turn, signal to the NSA, perhaps by raising a hand or a placard, and wait until the NSA calls on you.
    2. Form of Speech
      1. Address the president as Mr. or Madam President and your fellow NSC members in the same fashion (for example, Madam Secretary).
      2. Do not exceed predetermined time limits. If you exceed these limits, the NSA will cut you off.
      3. Frame your comments with a purpose and stay on topic. Remember that you must advise the president so that he or she can reach a decision on a precise policy question.
    3. Listening
      1. Take notes while others are speaking.
      2. Refrain from whispering or conducting side conversations.
      3. Applause and booing are not appropriate. Your words will be the most effective tool to indicate agreement or disagreement.


Role-play Tips

  • There is no right or wrong way to participate in a role-play, but the better prepared you are, the more likely you will be able to advance a position effectively, and the more you and your classmates will get out of the experience.
  • Be patient during the role-play. Do not hold back from sharing your perspective, but be sure to give others a chance to do the same.
  • Where there are competing interests, make the judgment calls that you would make if you were a government official, as informed by your earlier consideration of potential trade-offs. Ensure that the consequences of various decisions are carefully weighed.
  • Where appropriate, find common ground with other members of the NSC during the role-play. With whom might you work in advocating your proposed policies? You may find that combining several policy ideas into a new proposal with broader support is an effective strategy if the debate is at an impasse.
  • Think critically about the strengths and weaknesses of your approach as the discussion continues. It is important to subject your own arguments to the same scrutiny that you apply to those of your fellow students. Rethink your arguments as appropriate to take into account the feedback and counterarguments that other NSC members present.
  • You cannot win or lose the role-play. Instead, you should aim to offer a well-reasoned articulation of your position while making concessions and adjustments where you believe they are warranted.
Line Item
2 to 3 minutes per participant
  1. Present initial positions to the president.
  2. Investigate the nuances of the positions through questioning.
  3. Clarify the central questions to be debated.
Procedural Notes

Each participant presents his or her position statement. If time permits, the president may ask questions to understand each NSC member’s position and bring out the essential questions he or she wishes to debate.

30 to 60 seconds per participant
  1. Clarify the obstacles, risks, opportunities, and threats.
  2. Evaluate the various positions on their merits.
Procedural Notes

This is the debate portion of the role-play, when participants can defend their recommendations against others’ and identify potential areas of compromise or agreement.

30 to 60 seconds per participant
  1. Narrow the options to a few comprehensive and well- focused strategies that the president prefers.
  2. Provide the president with clear recommendations (from NSC members), perhaps as a consensus or through a vote.
  3. Arrive at a final presidential decision 
Procedural Notes

This round should start with the president’s stating one to three preferred options to be fleshed out.

Wrap Up Sections
Obama, Xi Jinping, and Ban Ki Moon.
The UN Security Council

4.1 The Debrief

After the debate and deliberation close, the president will announce his or her decision, to be later finalized in the form of a written presidential directive (PD). If time permits, you will participate in a debrief following the president’s announcement.

Be active in this debrief. The role-play might seem to be the most challenging part of the experience, but the debrief is equally important. It will reinforce what you learned during the role-play exercise and refine your analytical skills. It will also force you to step out of your role and to view the case from a personal perspective. You will have the opportunity to discuss any challenges you encountered and how you felt about the final presidential decision. The debrief will close with a reflection on the complexities and challenges of crafting foreign policy. This should help clarify your understanding of what you learned and answer any lingering questions. This exercise will also assist you in completing your final assignment, the policy review memo.  

Obama, Xi Jinping, and Ban Ki Moon.
The UN Security Council

4.2 Reflecting on the Experience

The following questions are proposed to guide the discussion in the in-class debrief. This is not an exhaustive list and may vary depending on how your role-play exercise unfolded.  If your class does not hold a debrief, these questions will nonetheless help you reflect on the role-play and write your policy review memo: 

  • Which issues received adequate attention during the role-play? Which, if any, received excessive attention or were left unresolved?
  • Did the group consider long-term strategic concerns, or was it able to focus only on the immediate issue and the short-term implications of policy options?
  • Which U.S. interests did the group or the president prioritize in the PD and why? Were you comfortable with this prioritization?
  • Did time constraints affect the discussion and influence the policymaking process?
  • What techniques did you use to convince others that your policy position was the best option? What were successful strategies employed by others?
  • What were the most significant challenges to your position? Did any make you rethink or adjust your position?
  • Did your points cause anyone else to change his or her arguments or position?
  • What political, economic, and other issues arose that you had not previously considered?
  • How did the simulation change your perspective on foreign policy decision-making?
  • If you could go back, what would you have done differently in presenting and advocating your point of view?
Obama, Xi Jinping, and Ban Ki Moon.
The UN Security Council

4.3 Policy Review Memo

The policy review memo is your final assignment in the Model Diplomacy simulation. In the debrief discussion after the role-play, you and your classmates went beyond the role you played and thought about the issue from a variety of perspectives. Now that the National Security Council discussion and debrief are behind you, you can consider whether you personally support your recommended policy given the full spectrum of arguments and considerations that arose. Shedding your institutional role and writing from a personal point of view, you will craft a policy review memo that outlines and reflects on the policy options discussed, incorporating and critiquing the president’s decision where appropriate.

If you played the role of president in the simulation, your memo should still reflect your personal opinion. You can comment on the course of action you ordered as president, further justify it, write more extensively on the options you dismissed, or suggest and support alternate options.

No matter which role you played originally, take into account all you have learned. Your instructor will want to see whether and how your understanding of the issue and of the policymaking process has evolved from that expressed in your position memo.

As for the position memo, a sample policy review memo is provided for your reference.

Policy Review Memo Guidelines 

  • Subject (one short paragraph): Offer a brief statement about the significance of the issue as it relates to U.S. foreign policy and national security. Provide just enough information about the crisis so that the reader can understand the purpose and importance of your memo. Be sure to include an initial statement of whether you agree or disagree with the president’s decision.
  • Options and analysis (one paragraph per option): Present and analyze the options discussed during the debate, deliberation, or debrief. Discuss their drawbacks, benefits, and resource needs. Be sure to acknowledge any weaknesses or disadvantages of the proposed options.
  • Recommendation and justification (several paragraphs): Identify and explain your preferred policy option or options in more detail. Here, you can explain why you personally favor one or more of the recommendations that you initially presented or the president chose, or different options entirely. If you choose to support the options you presented in your position memo, make sure to justify why you feel yours is still the best position.
  • Reflection (one to two paragraphs): Discuss how your position and the presidential directive are similar; if they are not, discuss how they are different. Use this section to give your thoughts on what the president should have included in his directive, or what you would have done differently. Remember, this is from your point of view; you are no longer advocating on behalf of a department or agency.

Click here to see a full example of a policy review memo.