Being in the White House Situation Room: Developing Strategic Options


Faculty develop a national security crisis and simulate placing the students on the National Security Council Staff to develop strategic options to drive U.S. foreign policy. By thrusting students into positions of responsibility for solutions to real-world issues, this activity requires students to draw on what they have learned and to think on their feet, and it fosters a deeper appreciation for the challenges associated with working on foreign policy.


  • analyze trends in the security environment.
  • re-assess national interests and strategy.
  • think strategically about national security.
  • practice working collaboratively in a national security setting.
  • communicate analysis through oral and written presentations.


Central Challenges of National Security, Strategy, and the Press (Harvard Kennedy School) and  Cyberspace and International Security (Harvard Extension School)


The activity places students in the White House Situation Room to wrestle with contemporary challenges facing the United States. For a semester-long course, this activity is used approximately once every three weeks so that students can regularly apply what they have learned to real-world problems and learn from previous attempts to address national security challenges.

By bringing students to engage closely with the policy-writing process under conditions that evoke real-world challenges, it teaches them that there is no correct answer to pressing foreign policy problems. Rather, there are pros and cons to every strategic option for resolving the crisis. The effectiveness of this activity is evidenced by the fact that graduates regularly report using this format of strategic thinking in their post-graduate work lives, in both government and the private sector.

Procedure- Before Class:

Using an approach pioneered by HKS professor Graham Allison, faculty write a case scenario that puts students inside the highest levels of the Executive Branch and makes them feel as if they are working on the staff supporting the National Security Council. The case scenario describes the crisis, captures individual bureaucratic roles, and frames the problem for the students. The goal is for the students to present, both orally and in written format, an answer to a challenge for the National Security Advisor.

What follows is a brief excerpt of the case, typically four pages long. Writing such a case study requires faculty to be familiar with the current state of play within the National Security Council and the international system. Here is an example of the introduction to such a case scenario: 

"After the craziness of campaigning, Donald Trump now finds himself reflecting on why he wanted the job. Specifically, during the recent 2015 visit of Chinese President Xi, he was struck by the rising tensions over cyber espionage (particularly Chinese intelligence’s downloading of 22 million personnel files, including top-secret security clearances from the Office of Personnel Management); cyber theft (China’s intelligence communities’ successful purloining of $1 trillion in intellectual property from American corporations); China’s claims to exclusive sovereignty over the territories of the South China Sea; and its construction of more than 3,000 acres of islands that were previously underwater shoals.” The case then continues for three pages to get students to feel as if they are “in the room.”

Procedure- During Class:

Faculty present case materials and give students readings to prepare them for the scenario. Using these materials, students draft strategic options memos. They frame the core national security issue, identify relevant national interests, and present an analysis of the key drivers and trends concerning the issue. Having thought about the issue, students develop three strategic options, identify their pros and cons, select one option, and discuss implementation. At the close of the activity, students submit a three-page strategic option memo addressed to the National Security Advisor. Finally, students develop talking points to address with the media.

In implementing this activity, faculty should establish clear directions, written to resemble directions the National Security Advisor would actually give his or her staff. This gives students a concrete framework for delivering a presentation or memo. It is also important that faculty research and simulate the inner workings of the National Security Council, e.g., to simulate how different personalities interact with one another and to convey what the core issues are. Including Tweets can help keep things interesting.


After the activity, faculty moderate a group discussion of the case so that students can contrast their approach to the problem with the approaches of their peers. This debrief enables students to identify considerations they may have missed, appreciate the pros and cons of other solutions, and explore ways of improving their own approach.


To ensure that students have a grounding in U.S. national interests, they are expected to read “Report of the Commission on America’s National Interests.” Further readings will vary by case. To grasp the scope of the US–China challenge, for example, students would read Graham T. Allisons’s Destined for War: Can America and China Escape the Thucydides’s Trap? (Houghton Mifflin, 2017). To understand the scale of U.S. foreign policy, in contrast, they would read Foreign Policy and Defense Strategy: The Evolution of an Incidental Superpower by Derek S. Reveron, Nikolas K. Gvosdev, and Mackubin T. Owens (Georgetown University Press, 2015). And, to appreciate how cyber is an important tool of power, they would read David Sanger’s The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage, and Fear in the Cyber Age (Crown, 2018).

Submitted by Graham T. Allison, Derek Reveron, and David Sanger

A version of this activity is available through an archived HarvardX course at

In addition, a version of this activity is being run as an external case competition through the Belfer Center. All students are encouraged to answer “the China Challenge." The top 3 submissions, due by midnight on November 27, 2019, will be published on and shared with senior US government officials. Submit, see the results, or learn more at:

sample memo.docx26 KB
student work.pdf106 KB
case.docx314 KB
pandemic case.pdf73 KB