US national security institutions: Pragmatic solutions require knowing how things work

Stimson Spotlight

US national security institutions: Pragmatic solutions require knowing how things work

In 25 years of providing pragmatic solutions, it is not surprising Stimson has always had an eye on the processes and institutions that would have to implement those solutions: a solution is pragmatic only if the policies it recommends can realistically be implemented in the real world.  If we do not understand how U.S. national security organizations tick, we cannot know what policies they can realistically undertake or explain how they must adapt to changing national security needs. Today, that focus is represented in Stimson’s Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense program, which studies the politics, processes, and institutions of U.S. national security primarily through the lens of their budgets.  But the study of government institutions and processes has a long pedigree at Stimson.

One year after Stimson’s founding, Barry Blechman, published a book, “The Politics of National Security: Congress and US Defense Policy,” which sought to explain how domestic and bureaucratic politics of the United States helped shape—and warp—U.S. defense policy.  

A few years later when the world was changing in unfamiliar ways, Stimson undertook a study of the roles and missions of the U.S. military, to understand how military institutions, which had been organized around the demands of the Cold War, should be reshaped to fit the needs of a changed world.  It recognized that inertia in organizations and processes could result in a failure to actually adapt to new demands and challenges. As Stimson’s co-founder, Michael Krepon, wrote in the preface to the Carnegie Corporation-funded study, “Failing to reduce redundancies as budgets decline can also lead to misdirected cuts in other kinds of capabilities that are unique and essential to U.S. security.”

Stimson also partnered in the early 1990s with the Defense Budget Project, founded a decade earlier by Gordon Adams, to direct a bipartisan, high-level task force of members of Congress and defense leaders to look at defense spending, the economy, and the nation’s security.

These efforts in Stimson’s early years informed how to reshape the military when many wondered if the defense budget would go down and stay down. During the Cold War, the defense budget had declined twice — each time by about 30 percent. But each time it had again returned to high levels suggesting more of a cycle than a trend one way or the other. With the end of the Cold War, many thought the defense budget might simply go down, a military demobilization such as the United States had always undertaken after wars prior to the advent of the Cold War. 

Looking back, we can see that the end of the Cold War was not the end of the defense budget cycle.  Even before 9/11, the defense budget had started increasing and after 9/11 it saw supercharged growth powered by supplemental war funding that pushed defense spending to record heights — six years of annual spending above the height of the Korean War.

In 2008, when people were again wondering if the defense cycle had broken, this time in favor of constantly high spending, Adams joined Stimson to create the Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense (BFAD) program. BFAD is the rare program that looks not only at the Department of Defense, but also at the State Department and other U.S. civilian national security organizations. Though the State Department and other international affairs programs receive only nine percent of the funding the Defense Department gets, they are still critical national security tools, with the United States spending more discretionary dollars on international affairs then it does homeland security.

BFAD has contributed to influential studies on the need for reforms in both the military and international affairs agencies. Stimson has partnered with the American Academy of Diplomacy and the Una Chapman Cox Foundation for a series of studies on strengthening the State Department  that underpinned the bipartisan expansion of the Foreign Service in both the Bush and Obama administrations. On the defense side, Stimson, funded by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, created  a high-level advisory committee, under the leadership of co-founder Barry Blechman, that re-examined US national security strategy and outlined how the military must change to implement that strategy in the face of deep budget cuts.

Stimson was founded at a time of great change; change that called for new ways of doing business. This work continues today in another time of great turmoil, again induced by sharp budget cuts. Stimson’s BFAD program is now run by Russell Rumbaugh, who keeps the program’s research focused on understanding how U.S. national security institutions — both civilian and military — affect policy outcomes in ways that often go unnoticed. Delving beyond the rhetoric, BFAD analyzes budgets in-depth to test the old adage, “put your money where your mouth is.” In other words, is the U.S. backing up the new policies it has adapted to cope with change with appropriate changes in budgetary priorities. This approach offer a unique perspective on why the United States responds to national security challenges the way it does and how those responses can be changed by reforming underlying institutions.

BFAD runs a series of Budget Analysis Briefs on both Foreign Affairs and Defense to explain how the budget process is shaping the tools at the nation’s disposal, and how those tools are shaping the budget process. Anchored in this detailed understanding, BFAD continues to offer research, analysis and presentations that ensure policymakers know what they are getting with every decision, instead of those choices getting made unintentionally by an inexorable and opaque process run by powerful institutions committed more to the status quo than to adapting to changing circumstances.

Four years into today’s budget downturn, change seems too common. But Stimson’s 25 year effort to understand institutions and processes provides a steady and insightful perspective to make the best choices for the future. As the world continues to evolve, Stimson will already be looking at coming changes and leading the preparations for them. It’s the only way to achieve pragmatic solutions.

Photo credit: US Department of Agriculture via flickr