Defense for the future: The Federal Executive Fellow Symposium

On March 17, the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence (21CSI) at Brookings hosted its sixth annual military and federal fellow research symposium. In bringing together the nation’s intelligence and defense fellows serving at think tanks, academic institutions, and civilian agencies across Washington, D.C. and beyond, 21CSI continues to provide one of the few public opportunities for these individuals to present, discuss, and debate their individual research projects.

Writing on topics of domestic and global significance, their future reports represent some of the best insight into issues facing the nation’s intelligence agencies, military services, and homeland security apparatus. Often perceived as blunt instruments of power, the fellows offer more nuanced critiques of America’s defense and intelligence services, their critical roles in projecting and maintaining global influence, and the risks that they hedge against. What’s more, not only have the fellows worked to identify some of the most critical threats and trends in the international system, but they offer the lessons, tools, and recommendations needed to better anticipate and respond to them. 

Below are just a few highlights from the day’s program.

  • Bruce Jones and Paula Thornhill opened with a discussion of leadership in a complex future threat environment, addressing how military and civilian leaders will likely face simultaneous, highly interconnected political and economic crises. American policymakers will need to identify where they can make the most difference, where it’s worth trying to influence outcomes, and where gaps in knowledge need to be plugged. This will be even more difficult with military services that are in flux, both organizationally and culturally, as they try to forecast future threats. Functional commands, such as cyber and special operations, are competing with regional commands in importance, while the militaristic culture is being challenged by corporate, tribal, and entrepreneurial ethos. But there are a few things up-and-coming leaders can do to prepare for this environment:

    • Read a book. Put down your iPad and smartphone every once in a while.
    • Seek out colleagues and experts who don’t think like you and who challenge your ideas.
    • Write. It forces clarity and rigorous thought.
    • Get input from subordinates so you can learn why others are confused.
  • General David Goldfein of the United States Air Force offered insightful remarks on giving “best military advice” to the nation’s senior leaders. With illustrative historical examples—from Lincoln’s discussion of reconstruction with his generals to President Kennedy’s distrust of defense advice after the Bay of Pigs—General Goldfein highlighted the critical confidence that must underpin the civilian-military relationship between presidents and top commanders. Moreover, the challenges that both sides confront are no less dangerous today than in previous times: Ukraine, cyberattacks, Islamic State, and global terrorism. As has been the case in the past, giving best military advice still requires:

    • Balancing perceived and actual influence. Private, behind the scenes trust can often have more impact than public displays.
    • Fearing not. The nation is experiencing a period of relative safety, so now is the time to offer innovative uses of military instruments of power.
    • Asking “what have you done today?” Military leaders are obligated to protect anyone going into harm’s way.
  • Four panels with incredibly diverse but highly engaging topics from civilian and military fellows from across D.C.: protecting and connecting service members; adapting strategy and policy to the ever-evolving real world conditions; better understanding highly disruptive global trends; and creating more productive civilian, military, and private sector partnerships.

Listen to the full event audio here. Be on the lookout for new Brookings Federal Executive Fellow papers here.