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National Security Vision and the Next President

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By Debra Decker: 

With presidential candidates touting their respective visions for America, it is critical to consider what makes for a good national security vision. A good national security vision not only has to reflect what is desirable but also has to be implementable. That takes strategic planning and involves managing a political process. And good process management, good strategic planning, can be a critical element for good strategy and successful attainment of one’s vision — as noted in a study overseen by Harvard Kennedy School Professor Steve Kelman.

But some suggest throwing out planning, especially when it comes to national strategy. A recent article in Foreign Affairs by David M. Edelstein and Ronald R. Krebs (“Delusions of Grand Strategy,” November/December 2015) made some good points about the limitations of planning, such as the difficulty of cost-benefit calculations for large-scale national security strategy and the challenge to plans by changing real-time events. However, that does not mean the process of pursuing a large-scale plan for national security should be abandoned. Challenges occur in domestic state-level government planning as well as in corporate planning, where planning’s value has been recognized. The main problem with the current approach to national strategy development is that it is not part of an integrated planning process with a link to a viable vision.  

A good strategy should be the outcome of a conversation on the vision, goals, and overall enterprise risk management (ERM). Goals are interrelated, and strategies to accomplish one goal inevitably affect another — both positively and negatively. ERM involves looking at the risks as well as opportunities in an environment and considering them as a portfolio package along with the strategies used to achieve the enterprise’s goals. Thus, with ERM, the tradeoffs involved and the risk appetite of the enterprise have to be considered when managing the strategy.

The next president will be challenged to quickly translate campaign-trail vision into a national strategy without time for that larger conversation and political process management. As the Congressional Research Service notes, a national security strategy “is required to be submitted annually on the date the president submits his annual budget request, and in addition not more than 150 days from the date a new president takes office.”  The whole strategy planning process is hampered by ill-timed and disconnected congressional mandates and administrative requirements. It needs reform.

The next president would do well to review recommendations from the Project for National Security Reform as well as earlier work, such as by the Hart-Rudman Commission. Some needed changes are clear. The president should be required to issue a national strategy document within the first year of office with reviews every other year. That would give time for the strategy to be informed by a risk assessment that builds on existing national risk assessments but takes a broader view of risks to America’s well-being.

The risks to America are both domestically and internationally driven — indeed, President Obama recognized this in his first National Security Strategy in 2010:  “We have not adequately advanced priorities like education, energy, science and technology, and health care — all of which are essential to U.S. competitiveness, long-term prosperity, and strength.” Then, if a good process were to be followed, the risk-informed strategy should feed into cross-agency goals and individual agency’s plans and goals required under the 2010 Government Performance and Results Modernization Act. This could then translate down to tailored tactics and some management accountability for outcomes. Reaching beyond government, the strategy must take a whole-of-society approach to security, as government alone cannot ensure it.

As American voters consider their choice for the next president, they should ask themselves not just whose vision they like but also whether the candidate can make that vision reality — by managing both the politics and the process of  government.

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Debra Decker is a Senior Advisor at Stimson’s Managing Across Boundaries initiative. This commentary is adapted from “Fix It, Don’t Ditch It?” in the March/April edition of Foreign Affairs

Photo credit: ABC Television Group via flickr
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