Thinking Over the Horizon: Michèle Flournoy on Prudential Foreign Policy in the World Today

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Yale Journal of International Affairs: You are well known for publishing a piece in the lead-up to the 2008 election titled “The Inheritance and the Way Forward,” advising the next president of the United States on what he or she should tackle in terms of reorienting national security policy. As you look to the 2016 election next year, what’s at the top of your list?

Michèle Flournoy: So I think as we think about 2016 and actually going forward, a lot of what we see today, I think, is going to continue over—really, for a generation. So whether it’s dealing with ISIS and terrorist groups from the Middle East, Africa, and so forth; whether it’s dealing with a more aggressive Russia that is trying to reassert its power and create a sphere of influence on its borders; whether it’s dealing with the rise of China and the changes of the balance of power in Asia. I think those are the things that we’re seeing today that are going to continue to become even more dominant in the security environment of the next decade.

YJIA: Are you planning a follow-up article for the next president?

Flournoy: It’s probably a good idea to think about what is that inheritance and to think—really, to think beyond the crisis of the day. I think when you’re in government, you’re so consumed by the tyranny of the inbox that it’s hard to think over the horizon. And so I think one of the things that think tanks can do is help people lift their gaze—look further into the future, look over the horizon—and anticipate what’s coming down the road.

YJIA: Now turning to an issue that is definitely at the top of the debate today, the AUMF—the Authorization of the Use of Force against ISIS or ISIL. I understand that you support Congress passing a new AUMF. Can you explain why we need a new AUMF and what purpose it would serve? Is it for a Congressional audience? Is it for a broader civic debate in America about going to war?

Flournoy: I think the most important thing about a new Authorization for the Use of Force vis-à-vis ISIS is this is an opportunity to have a national discussion—to have a national debate about: what is this threat? What is our strategy? What are the costs and risks associated with the option we are pursuing? And do we have a national consensus behind this? A sustainable bipartisan consensus? This is particularly important in a system where so few people serve in the military—less than one percent. And so when we send them into harm’s way, it’s very important for them to get a sense that their civilian leadership and the country is really behind them in pursuing these missions when there is risk involved. So I think the AUMF, there’s a legal rationale for it, but there’s also a strategic rationale for it. I think that’s the most important thing.

YJIA: What do you think the prospects are for Congressional authorization?

Flournoy: I actually think the prospects are good, but the language is being pulled in different directions. There are some that are trying to constrain the campaign significantly because they’re worried about another war in the Middle East. There are others who are worried about tying the president’s hands and not letting him be agile enough and flexible enough to respond to the unforeseen in the future. So, it’s going to be tough to get it right, but I think it is possible.

YJIA: Speaking about ISIS, certainly this is at the top of everyone’s mind. So as we think about the speech that the President gave last year at [National Defense University] with regard to increasing transparency in counter-terrorism operations, how do you see the counter-terrorism fight against ISIS playing out against, perhaps, a domestic backdrop where there’s a greater desire for transparency and discussion on these issues? Where do we go from here?

Flournoy: I think it’s really important that the President continue to explain why this is a threat, what our strategy is, how it’s going, what we’re learning, what’s evolving, what’s changing. I do think we have a comprehensive strategy that we’re pursuing with many different dimensions and I think ISIS is a reminder that there is no military solution to these threats. You have to have a comprehensive approach that has coalition building and counter-finance and counter-narrative and community engagement, all these different elements. But I think it’s really important that the President continue to engage the American people and continue to explain what the strategy is and how we’re doing against it.

YJIA: So in light of the events of this summer—the rise of ISIS, Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, many non-traditional threats coming to the fore—is it time for the administration to reconsider the “rebalance to Asia”? Is it time to reevaluate U.S. commitment to the Pacific?

Flournoy: You know, I don’t think so. I’m a big proponent of the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, because when you think longer term, strategically, there’s no region of the world that is more important to U.S. security and prosperity than Asia. And so I think it’s important to have the rebalance in place to remind us that even as we are dealing, necessarily, with the crisis of the day in the Middle East or on the Russia-Ukraine border, longer term, the opportunity—and some of the challenge—will be in Asia. And so we have to keep making room for the important alongside the urgent.

YJIA: How does one do that practically when you’re in government? As someone who served—putting out the fires, so to speak—inside government, how do you make room for those long-term strategic issues?

Flournoy: I think one of the things is how leaders consciously use their time and create a demand signal for others to use their time. I found after my first few months in government that we rarely had [White House-led] Deputies Committee meetings on the Asia Pacific, and so I needed to create a demand signal that elevated that issue and kept attention on it. So we started inside the Pentagon a four-star roundtable, where every quarter, we would sit down and review the full range of strategic issues of what was going in Asia with our strategy, our policy, our posture changes, our alliance relationships, and so forth, and it was a way of creating that demand signal so that people could protect time and bandwidth to actually work on that strategic issue even though there wasn’t a crisis at hand.

YJIA: I’m interested to hear from you what the new issues are that you are thinking of—what you consider to be the frontiers of national security policy at this point in time.

Flournoy: I think there are a couple. I think one is, there are a number of technologies that are coming online that are going to fundamentally change the nature of warfare. Whether it’s cyber, robotics and autonomy, directed energy, hyper-sonics, there are so many things that are, in the next twenty years, are really going to fundamentally change how others fight—how we fight. And I think really understanding that, particularly when the cutting edge of a lot of that technology is not in the defense complex, but really outside in the commercial economy. Secondly, I think that with social media, with the internet, with the level of connectivity we have, the pace of things and the pace of decision-making that is required is so substantial and so much greater than in the past. I think it raises the question of how government works, and whether we’re structured properly, and whether our processes are agile enough and responsive enough to kind of keep pace with the speed of the modern world. And so, you know, sometimes it feels like our interagency process is horribly slow and clunky compared to the demands being placed on it from the environment.

YJIA: When you think about this question of innovating government processes or structures, is there room to do that? Is it possible?

Flournoy: I think it’s an open question. I think there are some people who have conceived of some ideas and who have written about it. But once people get into office, it’s very tough to actually make a change. And yet, in my own experience, I know that in small ways I was able to change some incentives or empower people in a different way that changed behavior inside a very large bureaucracy. So it is possible, but it is also very difficult.

YJIA: And could you elaborate a little bit on that—on the techniques that you implemented when you were the Under Secretary [of Defense]?

Flournoy: Well, one of the things that we found was one of the best ways to increase the performance of an organization was to invest in the human capital—in the people. And I had a very talented, mission-focused organization, of which you were a part for a time. But people were exhausted, they had no time off, they had no time for professional development, there was no balance. You know, work-life balance was a joke. So we started making changes that would create just a little bit more investment in people in terms of giving each person that one thing that would make the tough work hours a little bit more manageable, and having the whole team flex to deliver that. Ensuring people got to training, I actually had to change the performance evaluation criteria for supervisors so they would get graded as to whether they got their people to training. And suddenly, people started going to training. It’s amazing how that works. So, I think, really understanding the context and changing behavior requires changing the incentives so people feel rewarded for aligning their behavior with what you’re trying to get done. Whether that’s improving your investment in people and the performance of the organization or some other objective that you’ve defined.

YJIA: Let me ask you a question about a topic that is not typically discussed in, perhaps, mainstream hard security conversations: the topic of climate change. It is certainly a big focus for the President in his second term. Do you see climate change being brought into the security discourse? What are the prospects of that?

Flournoy: So, I think climate security is already in the security discourse in the sense of looking at the consequences of climate change—to the extent there is a degree of climate change that is going to happen and cannot be stopped. I know the U.S. military has already done a great deal of analysis looking at: which countries will be affected? Which may be underwater? Where can we anticipate more and more severe natural disasters? What does that mean for our disaster response capabilities? And so forth—where might there be conflicts because of resource scarcity that’s created by climate change. So I do think there’s some thinking along these lines already, even though it’s not completely mainstream as a security issue.

YJIA: How does the executive branch deal with Congressional resistance on this?

Flournoy: Well, I think the President has actually been really steady on this issue and continues to just pursue the issue. I think the breakthrough of the agreement that was achieved in China is, really, probably one of the most significant developments we’ve seen, because getting the Chinese to commit to change the way they’re going to use energy as they develop is probably going to do more for climate change than just about anything else. I think just continuing down the path and doing as much as you can with regulatory frameworks, with international negotiations, and hopefully at some point there will be some legislative change that catches up.

YJIA: I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on the prospects for bringing a conversation on gender into the national security debate.

Flournoy: So, interestingly, I actually think that the last fourteen years of war and the operational experience has helped to bring this issue—which is very well known in development circles—more into the security discussion. Because in places like Afghanistan, what we saw on the ground was that until you engaged the female population—until you started investing in the plight of women and girls—you weren’t going to get the security outcomes you hoped for. You weren’t going to get the stability at the local level, and so forth. And so, I think those operations have lent a greater awareness as to—this is not just some theory. We saw it over and over again in practice in Afghanistan, and so I think there’s a whole bunch of people in the security domain who now have a more real understanding as to why that focus is important.

YJIA: We are a student-run publication here, so I thought it only right to ask a question about young people coming into government. What can government do to be a more attractive employer, particularly at a moment when government jobs are dwindling and processes to bring folks in are sometimes seen as log-jammed. Do we have the inputs that are needed for twenty-first century jobs?

Flournoy: I think that the government—the intake into, certainly, the national security side of government—is like trying to put people through a soda straw. It’s so small, there are, you know, some fellowships—you know the Presidential Management Fellowship. There are a few internships, there are a few political appointment positions, but it’s way too narrow, particularly when you look at the demographics of the government workforce. You’re going have this massive retirement of the baby boomer generation. We need to be recruiting the next generation into government. I think there are lots of creative ways to open up that aperture through a variety of programs, whether someone is coming in as a civil servant or someone is coming in as a political appointee. But we need to broaden that, and I think we need to enable people to have a greater variety of experiences and a wider variety of career paths to break out of some of the traditional, rigid molds, if we’re going to attract and keep the kind of talent that we need for the future.

YJIA: I’m going to ask you a few questions that we ask everyone who sits in the YJIA hot seat. The first is: What issue keeps you up at night?

Flournoy: Other than my kids? [Laughs.] No, I still worry about catastrophic terrorism. I still worry that, you know, developments like the Pakistani [military] deploying battlefield weapons in insecure areas occurs. Or, you know, bits of weapons-usable material that we never managed to finish policing up before our cooperation with Russia ended. I worry about the intersection of some terrorist group getting a hold of something that is truly a weapon of mass destruction and finding a way to use it in a Western capital. I do worry about that as something that is unlikely, but would be terribly catastrophic if it actually happened.

YJIA: And what gives you hope?

Flournoy: What gives me hope is the young people I work with every day. [The Center for a New American Security] sees as part of its mission to grow the next generation. The most inspiring and fun and rewarding part of the work I do is seeing the incredible talent that’s coming into the field, and working with those young people to figure out their next steps.

YJIA: And, finally, what book are you reading right now?

Flournoy: [Laughs.] I like to escape at night with historical fiction, so I stop thinking about the crises of the day—so I do read a lot of historical fiction. But I also read a lot of biography. I am re-reading General of the Army, which is about George Marshall, and I’m re-reading Augustine’s Laws, which is Norman Augustine, who is an incredible leader in the defense industry and very insightful about leadership and management. And I’m also finishing General [Stanley] McChrystal’s autobiography—long overdue. So, there’s a big stack, and it depends on the mood on what I select for a given evening.

About the Interviewee

Michèle Flournoy is Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Ms. Flournoy served as the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy from 2009 to 2012. In this role, she was the principal adviser to the Secretary of Defense in the formulation of national security and defense policy.


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