April 2016

Whoever takes office as President in January 2017 will face an unpredictable and ever-changing world, where the next foreign policy crisis cannot always be seen from afar. As the United States prepares for a change in leadership, how can the next administration formulate a grand strategy to combat tomorrow’s threats? This was the question discussed at a high-level lunch on April 22, sponsored by Blue Star Strategies as part of its “America in the World 2017” discussion series.

The lunch provided a bipartisan perspective on national security. The event’s two main speakers were Michele Flournoy, the CEO of the Center for a New American Security and former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy in the Obama administration, and Dr. Colin Dueck, an author and associate professor at George Mason University. In a wide-ranging discussion moderated by Richard Fontaine, the president of the Center for a New American Security, Flournoy and Dueck engaged with an audience of diplomats, policymakers, and thought leaders to discuss the main factors driving America’s future strategy.

From the start, the lunch was characterized by thoughtful bipartisan consensus-building. Both Flournoy and Dueck agreed that creating a long-term vision for American policy is essential, despite the unforeseen crises that inevitably arise during any presidency. There was widespread agreement that the President needs to set a top-down agenda that clearly delineates the strategic role of each agency. For instance, one potential reform would be to downsize the National Security Council, making it smaller and more strategic while still offering dissenting points of view to the president. In this regard, smart staffing is essential, as a successful national security team needs to work effectively without succumbing to groupthink or competing egos.

Strategy cannot exist in a vacuum, however; it needs to be linked to resource allocation and budgeting decisions. In this regard, the panelists argued, the executive might try to consult more closely with Congress, so that leaders on the Hill better understand the strategic rationale behind budget requests. Too often, interagency strategies that have been carefully shaped by the executive fall apart because of distorted Congressional budget priorities.

Another key strategic consideration is the role of transparency and secrecy. In the age of WikiLeaks and the Panama Papers, many outside voices clamor for increased government transparency as an end in itself. Yet when it comes to national security, Dueck argued, we need less transparency, not more. Top-level strategic decisions about risk management cannot always be subject to public scrutiny. Any national security team needs to take strong measures to prevent data leaks, and find the appropriate balance between publicly signaling its strategy and closely guarding its secrets.

As the lunch went on, one guest asked about the three prime strategic threats facing the United States today: ISIS, China, and Russia. There was some discussion about whether to include Iran on the list, and how to frame ISIS as part of a larger strategic threat. Yet there was broad consensus that no single approach could address all of these distinct competitors. Rather, the next administration needs to lead an interagency effort to craft tailored strategies for dealing with each threat, and create institutional structures for long-term planning, rather than reacting on a day-to-day basis.

At the same time, the U.S. cannot afford to limit its strategy to a few major threats. The next administration needs to make a long-term strategic commitment to Europe and invest in rules-based institutions like the EU. The U.S. will also need to keep a close watch on hotbed regions that could erupt into conflict overnight, like India and Pakistan.  

As the presidential election enters a new phase over the next few months, foreign policy will play an increasingly important role. Already, Donald Trump’s remarks on NATO and Russia have caused consternation among American allies, who fear that the U.S. will abandon its leadership role in the world. In a heated and partisan election climate, this lunch was a welcome reminder that cooler heads can prevail, offering substantive bipartisan insight into the key decisions underpinning national security strategy.