Symposium | The Election & the World

Our Overworked Security Bureaucracy

By Julianne Smith

Tagged Foreign Policynational securityNational Security Council

Over the last two years, the West has been caught by surprise by a number of transformative international crises. From Russia’s annexation of Crimea to the Ebola outbreak to the rise of ISIS and the resulting refugee crisis, international organizations and national governments have repeatedly been caught flat-footed and left scrambling for policy responses.

For the men and women working upwards of 14 hours a day, seven days a week on the President’s national security staff, the pace and complexity of international crises surely feels daunting, particularly inside a national security apparatus that was designed decades ago. When unexpected crises erupt, U.S. policymakers tend to ask themselves—often as they are running to the Situation Room for an “emergency session”—whether they might have done more to either prevent or prepare for that particular scenario. More often than not, those thoughts are quickly eclipsed by both the pressing need to respond and the well-established fact that one simply can’t predict the future.

While it is no doubt impossible to predict how and when the next crisis will unfold, our government must do a better job of assessing risk, testing core assumptions, and preparing itself for potential contingencies. Today’s threat environment requires national security structures that are agile, well resourced, and designed in a way that fosters innovative approaches to complex challenges. That is not how those working at the White House, the Department of State, and the Department of Defense today would describe the current national security system. New administrations, however, present unique opportunities to make changes that otherwise seem impossible deep into a President’s tenure. This year, Washington think tanks will be consumed with creating lists of policy changes the next President should pursue. How should the next President counter Chinese aggression in the South China Sea? How should he or she deal with the rise of ISIS or a resurgent Russia?

These are important questions. But the next President should also arrive in office with a list of structural and process changes that will better equip the government to cope with today’s fast-moving security environment. Questions about statecraft rarely garner as much attention as those surrounding strategy. But even the best, most innovative policy proposals will fail if they aren’t accompanied by a process that enables them to be realized.

High-ranking national security jobs have always been relentlessly demanding. The stress, long hours, and pace are notorious. But a number of compounding factors have made managing the U.S. national security portfolio far more challenging in recent decades. First, the world has changed in significant ways since 1947, when the National Security Council (NSC)—the President’s primary tool to make national security decisions and oversee their implementation—was first created. Today’s security environment simply has no precedent. No single challenge to U.S. interests is equivalent to those posed by Nazi Germany, imperial Japan, or the Soviet Union during the twentieth century. Today, the United States faces an interconnected web of global and regional threats, whose sheer volume and complexity are overwhelming. The capabilities and tactics that our adversaries use to thwart our conventional military advantages have also changed. Whether it is the anti-access/area-denial strategies and capabilities deployed by the Chinese in the South China Sea or the Russian use of energy and cyber attacks as instruments of coercion, asymmetric warfare is presenting unique challenges not only to our national security professionals but also to U.S. agencies, international organizations, international law, and military doctrine.

As the national security landscape has evolved, so too has America’s place in the world. Rising powers like China and India are more willing and able to test U.S. leadership. Those two countries, along with a number of other emerging powers, have altered America’s share of global power, giving it less sway in international organizations. Some look at these trends and conclude that the United States is in decline. It is not. America’s shale energy revolution, population trends, world-class military, dynamic economy, and values continue to make it what Josef Joffe has called the “default power.” As President Obama stated in his final State of the Union address this past January, “When it comes to every important international issue, people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead—they call us.

In other words, countries still turn to the United States when they cannot solve international issues or crises on their own. But no one can deny that America’s standing in the world looks significantly different now than it did a mere 20 years ago. It is not as easy today for the United States to shape outcomes and influence world events.

The next President would be better served by a smaller NSC staff with a smaller mandate, leaving State and Defense with more freedom to act.

These changes both to the global landscape and America’s place in it pose three fundamental challenges to U.S. policymakers. First, they simply can’t keep up. Senior-level White House officials are expected to track a dizzying array of brewing crises, violent conflicts, and adversaries. And they are expected to do so by relying on a never-ending stream of information that flows into their inboxes. During my time as deputy national security adviser to the vice president, a typical day would often involve four to six hours of back-to-back meetings on anything from Syria to cybersecurity to North Korea. I would return to my desk, often in the late afternoon, to meet with members of my staff, hold my own meetings with outside guests, and sift through three separate email accounts that would receive anywhere from 150 to 500 unclassified and classified emails per day. Regardless of how many hours I put in, I never felt caught up or adequately prepared for the next day. Worse yet, my ability to plan, think beyond the next day in the office, or significantly deepen my knowledge of any single issue was virtually nonexistent. This wasn’t the case just for me. Many others working on the NSC have told me they felt the same way.

The second challenge that policymakers face in today’s complex security environment is the pressure to respond in real time to every issue that appears in the headlines (and many that do not). In the age of Twitter and YouTube, which grants the public a front-row seat to any crisis around the world as it is unfolding, NSC staff face unprecedented demands to respond, even in cases where the issue at hand is not a top priority. The short “Kony 2012” video that called for the capture of the Ugandan militia leader Joseph Kony by the end of 2012 is but one example. While the Administration had been working with regional partners to locate him (admittedly without success), Kony’s capture had simply not been a regular topic of high-level meetings in the Situation Room. After the video went viral, however, the White House was compelled to convene senior officials to take a look at existing efforts to capture Kony. Was this an appropriate use of those officials’ time? Did Kony’s capture outrank any number of other brewing crises that senior officials were tackling at that time? Probably not. But a White House failure to respond to a video about an indicted war criminal, which was viewed by more than 70 million people, would have raised questions about U.S. relevance, power, and influence.

Finally, on the list of challenges U.S. policymakers face, there is the crushing reality that traditional foreign-policy approaches no longer generate the same results. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the same fundamental dilemma has plagued multiple U.S. administrations: How should the United States best respond to today’s long list of intractable conflicts for which traditional diplomacy feels like too little and hard power feels like too much? Despite experimentation with new policies and concepts such as economic statecraft and “building partnership capacity,” the reality is that the U.S. “toolkit” continues to feel woefully ill-equipped to cope with challenges such as cyber attacks; the proliferation of game-changing, lethal technologies like unmanned aerial vehicles; and hybrid tactics similar to those deployed by Russia inside Ukraine. America’s technological edge, paired with its world-class military, continues to provide the United States with tremendous advantages, but they are not enough to solve today’s international crises.

The end result of these three challenges is that the incredibly talented individuals advising the President find it virtually impossible to think strategically. Making matters worse, even in cases where policymakers acknowledge that shortcoming, they can rarely find the time to address systemic challenges that would alter the status quo. (To her credit, the current national security adviser, Susan Rice, undertook a thorough review of the NSC and has started to make some important changes.) Outsiders, particularly the current President’s critics, like to assert that “better managers” or simply someone other than President Obama could make the system hum. To be sure, personalities and their accompanying command climate matter, and they shape the form and function of the NSC. But the structural challenges of the current system have been well documented under prior administrations. In 2008, the final year of President George W. Bush’s Administration, a bipartisan group of outside experts highlighted a number of shortcomings of the U.S. national security system in a report that argued that the “inability to formulate and implement a coherent strategy” inevitably created a system “locked into a reactive posture and doomed to policy stagnation.” The challenges that the report highlighted have only worsened in an environment that runs much faster than ever before.

In an effort to help an aging national security system be less reactive and more deliberative, some U.S. government agencies have launched programs and created new offices focused on innovation and strategy. The goal of such efforts is simply to give the U.S. government and national security professionals some room to breathe, look out on the horizon, and think strategically in an environment that often leaves them feeling overwhelmed. From the State Department’s relatively new Strategy Lab to the Policy Design & Innovation Practice of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the government is beginning to test some of the methods commonly used in the private sector to foster innovation, conduct forecasting, and develop long-term strategies. Initiatives like these strive to incorporate the views of a broader network of experts across multiple sectors and foster creativity inside structures that usually stifle it. They also aim to create spaces inside government that are free of the daily operational demands and pressures associated with work in large bureaucratic agencies like the State Department. Other corners of the U.S. government aren’t just interested in using private sector methods, but in tapping that sector directly. The Department of Defense, for example, recently opened an office in Silicon Valley, in the hope that it can build partnerships with the tech community and develop technologies that could radically alter the symmetry of military power between competitors. It is too early to assess the long-term impact of any of these new initiatives, but the rationale behind them is sound.

The next President should build on these initiatives but go beyond them. First and foremost, before setting foot in the Oval Office, America’s forty-fifth President should determine his or her three or four top strategic priorities, understanding the trade-offs. Too often, Presidents enter office with a list of priorities but assume that the list has no end and that they can keep adding to it. The United States is an incredibly able world power that can balance multiple lines of effort across different continents. But, like any country, it still needs to set priorities and acknowledge its political and budgetary limits. Just as important as deciding what to do, the next President will also need to determine what he or she does not want to do. Which international challenges merit long-term strategic attention even in the face of breaking news? Which do not? At what cost? And how does he or she want to harness American power to shape the global security environment as it works to shape us?

Once in office, the next President should:

Build in strategic pauses. The White House recently launched a series of meetings that enable senior policymakers to examine and discuss long-term trends. These meetings should continue under the next Administration to prevent the news cycle from consuming the agenda. Agency leads should also conduct an “Annual Strategy Review” to evaluate the most recent strategy documents (National Security Strategy, National Military Strategy, Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, and Quadrennial Defense Review) against current events. What did they get wrong? Where should they make midcourse corrections?

Return power to the State and Defense departments. In an era when news breaks constantly and the pressure to respond in real time is unprecedented, the NSC often prefers to maintain the power and authority to shape policy. Despite the fact that it has grown to a record 400 staffers in recent years, the NSC lacks the depth and bandwidth to take the lead in the areas of crisis management, policy formulation, and policy implementation. The next President would be better served by a smaller NSC staff with a smaller mandate, leaving the State and Defense departments and their large specialized teams of regional and functional experts with more responsibility and freedom to act under the guidance of their respective secretaries. [See “A Lead Agency for Every Security Initiative,” Issue #39.]

It’s imperative that the next President arrive in office with a keen grasp of not only the “what” but the “how.”

Test assumptions. Senior-level officials often meet repeatedly on complex challenges like Syria, but most of those meetings focus on decisions that need to be made within hours or days. The national security adviser should establish a quarterly “red teaming” exercise, in which officials view a problem through the eyes of their competitors in order to revisit their original assumptions and objectives, ask the hard questions, and look beyond short-term requirements.

Assess risks with allies. The United States works closely with partners and allies to solve global crises—but it should also work with them to assess risks before crises erupt. None of the existing international organizations are fulfilling this role. The next President may want to consider creating a forum that would identify emerging threats, conduct risk assessments, and host tabletop scenarios to highlight policy gaps. Such a forum could also test common assumptions about fielding an international response. Membership could start with the Group of Seven (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States) plus Australia. Imagine how helpful such a forum might have been in examining the potential consequences of the Ukrainian government’s failure to sign the EU Association Agreement (which led to widespread protests in the streets of Kiev). Would we have predicted that Russia would have annexed Crimea in the face of those protests? We will never know. But we should have been monitoring the situation more closely along with other countries, and we should have tested our assumptions by jointly outlining the worst-case scenarios.

Over the next year, the American public is going to hear a lot about the bold new policy ideas that the presidential candidates will bring to the White House if they win the next election. But in today’s complex security environment, where transformative challenges are unfolding on virtually every continent, it is imperative that the next President arrive in office with a keen grasp of not only the “what” but the “how.” Effective leadership rests on both good ideas and good governance.

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Read more about Foreign Policynational securityNational Security Council

Julianne Smith is senior fellow and director of the Strategy and Statecraft Program at the Center for a New American Security. She is the former deputy national security adviser to Vice President Joseph Biden.

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