Fresh ideas for the defense establishment, from emerging leaders

With the United States now facing a particularly complicated confluence of threats in the world, emerging service leaders have their work cut out for them. These challenges—both in the international arena and for rising talent in Washington—were the subject of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence’s seventh annual military and federal fellows research symposium.

In his opening remarks, General John Allen, USMC (Ret.) said that in an uncertain world—one dominated by conflicting maritime claims in the South China Sea, gray zone operations, a warming climate, and health threats like Ebola and the Zika virus—fellowship experiences are all the more important for emerging service leaders:

“Because of who you are and the potential for strategic leadership both within the services and your own agencies, the United States is going to rely on you for insights and leadership that few others will be equipped to deliver. Today’s symposium is a waypoint in your learning. But I call on each of you, I call on all of you, to embrace the reality of what this program means, and what it is, and what it can deliver.”

And the fellows certainly took up this challenge head-on. From new domains like the Arctic, where search and rescues cooperation is made all the more important by an influx of civilians to the region and the potential for disaster, to resurgent foes such as Russia and radical extremists, the threats are diverse and evolving. That’s not to mention changes on the home front. Changing demographics in the military, including the integration of women into combat roles, have the potential to transform America’s fighting force. The need to field the most effective and innovative technology, meanwhile, highlights the value in greater experimentation and early acceptance of risk in the defense acquisition process.

What to do?

Allen returned to the changing strategic environment during his keynote discussion with the Honorable Michèle Flournoy, co-founder and CEO of the Center for a New American Security and formerly the under secretary of defense for policy. When asked what she thinks are the main forces shaping the international policy arena, she identified fundamental shifts in the balance of power and order such as China’s rise in East Asia, the decline of once great powers like Russia, and an absence of accountable governance, particularly in the Middle East.

Whether these trends, however, are resulting in the unravelling of the international order, Flournoy responded that the system needs to be adapted and preserved in the interests of all responsible parties. But she added: “Sustaining the order is going to take a lot of investment and leadership on the part of the United States, and I think that has to be the hallmark of our foreign policy going forward.” And in the midst of a national election, Flournoy stressed that the next president needs to be prepared before entering office, “You have to come in the door with a vision of America’s role in the world, our interests, and the strategy that’s going to advance and protect those interests. You’ve got to come in with an overarching vision and strategy for where you’re going to lead.”

“You have to come in the door with a vision of America’s role in the world, our interests, and the strategy that’s going to advance and protect those interests.”

In more concrete advice to future presidents and other strategic leaders, Flournoy offered some insight into how the National Security Council (NSC) should function. Without singling out any particular administration’s NSC, she noted that it all comes down to better defining the organization’s role within the policy process:

“I think that the NSC has to be focused on the development of strategy and policy and the presentation of options to the president. That means first and foremost they have an honest broker role, bringing a diversity of views, perspectives, options (including dissent), to the president when he or she is making a decision…Don’t actually try to micromanage, don’t actually try to implement, don’t be an executor because…most of the worst disasters or failures of NSCs had to do with their loss of role clarity, where they forgot what their job was—they go into the role of execution or implementation or micromanaging.” 

More research to come

Overall, the research presented both by Brookings federal executive fellows and others from similar policy research institutions reflects the very best strategic thinking being undertaken by military and intelligence fellows across the nation on some of the toughest challenges the U.S. national security apparatus faces. Their experience in these roles, and guidance from some of America’s most accomplished public servants, will serve them well in whatever roles they assume in the future.

Be on the lookout over the next few months for their final research products.