Published in 2014, David Rothkopf’s National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear examines national security decision-making in the Bush and Obama administrations. The book explores how the two leaders and their administrations coped with the sense of uncertainty and vulnerability that inflicted American national security following 9/11.
We became paralyzed. How does one move on and develop foreign policy not as a reaction to the actions of others but rather based on our own aspirations?
In this exclusive interview with YJIA, Rothkopf speaks about his book, the swelling of the National Security Council and micromanagement under President Obama, and the shifting impact of the media and technology in shaping national security.
Yale Journal of International Affairs: In your estimation, why are we in an age of fear, and what can we do to shake it?
David Rothkopf: The age of fear began with 9/11. At first, there was a shared horror and grief. Then political actors began to identify potential sources for [our] anger and insecurities. That led to the invasion of Iraq and equating the threat posed by terrorist groups – al-Qaeda, by the CIA’s own estimate, was 100 people around 9/11 – with the threat we had once attributed to the Soviet Union. That kind of false equivalency gives a sense of the distorting nature of fear. This was compounded by waging wars in the way we did in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the abuses associated with Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. These things resulted in a perception of the United States that inspired revulsion in some people. So when Barack Obama was elected, he was elected in reaction to the Bush administration. So we had a kind of a double bind. We were still fearful of the threat of attack from overseas actors. And yet we were fearful of what happened when we reacted to those attacks before. So we became paralyzed. We went from the extreme of over-reaction to the extreme of under-reaction. And this is what is explored in the book: how does one get out of this? How does one move on to assess threats in a rational way and develop foreign policy not as a reaction to the actions of others but rather based on our own aspirations?
National security decision-making
YJIA: What impact do you believe leadership style has on national security decision-making?
DR: If a leader does not have a clear worldview that is communicated to those around him, that has an impact. If the leader is an inexperienced manager, incapable of running a team that provide him with their best thinking or able to correctly manage a process, things get muddled. If you have a leader who is arrogant or defensive, you don’t get real debate. If you have a leader who seeks differences of opinion, and really wants to stress test ideas before embracing them, then you get something different. Other elements of leadership style affect how the country is perceived and, as a consequence, can translate into whether others follow us in the world. Is somebody strong? Do they act in ways that are consistent with the words that they offer?
YJIA: If you were to advise the next president of the United States on how to structure their National Security Council and national security staff, what would you recommend?
DR: You need a strong leader, who has experience running things and experience in international affairs. You need a leader that has a world view, a strategy that aligns with the needs of the United States at that time. You need a leader who is going to hire a team that brings management strength to their particular part of the government, and the leader must empower them to do that. I think one of the problems with the Obama administration is that a small circle around the president has disproportionate power. The agencies that are essential in the execution of US national security policy haven’t been engaged as they should have been. The White House staff is bloated, the NSC staff is twice as big as it ever has been, and this creates a sense that they have the capability to do the things other agencies once did. The NSC is supposed to be providing policy choices to the president, making sure that those policy choices are implemented properly, not actually implementing themselves but coordinating them. So I would advise the next president that instead of an NSC staff of roughly 400 people, he or she might think of an NSC of roughly 200 hundred people, maybe smaller. The message needs to be that the NSC is there to advise the president, to shape policies, but the State Department, the Defense Department, the intelligence agencies, and the economic agencies are the ones that are actually doing the work.
Media, technology, and national security
This administration has had the most bizarre inclination to tweet about everything,” Rothkopf says. “Vladamir Putin, how does he react to a tweet from the White House saying they’re disappointed? Foreign policy is not a talkshow.”
YJIA: What impact has the evolution of the media had on the evolution of the US national security?
DR: The fact that today, a leader is constantly and instantly scrutinized by a myriad of media is a huge difference. Four or five decades ago, a lot of the reaction to international events came with a delay, sometimes of a few days. Even for most of the past thirty to forty years, the news cycle was 24 hours long. But today if the president gives a speech, there is an instant Twitter reaction to everything he says and there is instant polling. So crises arise and are addressed in real time. There isn’t any deliberation. Sandy Berger, former National Security Advisor, had this expression that, in Washington, the urgent always overtakes the important. I think that’s a big problem.
There is also this sense that you play the media. For example, this administration has had the most bizarre inclination to tweet about everything. Anytime somebody does something, there is a tweet. If Vladimir Putin invades a country: “The White House is extremely disappointed with Vladimir Putin”. And you have to ask yourself, whose mother do we think we are? Vladimir Putin, how does he react to a tweet from the White House saying that they are disappointed? Foreign policy is not a talk show, it doesn’t require a constant response, and dead air is OK. If you don’t have something to say that actually advances the national interest – don’t say it. And yet, we have turned our senior policy officials into play-by-play commentators on international affairs and not people deliberating about the next move. There is a stark contrast to the way that the United States, trapped in this hamster wheel of the news cycle, addresses foreign policy, compared to, let’s say, China, which has policy horizons that are measured in decades and centuries. And I think that works to the benefit of China.
YJIA: In your book you speak about a growing distance between Washington and Silicon Valley – can you expand on the ways that government and the tech industry may work together in a productive fashion?
DR: Right now, we are at a watershed moment in history. We talk about the information revolution but the past twenty years is a prelude. We haven’t seen anything yet. Within the next few years, for the first time in human history, every human will be connected in a man-made system. That changes what identity is, what community is, what money is, what the economy is, what a war is, what peace is, what governance is … By 2020, there will be 50 billion devices on the internet, that’s 50 billion microprocessors, each churning out information for the big data era, but all of them a weak point of vulnerability, a point of attack. The best minds on these things do not work in government, they work in tech companies and in financial services companies. So unless there is a public-private partnership, we are not going to understand or deal with these threats.
And that is just cyber-defense. Senior policymakers understand even less about what is happening in the biorealm of the technology revolution. The next twenty to thirty years are going to see advances in biotechnology issues that are not just bioterror or biowarfare, but that are really going to change the nature of life.
In China, government leaders are engineers. In the United States, government leaders are lawyers. Technology is absolutely critical to understanding how the world works, and, right now, it is just too small a part of the training of the people who have policy responsibilities.
We are on the verge of global change that might exceed that of the Renaissance. And we don’t have the fundamental philosophical guidelines that we need to understand how that society is to work.
YJIA: What is the international issue that keeps you up at night?
DR: I think we are on the verge of global change on a scale that might exceed that of the Renaissance, in terms of the redefinition of society by technological innovation, the reweaving of the fabric of the planet. And we don’t have the fundamental philosophical guidelines that we need to understand how that society is to work. Does a person have a right to the Internet? Do they have a right to electricity? Who owns the data that everybody is producing? Who has the right to create life using genetic engineering techniques? If somebody attacks someone via cyber, does somebody have the right to respond to that kinetically? What happens in societies when technological innovation means that jobs aren’t being created? Are we prepared to move toward a three day working week? Are we prepared to have people work until their seventies or their eighties because we can’t afford their retirements? A lot of the things that we leave to the future to resolve, we actually need to address really soon.
YJIA: Finally, what gives you the biggest hope for the future?
DR: There are fewer wars, people are living longer, there are fewer diseases, the standard of living around the world is higher, everybody will be connected to the internet soon, with access to information, to education, to economic opportunities, to healthcare. We are generally moving in the right direction. In fact my concerns are mostly related to the kinds of upheavals that you see in periods of transition and uncertainty. In long-term outlook, I’m fairly optimistic.
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