Distinguished Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations; Chairman, BlackRock Investment Institute; Former Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, The White House (2010–2013)
Thomas Donilon discusses his distinguished career in business and government, including his role as national security advisor under President Barack Obama, working with three U.S. presidents, serving at the state department, and his current roles at BlackRock and the Council on Foreign Relations.
Lessons Learned is a roundtable series, open to term members and younger life members, which features distinguished speakers who reflect on their career experiences, the choices they made along the way, and the lessons they have learned from them.
HAASS: Well, thank you all. Great to be with you, albeit virtually, here at the Council on Foreign Relations. It's a real treat today to welcome my good friend Tom Donilon.
Tom, for the last several years, has been working very closely with Larry Fink at BlackRock where he chairs the Investment Institute. He's also still senior counsel at the law firm O’Melveny & Myers. And as impressive as those things are, the real reason we have him here today is also because of some of the things he's done in the past. He was national security adviser to Barack Obama, and he worked in the Clinton administration—I think its State Department of Africa, if my memory serves me right. And then he was also, like me, he was in the Carter administration. Indeed, you have two dinosaurs here. Both of us are refugees from the administration of Jimmy Carter. Tom worked in the Carter White House, if my memory serves me right; I worked in the Carter Pentagon.
And Tom, over these decades has emerged, I think as one of the most consistent, solid, thoughtful people about American foreign policy and our role in the world. But he's also someone who's got a foot in the world of law, he's got over a foot in the world of international, now, finance. And also he's worked on campaigns. And so we'll try to get to as much of that as we can. But Tom, thank you for all you've done as a public servant, and thank you for joining us here today.
DONILON: It's really great to be here today. When you tell this audience that we worked in the Carter administration, I don't know if they would kind of differentiate that from working in the Coolidge administration.
HAASS: (laughs) Well, for good reason.
DONILON: But you basically you cited us well on the on the chronological table here. But it's great to be here, Richard. Wonderful to see you.
HAASS: Thanks, my friend. So I don't want to start there. I want to start somewhere else. Which is, you became a lawyer, you went to law school, and you became a lawyer. And I don't want you to take this the wrong way, Tom. But if I get arrested, I don't think my one call is going to be to you to get me out of get me out of jail. I'm curious whenever I meet people who are lawyers, but haven't spent most of their life in courtrooms, what's your take? How valuable has the law been? For what you've done? For the fact that you've really spent most of your professional career and doing other things rather than quote unquote, practicing law? Any regrets, or has it proven really well?
DONILON: I think, Richard, I think it's a good question. It's proven to be, I think, an immense asset for me, both in my business career and in my public service career. I think that I really went in, made the move from politics, pretty substantial direction in my career, from politics, to foreign policy, national security, because of a lawyer, because of a lawyer who was my mentor at O’Melveny & Myers, the law firm you mentioned, who was Warren Christopher, who ultimately went on to become secretary of state.
And he was the best example I had ever met of purposeful mentorship. But I think that best describes them, which it isn't just like, you know, companies and organizations have mentors and they meet with their mentees, you know, every six months or something and see how they're doing and check in. This was old fashioned mentorship. This was basically there were no fax machines, it was no email, it was sending you—he worked in Los Angeles, I worked in Washington—it was sending you interoffice mail in big manila envelopes, articles to read, books to read. And he would check in on you. And he basically, you know, was a force in my in my turn from politics, where I've been about deeply, to national security. And when I was coming out of law school, he said, "what are you going to do?" I said, I'm going to open up a political consulting firm. I was fairly well known—this is now almost forty years ago—a very well-known political consultant. And he said, "why do you want to do this" I said, well, because I think I could, it's the best and highest use of my talents. And he said, well, why don't you consider something different? He said, why don't you consider coming to my law firm, actually learn something, come to my law firm. And he said, you know, there's a long history of lawyers using it as a base to come in and out of public service. He had done that starting with Jack Kennedy, where he did trade negotiations while he was a young lawyer. And he had an envelope, one of those big manila envelopes, I talked about, Richard, and he slid it across the table. And he said when you go back to school—it was still my third year of law school—he said "read this and call me. There's a place for you here."
And it was the most important decision I ever made because we became very close, we became law partners. The book was Present at the Creation, which is a story of a young lawyer in Washington who works at a law firm, he comes in and out of government, and obviously becomes Harry Truman's Secretary of State Dean Acheson. And that, so it's the law, I think, brings you discipline, close reading, analytical skills, and stamina, which are all important in most things in life.
HAASS: I know you mentioned that book. When I was asked by the New York Times, about three months ago, they asked a number of disparate people, "what is the one book you would recommend to the incoming president, President Biden?" And my choice was Present at the Creation, drawing the parallels between the moment in history after World War Two, when we were so creative. And I think we have not been, shall we say, as creative as we might have been, over the last thirty years. And I said, but this is the book, if you want to build institutions and think big, this is the book in foreign policy.
DONILON: I agree. You know, it's history. I've been trying to read a lot about the Cold War of late. That book, of course, was a different time. First, it was beautifully written. Won a Pulitzer Prize in 1970. Think about what I just said, though. So he led in what kind of genre we have a post-service books, a year or year and a half or two that we got out of office. That book, he left office in 1952 and published that book in 1969 or 1970. It was really quite a, it was an incredible, insightful book that he took whatever it was sixteen, seventeen, eighteen years to write.
HAASS: It was immodestly titled, but you know what I think it deserved it.
DONILON: Yeah, it turned out to be true.
HAASS: Even better. So let's look at the three presidents you've worked directly for. I'm curious what you learn by observing.
Let's start with Jimmy Carter, who I think is widely seen as perhaps the most impressive and successful of our post-presidency president, but less successful in office. So what I mean—I don't know how you feel about that, whether you think it's a bum rap or fair rap—why do you think he has the reputation of in office not having done better, given how smart he is, how hard working he is, somehow it just didn't translate? What did...one, do you agree and two, what's your take on that?
DONILON: You know, it's interesting. I think he had failings in his presidency. He had some successes with a lot. That was good. That was mentioned.
A couple of things: I was very young when I went to work for Carter. I was twenty-two years old. And I went into the White House. And I also worked for a while opening up his office in Atlanta, his transition to private life after he was beaten by Ronald Reagan in November of 1980.
You know, I think a couple of things. First of all, I think that Ronald Reagan learned this lesson from Carter, and I think Joe Biden has as well, President Biden as well. He didn't really have a set of kind of a small number of priorities. Too many things, right, he was trying to do in his first year, and it didn't really have a focus, right? And that first year, of course, for presidents is absolutely critical. And he wanted to try to get everything done, right? He also was pretty aggressively micromanaging, so that prioritization issue, Richard, which is really important for presidents, certainly Reagan did that with his focus on the economy coming into 1981. And I think that President Biden takes the same lesson away.
HAASS: Actually to interrupt you there. I'd ask you a question on the Tom Donilon definition of the word "priority." When you walk into a job and you say, I've learned this lesson, I'm going to have some priorities. What do you limit yourself to? What's your number? What's the max you allow yourself in terms of priorities?
DONILON: You know, I think, well, you can only have one, I think, one or two major priorities that are going to be your thing. Now you have to, if you're a national security adviser, you obviously have to oversee and run a whole range of things are coming at you every day. But I think, you know, I think in terms of a presidency, a company, that big, that macro, I do think that the thrust has to be around one or two priorities.
And of course, in the Biden administration, it's the COVID vaccine implementation and distribution and its economic recovery. It's interesting but now they have a lot of knock-on effects, right? The vaccine issue is not just a health issue. I think of it as having three or four layers, right? It's a health issue, for sure. It's a direct connection between succeeding in the vaccine and the economy. Right? In fact, it's kind of binary in the world right now, Richard.
You know the IMF growth report came out yesterday and basically shows that the countries that have been successful with respect to conquering the virus have succeeded economically and those that haven't, haven't, right? But the third thing for the United States, it shows how the knock-on effects you have many to these priorities. For the United States, it's also about, see if you agree with this: a critical reassertion of competence and confidence. The ability of the United States to snap back. I think, for example, it would have been very hard for our, you know, our friends, you know, Secretary Tony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, to go to Anchorage, Alaska, whatever it was a little over two weeks ago, and sit across the Chinese without having passed the Rescue Act. And kind of this reassertion of competence, which we had for decades, then I think, at the core of a lot of the authority and power the United States had in the world. Does that makes sense to you?
HAASS: I agree. I think the model we set is the foundation for a lot of what we do in the world. And it's very hard to talk the talk unless you also walk the walk. And whether it's competence from producing the vaccines, inventing the vaccine, producing the vaccines involved, distributing them in bulk. And then as, you're exactly right, directly knock-on effect with the economic revival. It's also like in real estate, the analogy I use, you know, location, location, location? My advice is, vaccination, vaccination, vaccination, to get things going. But I think you're exactly right.
Bill Clinton, the second president you work closely with, what did you take away, both plus and minus, in terms of what you learned watching him in terms of what led to the positive things and twenty million jobs or whatever created, you know, that kind of a record? And where do you think that if he had a mulligan, because he likes to play golf, what might he do differently?
DONILON: Well, I think that, well, a couple of things. First of all, he's an enormously talented natural politician. And a friend of mine, obviously. You know I came into the Clinton administration preparing, as I did with President Obama, preparing them for their debates. It's something we could talk about. It's kind of a different skill set.
HAASS: Did you play the opposition candidate or just prepare for the debate?
DONILON: I prepared, I coordinated in both cases. Both in Clinton, and in President Obama's case, kind of oversaw the operation. And did the kind of lead the preparation. So I got to know him first as a political figure. And his political skills are enormous, right? And it was really one of the great natural politicians, right, that I've ever, ever met. He had enormous political, he had enormous political skills.
He had, second, he had the ability to synthesize information, right, from all kind of, he had any number of inputs constantly, right, you know? And would kind of pull them together and develop a policy, a policy approach. He had a lot of strong people around him, including someone you and I both know, who ended up being obviously a tremendous diplomat of consequence during the Clinton years was Dick Holbrooke, who oversaw the Dayton Accord and bringing the end of the war in Yugoslavia to a close.
So that's what you take away, I think, the enormous intellect, the ability to kind of bring together a lot of information streams, and enormous, enormous political skills. And I think, obviously, I think that the downside was that was there was a lot of time taken up with impeachment. And having to, you know, that's a lot of time to take away from a, you know, from a presidency. And I think if he were here with us today, I think he, I think he'd agree with that.
HAASS: So at the risk of moving along too quickly, and I apologize both to you and to others, but I just want to put some things out there. It's like a mesa of the ladders on the buffet table. You were national security adviser, and I always thought the national security advisor, and I worked closely with Brent Scowcroft, who I know was an influence on you and a friend of yours. Now you've got two hats. You've got the counselor hat. You got to advise the president and all that. But you've also, you really have a process hat. And I know you thought deep and hard about that. So talk to me a little bit about the process side. And the reason I want to highlight it is that when I taught at the Kennedy School, we used to say that 90 percent of life was implementation or execution. And the problem is that smart people often think that 90 percent of life is thinking up the big ideas. And I'm just curious where you come out on all that.
DONILON: I would say that the big ideas maybe are 30 percent of it. And then implementation, execution really, is really critical. But in process in particular you know, we, in designing the Obama National Security Council, we looked back at various models. And the model that we lighted on was the Scowcroft-Gates model out of the Bush 41 administration, which really was the gold standard, I think, for thinking through how the process should work and the role of the national security adviser, which was not to be kind of the public face of the administration on a regular basis with respect to policy, but rather to be the even handed manager of this process.
It is essential. I think, at the end of the day, I think if you and I sat down with a group of the number of folks on this call for half a day, and went through the biggest policy mistakes, national security foreign policy mistakes of the United States in the last half century, I think we would attribute—ultimately we will get to the bottom of it—attribute a significant number of them to process failures.
I think Vietnam had a ton of process failures and biases coming into it. You know, Gordon Goldstein's book, Lessons in Disaster, which I recommend to anyone who wants to study that is a wonderful book on that. I think, Richard, you've written about this, I think that the Iraq War had profound process failures in going to war in Iraq, and Robert Draper's new book, I think is a good tale, a good review of that. I think there were mistakes with the basic North Korea policy in the past. I think if you go through it, you would find that at the end of the day that these process failures really have led to key policy failures. And it's not surprising given that, if you lack the inputs that are necessary, and the perspectives that are necessary for making these kinds of immensely complicated multidimensional decisions, it shouldn't surprise you, right, if you don't have a good process. And Eisenhower famously said that, right? You'd be almost guarantee yourself a bad outcome, if you don't have a good process.
HAASS: Can I push you a little bit more on what you think makes for a good process? If you are going to unpack, quote, unquote, a good process, what would be the principal components?
DONILON: The principal components would be the first component, Richard would be that everybody on that team buys in, and it becomes the sole method and mechanism by which you're going to make policy. Again, I think an example of that is in the Bush 43 administration, for example, I don't think that, you know, again, you were there, I studied it fairly closely, studied it pretty hard coming in, to become to go to the National Security Council with President Obama. I don't think everybody on that team was solely in the National Security Council process in terms of their actions, in terms of their approaching the president, in terms of decisions that the president made. You know, again, I think that it's hard to kind of find the meeting where everybody was assembled, right, to kind of, in one place in one process, when we made the decision, and the United States made the decision to go to a war in Iraq. So the first thing is, I think, is you have a buy in from each of the players on the team, that this is the process, they're going to come to the table.
On the other side of it is, you have to, if you're the National Security Council advisor, you have to indicate that it's going to work in a timely way, and it's going to be fair, it's going to be even handed and the decisions are going to be written down, and you're going to get a chance to comment on them. And if you need to see the president, you're going to see the president, in other words, that people have confidence. So you have, I think that sole process.
The next is you have confidence in the process and you'll participate because of that. If you don't have confidence in the process, right, what you do then is you go around the process. You leak to the press, you try to get a side meeting with the president, right, and you come up with poor decisions. I think those are really kind of the key elements.
And the third thing I'd mentioned before about this for a long time, but the third thing we mentioned is that you have the process below that ultimate process with the president of the National Security Council or the principals level, that that process is engaging the key issues and doing it in a high quality way. And that those lower level people, the deputies level, interagency level, are representing their buildings. That is a failure in process when you go through a month of sessions with these institutions coming together, and then at the end of the process, the principal comes in and says, well, that's not my position. Well, you know, that is not on, right? That is not on, right? The people who kind do this work with you every day need to represent their institutions and their principals. So those are a couple of ideas. It's obviously a subject that I'm pretty passionate about. And tried to do.
The last thing I'll say about this. The best example for us of where I saw having competence in the process and trusting the process and think it was fair was in the bin Laden decision. That was an eight month process, from August of 2010 till May of 2011, coming on the tenth anniversary actually in May. And not everybody agreed, Richard. People passionately disagreed. History was in the room. You know, it's another whole discussion about history, right? You know, Bob Gates was there in April of 1980. Right when the hostage rescue mission failed, right, in the Carter administration. And it was terrible for the country. Terrible, obviously, for the individuals involved. But it was terrible, obviously, politically for Jimmy Carter. You know, the day. And you could see the people really disagreed on this thing. But at the end of the day, I think if you talk to anyone, they'd say, you know, the president made the decision at the end of the day, and we thought the process was fair. That's absolutely critical. But remember, [Cyrus R.] Vance quit, because he thought the processes was unfair, in April of 1980, because they made the decision when he was out of the country.
HAASS: But I remember that while I was in the Pentagon at the time, working on that part of the world, that was an interesting moment. And we'll save that for my lessons learned. You can reverse it, you can pick on me.
You mentioned the word history, which leads me to think. So you ran the National Security Council. I don't remember how many people, senior directors and directors you had, but you had dozens, if not hundreds. What kind of backgrounds did you find, like to the extent you could choose, you could have someone could be a real country special, or they could be in an econ, what did you find over time that, all things being equal, people who had this under his or her belt, they tended to do pretty well, in this world of policymaking and the rest? What did what did you come to value particularly high?
DONILON: I valued expertise, you know, but at the end, it was kind of a mix of the best generalists, along with the best subject matter experts. There was a mix, Richard, that we tried to, that I tried to get. Because there are people whose judgment you value in the kind of a broad look, or broad view of things, which is important. But the National Security Council requires that the people working in the areas to be, you know, first rate in their area. And on history, people who understand, experts who understand the history of their subject, the history of their region, right? And that's lacking. You know, it is a, you know, there's a long discussion we could have about the lack of the kind of the reduction in number of history departments at universities and United States, which I think is a real tragedy, a mistake. I think some of our tech leaders, for example, could use a few more humanities courses, frankly, you know, but this is really valuable.
As I was overseeing the National Security Council would have somebody to kind of come and give a historical perspective, you know, for lots of reasons. One, I think that this isn't a bit of a secondly, is really valuable to understand the people you're sitting across the table from around the world. And I never regretted a single hour that I put in to preparing historical materials for what might otherwise just be seen as kind of transactional diplomatic meetings. It never didn't pay off, right, in terms of an insight, in terms of getting the respect and competence of the person that you were dealing with. So I think that's kind of a mix. But I do think that they have a deep historical knowledge.
And by the way, this is a continuing process for senior foreign policy people and leaders. Kissinger, I won't get this exactly right, I think he was famously said that, you know, you go into the administration, into government, and you have a bank account, and you, you know, you're basically kind of spending down all the capital, right? Intellectual capital, right? You know, and you only have so much of it. That can't possibly be true, by the way, because nobody can come in to be the national security adviser, and know enough about all the topics that he or she has to deal with. It's not conceivable. And so you have to have this kind of sense of, even at that level, the highest level of the government, it kind of the ability, or the instinct to continue to learn, and to kind of study history. You know, if some of my folks thought I was a little excessive that they see you there on a Friday night with some you know, some history you come back of history books, we kind of coming in and out to try to get a sense of things they've never done, it paid off every single time. And so I think history is wrong about that. I don't think you could possibly know enough when you go in. You have to continue to learn.
HAASS: I'm curious. In your current role here, you are a person who spent his career three, four decades, in the White House, State Department, campaigns, basically a political animal. And I mean that in the best sense. And now you're in the financial world. So I have two questions for you. One is how different do you find them? Do you feel at times like you're Margaret Mead, and you're some kind of a cultural anthropologist? That you're in this very...or Robert Heinlein, a stranger in a strange land. And how similar or different are like the skills you develop? How transferable, or have you basically had to.... It's almost like you were, I don't know, you were a skier and suddenly you decided to take up tennis. How different are the skill sets? What have you learned in making this kind of a transition?
DONILON: Well, if I plead to being Margaret Mead, I don't know how I'm going to do in the next set of meetings I have at my company. I think I'm taking notes on like, my colleagues, too. I think it's both, you have to obviously dig in and work hard to understand the dynamics of the business that you're in, in any business, right? But I do think that the skills around analytics, discipline, good process and policymaking are transferable, Richard. Absolutely. And of course, you know, my firm is, our firm's is a global firm, right? The largest investment firm in the world. And so having a keen understanding of the dynamics, global dynamics, political, policy processes around the world, is relevant to our investors.
So it's both. I think there's probably more trends, more bits transferrable than I might have thought kind of going in. And a number of things, of course, are happening in the in the financial world, right, which are quite, they're related to financial dynamics, also related to policy dynamics, including the, you know, this massive transformational thrust and investing into ESG assets, which reflects, obviously, reflect science, it reflects manifestation, what's going on in the world. But it also reflects regulatory and policy choices that are been made around the world along with a change in the demands and interest of younger investors.
HAASS: I just have one or two more questions. I could go on for hours, but I won't because I really want to bring everybody else into it. One question that I know will come up. So let me just raise it to make sure that it's going to what's on people's minds is, hey, you are where you are, but you didn't start where you are. So for people who basically are watching this or listening to this and go that Tom Donilon, he had a pretty interesting career. Not that it's over. But it's been a great run, what an amazing set of experiences close up the seeing history made, blah blah. How do I do that? So what's your sense? Whether people are starting out in their 20s, when you did or maybe they they're 40 years old and they say, there's got to be more to life than this. What sort of advice do you have for people who want to dip one or more toes into either the political world or the policy world?
DONILON:You know, it's interesting. It's a good question. And again, a lot of it is luck of course. I described luck, you know, kind of meeting Warren Christopher. I met him at the national convention in 1980 when Carter was battling Ted Kennedy for the nomination. And Christopher was deputy secretary of state. He was there briefing delegates for politicians, and I met him there. And obviously that became, that was a stroke of luck for me, right, to having met someone in that area, right, who became a mentor.
HAASS: But the fact that you had the job you did had to be more than a stroke of luck. Like you weren't there as basically an usher. You had a pretty good job at the conventions.
DONILON: Yeah, that's true. And I think, again, luck there, too. You know, you have a professor who recommends you and move on. But one of the key lessons that I think are which we're looking for, I think, number one is if there are things—and I was very interested in politics and policy, right—try to master it, right? Even if you're—it's interesting, and I say this to folks in law firms and consulting firms all the time—even if what you're doing every day, which is a terrific job, and you had to get the best education in the world, right, and get through the kind of finest selection processes in the world—if you're really interested in policy or politics, take the time, you know, schedule the time. Become interested, join study groups, read deeply into it, find other people who are interested in it, right? And it's hard to do, and I really mean, I mean that I scheduled time each week. That's advice that Bob Zoellick gave me many years ago. Actually a friend of both of ours, which is if you're outside the government, in particular, because the government it's still kind of, it's the process comes to you with all the information. If you're not, you have to build your own process. So build your own process, right? And to be ready and be open to the opportunities as they come along. And you'll have to take some chances. You know, I've taken significant chances from going from comfortable situations to less comfortable situations because I thought it was going to be more interesting. But you have to be ready, I think, and to bring kind of a passion and a knowledge base.
The second thing I guess, I would say to people all the time—this is a sophisticated audience we have today—it might sound nice and trite, but it's very important, I think, which is to I used to say this to the National Security Council staff all the time too: you need to have excellence at all things, including small things. Because if you do a series of small things really well, that's an important aspect of your reputation and reputation matters. And the confidence people have in you matters. So that one paragraph letter you're writing as a consultant or financier, and you just want an email, right? Think about it as just as important as some of the bigger things you're doing. Those are some examples, but I have had a lot of luck, Richard, but I do think kind of mastering things and being ready, being ready when the opportunity comes, I think is the most important, most important thing and then being willing to take risk.
HAASS: What you said there resonates with me. Earl Weaver, the former manager of the Baltimore Orioles was once quoted as say, do enough of the small things right and you won't have to do the heroic quite so often.
DONILON: Right? Yeah. Exactly right.
HAASS: I've never—and just as an aside—it's never good when, you know, someone's writing you a job letter, and they misspell your name or whatever. Or call it the Council on Foreign Affairs or something. It doesn't get you off to a rollicking start.
DONILON: No, excellence in small things, I think, over the time of over the time of our career liability. You know, it builds your reputation and accounts for a lot.
HAASS: Okay, Tom, thank you. I want to open it up. Though I will not rule out the possibility of throwing in another question here or there or follow up. But Morgan, I'm not sure if it's you or Sam, who's in charge here. I know I work for both of you. But over to you.
STAFF: (Gives queuing instructions.)
Q: Hi, Dr. Haass, this is Shari Zephyr, I served at the NSC during Tom's tenure as national security adviser. Nice to see you again, sir. And…
DONILON: Good to see you.
HAASS: We want you to give us the real scoop. Now. All the mistakes your boss made at the time, and the lessons we can learn from them.
DONILON: Right. Yeah, I don't know. I really wouldn't want to see my 360 days.
HAASS: (laughs) Maybe not tonight.
Q: Perhaps another time, Dr. Haass. Because that was question number two. Question number one, one question. Tom, look, given your roles, not just as national security adviser, but what you've done over the last forty years, I imagine many of your international counterparts have been calling you up to get your insights on the Biden administration. Without naming names or divulging private conversations, can you share at least some of the types of questions that are being asked? Thanks so much.
DONILON: Yeah, it goes to a number of things. One is around priorities. And I think as Richard and I were talking about earlier, I think the priorities are clear for the Biden administration. Number two, you know, people are always interested in kind of what's going to change or what's going to continue with respect to the national security area and the stand up might have been fundamental changes in their approaches. There has been some continuity as well. You couldn't have a different approach in the Biden administration with respect to allies, for example, or international agreements, or international multilateral organizations. The change was pretty, pretty significant with respect to emphasis on human rights. And so I think that climate, of course, is a major, major change. So it does kind of change in continuity. Questions come along, of course. There has been, you know, I think there's a bipartisan posture in the United States with respect to the China challenge, that requires the United States to meet that challenge. So those are the kinds of questions.
You know, the last thing I'll say is, and this is going to have to be dealt with over time. And this is the kind of question you get, you get more quietly sometimes, which is, how can we rely on the United States, given this big shift back and forth between administrations and doing things like, you know, pulling out of international agreements, like, for example, the JCPOA, which has caused us immense issues, I think, both in terms of the Iran program, but also in terms of our relationships with Europe and elsewhere around the world? How can we rely on the United States when you can have those kinds of fundamental shifts? And that's something that we're going to have to demonstrate, I think, over time, that in fact, the United States is, you know, is a reliable leader. But that, I think, is a question that this administration, I think administrations going forward, are going to have to deal with. You know, again, it's an analytical answer, not to be partisan, but there was real damage done to that to the answer to that question with respect to reliability and the United States.
HAASS: Okay. I apologize for the fire engine background noise here, but I am in the city. Sam, why don't we tee up another question?
STAFF: Our next question will be from Maryum Saifee.
Q: Thank you, Maryum Saifee, State Department, foreign service officer. Secretary Blinken, is saying diversity is a national security imperative. I recently wrote a task force on this and when we did the research, we found dozens of State Department reform reports, written over many decades. And many of the ideas we proposed weren't actually new. So what will it take to make progress on building a department that actually looks like America? And is more secure? Thank you.
DONILON: Yeah, that's a great question. You know, there have been...State Department has had quite a rough two years, last four years. But you're raising a good question, which is a much longer term issue, I think in problem with the State Department. I think the answer is leadership and intensity of focus, but mainly has to be focused on the top. And you've heard Secretary Tony Blinken talk about this quite directly. And I think you're seeing that in the appointments at the top of the department as a priority. So I think the answer to the question is you're absolutely right, it's been, you know, the record is really poor, and can only be turned around with leadership and focus from the top of the organization, as in any organization. I've focused on these issues myself for, you know, for a long time, as you may know my wife, Kathy Russell, was during the Obama years, the ambassador at the State Department, for women's and girls’ issues, global issues. On behalf of the Obama administrations I've been focused on this for a while. And we haven't made near the progress we need to make. So I think leadership is the key. And it also has to kind of be part of the process from beginning to end, including the recruitment process at the State Department, which of course, is a career choice for people. So it's a great question. And you know, I've been encouraged that Tony Blinken has made it such a high priority. And we'll never be as effective as we need to be without making progress. No doubt about that.
HAASS: I want to give a slight gloss to your answer, if I may, just because it's such an important question. And I think it's slightly unfair to put the onus or so much the weight on the Secretary of State, because I think by then, to some extent, it's too late. And places like the Council on Foreign Relations have a big obligation here as well, a big role to play. We have got to increase the pipeline. We've got to increase the pool of young people in this country who get involved in these fields, and because by the time someone's old enough to apply for the Foreign Service, that's going to reflect to some extent many of the academic choices they made, may meet many of the internship choices they made and so forth. So Tony can do a bit, you know, certain things, but I actually think that many of us in other worlds also have a quite a lot of responsibility here to grow the pipeline, grow the pool, and then there'll be the numbers, the numbers will start to go up as they should.
DONILON: But making these decisions at the top do matter. You need to have models, role models. There are decisions we make every day that will be much better made with diverse input. So it's a long term problem, but it also it's a here and now problem as well.
HAASS: We're, we're in violent, violent agreement there. Yeah. Okay, Sam.
STAFF: Our next question comes from William Schlickenmaier.
Q: Thank you. I'm Will Schlickenmaier another former Tom Donilon, NSC director. Good to see you again, sir.
DONILON: Oh, hi.
HAASS: Did you pack the house here, Mr. Donilon? (inaudible)
DONILON:(laughs) Just a mass email over the weekend. Pay no attention to that.
Q: So I'm actually teaching contemporary U.S. foreign policy at Georgetown now. And so I've got a question based on some of the stuff we've talked about in my class the last two semesters. NSC centralization versus devolution of authority for process to the interagency particularly State. What's the ideal balance? How did we do in the Obama years and what should the Biden administration be doing, the people like Tony and Wendy and Brian at the top?
DONILON: Yeah. Where are they? I mean, they've got terrific leadership there, but I think a couple things. One is that it may be a little, have a little different than a lot of the analysts who have looked at this. I am not one who believes that the National Security Council is too big. When you have the numbers that compare over decades or not, it is apples and oranges for two reasons. Number one, because additional elements have come in including the Homeland Security Council coming in after 9/11 into the White House, necessarily so, and that built out the numbers on a raw basis.
The second is, is that the multidimensional nature of the problems. And I don't believe you can drive a successful government-wide policy process without having it driven from the center with the presence for everything having the ability to convene, as I was saying earlier to Richard to convene all the necessary inputs at the table to make the best decisions possible to give the best options to the President. So I think you need to have a strong National Security Council, and it needs to be large enough to staff the president, as Richard was saying. It needs to be large enough to also have the kind of convening power and expertise that you need to kind of move to move your policies. Move your policies forward. I think that it's interesting. I think, Richard, I'm right about this. I think that, for example, I think that George Shultz, when he was secretary of state would not come to an interagency meeting he didn't chair. And that was a time when you know, when the national security adviser and the secretary of state and secretary of defense could sit down at the table and make most of the decisions for the government. The decisions the United States faces today are so much more multidimensional. And you can't operate that way. You know, you have to have the ability to bring together a number of organizations around your priorities. So I am for driving things pretty hard from the center. And the second piece of it, though, is that I think that the operational side of things, interacting with our diplomatic interfaces around the world, overseeing military operations. That is, that should be done at the agencies and led by the cabinet secretaries in those in those agencies.
And the last thing I'll say about this is this. And I've had these conversations, a lot of the people that you've mentioned, of course, you know, one during the course of my time at the White House, and then also the I saw from the other into the chief of staff at the State Department during the Clinton years, you know, the coin of the realm is high quality, intellectual capital and execution. And I do believe that agencies, you know, have I think that is the contribution. The contribution is the highest quality policy ideas in the highest quality execution. But I'm a strong NSC person. That way that's addressed your question, and I also don't think it's too big.
Q: Absolutely agree. Thanks, Tom.
HAASS: A lot of strong NSC people here. Sam, let's get some others in here.
STAFF: Our next question will come from Mansoor Shams.
Q: My name is Mansoor Shams. I'm a U.S. Marine veteran and the founder of MuslimMarine.org. You talked a lot about process. And essentially, when there isn't one, you have a situation like Iraq. I'm just sort of curious to understand what is the process when a mistake such as Iraq has been made with so many, like long term implications that are still likely to emerge? And the worst part, the loss of human life upwards of a million plus as a potential sources and largely innocent? What's the process to recognize the mistake, owning that mistake? The metrics around, you know, potentially fixing that mistake?
DONILON: Yeah, let's see, I think that's, that is one of the hardest things to do in government, is to, and we've seen so many examples of it, haven't we, where the United States government makes a decision, people are committed to the decision, we execute, we incur costs, both in terms of, you know, life and treasure. And, and to come to the point where you believe that the path we're on is not correct and to change is one of the hardest things to do in government. And it takes, it just takes hard analytics and leadership to do that. And it's a, you know, you have a lot of sunk costs, you have credibility issues, you have all kinds of issues. But it's, it's critical, I think, when a policy isn't working, to come to the table, and to do that hard thing. That to kind of look your colleagues in the eyes and say, "this isn't working," or "this is not worth the cost that we are paying." And we need to do we need to make a change. And that's a fundamental responsibility, frankly, particularly when it's a question of war and peace.
So, you know I've had I've been through that process, it's hard. And also there are all kinds of institutional issues that you have to deal with too, where people are really committed to the path that they're on. And so at the end of the day, it is up to the people at the top of the organization to, who can take that broad view, and can actually go and can execute a big turn in policy. You know, it's one, it's one of the it's profound responsibility, but you absolutely have to do this, which is going through another issue in terms of managing the National Security Council or mitigating these organizations. You cannot be driven—this is cliché, but it's true, though—you cannot be driven by your inbox. And you cannot be driven just by that, well, this is the way we do it. You have to have the ability to kind of step back and make time again, in a structured way, to do things that are not inside your inbox. And question the kind of wave and the way you've been doing things, it's very hard to do.
So you obviously underscored the dramatic example, right, of Iraq, where, of course, you know, we did we executed in the Obama administration, and we've been criticized for a pretty dramatic change in policy, right, our direction. Now, you know, meeting the goal that the timeline that President Bush had set, but we had a distinctly different, different approach. And that was a very hard that was a very hard set of policy discussions back and forth around these very profound issues around what's in the U.S. interest. Is it working? Are there better alternatives, you know. The United States is going, is in the midst of a discussion right now in Afghanistan, which implicates a lot of the kinds of questions you raised.
HAASS: I actually understood the question a little bit differently. So let me ask this one, which is saying take your years at the NSC. Did you...look it's almost do a post mortem on some of the stuff you were doing while you were still there and say, "hey, we made a mistake in how we did that. And going forward, we can't undo what we did. Well, we're gonna make changes in how we do things so we are less likely to make that sort of mistake again." Was there a...can you speak to something like that?
DONILON: I don't want to get into details. Yes, that is the answer to that question. But as I said that’s hard to do. Because you have a lot of invested parties in these things. Sure. And it's a hard thing to do. But yeah, you have to do it. And I also am a huge believer Richard, in lessons learned exercises. And again, they're hard to do, they take time, they take resources away from things. Is it in my experience really valuable to do.
HAASS: Agree. I think we've got time. Yeah, we got time for quite a few more. And I got some more if we don't have hands up. Sam, do we have anyone else in the queue?
STAFF: Yes. Our next question comes from (unintelligible). I apologize if I said your last name wrong.
Q: I thank you all so much. What a great session. Great to hear from you, Mr. Donilon. And then thank you, Mr. Haass, Dr. Haass. I spent, I was in the White House, and then the State Department. And then in the past eleven years I've been with the UN working abroad, mostly in the Middle East. And one of the things I've noticed is how barricaded our diplomats are in the embassies. It's very hard for them to leave. There's a lot of security, understandable security issues. And also in this day and age, it's hard for people to meet some of the most important people that they might need to meet with or want to meet with, by meeting with them, it could create an incident. You know, that's just the nature of things today, those quiet coffees or meetings are harder to do and that in this day. I just wanted to ask you've been at the very top of the NSC, do you see this as a problem? Or in this information age, it's not as big of a problem? Or is there anything we can do about it? Because it does...it struck me as being abroad that I was able, as a UN staffer, that basically get in the car and go almost anywhere in a country. And my friends at the embassy just couldn't. I just wanted to ask you about that.
DONILON: That's a good question. You know, this, you know, all this goes back within the United States to the Africa bombings in the late 1990s, when the State Department began a very serious effort to fortify its embassies. And of course, that was put that was kind of increased in intensity after the 9/11 attacks. And our embassies around the world do in many cases look like and are fortresses. And I think that it's a, you know, I'm a security person, also security. I think it's unfortunate. I do. I think it's unfortunate when to basically to see someone you have to make an appointment, and have them come through an elaborate security set of systems in order to have a meeting. And I think we should you know, I think we should look within the confines of you know, the thinking of kind of security, ways to ways to adjust.
Now technology provides some of that, right, we certainly have learned, right, in the last, whatever it's been now, fourteen months, that, in fact, you can operate pretty effectively via technology. Now, there are security issues with respect to some of the relationships that we want to have around the world. But in terms of general relationships, I do think that we have, as a society, as businesses, have learned a lot about how to be in communication via technology. I think that's going to be a positive thing for our diplomats and other representatives around the around the world. You know, Richard mentioned, I'm at BlackRock, you know, we have seventeen thousand employees, we're the largest investor in the world, we've been able to operate pretty seamlessly from seventeen thousand home offices. And so I think that there are a lot of lessons techniques, technologies that can help this problem.
This has been a problem for, for a long time, as I said, it goes back to the Africa bombings in the late 1990s. But it's a problem, I think, I hope we can address some of it through technology, but you won't address all of it. And, it leads to the last thing I'll say, is that, you know, it's gives me all the respect in the world for our diplomats around the world. Because there are risks that, that our diplomats, you know, kind of subject themselves to every day of the week, and I don't think that they can do their jobs effectively without that, without kind of breaking up and kind of running that kind risk-reward dynamic that you have to run. But it's pretty critical, I think, to be out of talking to society and help building relationships around the world. You know, it's interesting. I think that, I'm pretty sure that's, the view of Tony Blinken, who is, you know, in many ways, just kind of a natural, a natural diplomat. And I hope we can do, I hope we can do better than we, than we then we have, I'll tell you, you know, it will also be better, ultimately, as the United States is, is seen as working, you know, increasingly as an it's kind of traditional leadership role. And, in some cases lower the tensions in these in some of these countries.
HAASS: Tom, you mentioned—before I go to one last question—what a big impact Warren Christopher had on your career. You also obviously interacted with literally hundreds, if not thousands, of people from other countries. Who's the person who you've dealt with who made the biggest impression on you and why? What's your take away from the sweep of people you've interacted with?
DONILON: Yeah, it's interesting. You know, I mean, you know, the presidents I've worked with, I have enormous respect for, Richard, you know. But you're asking about foreign leaders. I think, yeah...
HAASS: I knew you would punt if I asked you about domestic people. That's why...
DONILON: Yeah, basically. I get this question sometimes, you know, well, you work closely with three presidents, you know, a fourth president for thirty-five years. Who do you like, you know, do you like the best? And the answer to that question, of course, is you don't become a close advisor to three or four presidents by answering that question. But I think around the world over the last thirty-five years, it would be Yitzhak Rabin, the you know, former Prime Minister of Israel. He had a—Richard, and you knew him, right? He had, right, and I think you'd agree with me, there was something special about the man. He had this combination of humility. He was a quiet person, as you know, you spent time with him kind of out of the office, in kind of the off hours. He was a very modest person living in a very modest lifestyle, right. But he also had, it was combined with a, with kind of steel in him. And I just, I just felt and I have, you know, I've met over forty years, as you have, a lot of leaders in the world and spent a lot of time on some of these, some of these leaders. He had, he had the biggest kind of intangible effect or presence in a room of any of the leaders that I've had the good fortune to deal with. Obviously, his assassination was a huge loss. But he was a unique, he was, he was kind of a, just a type of leader, right, that you didn't you rarely, you rarely see right? He didn't seem worried twenty-four hours a day about his political, you know, kind of his political you know, outlook, right, but rather focused on the big things. And of course, and you saw it, by the way, in the relationship that he had in the region, including with Assad, was a man who just had to give his word and people, people trusted it, right? So that's who if I think back on it, I think Rabin was probably the most impressive, most impactful person that I met. I mean, you spent a lot of time with him. Do you share those views?
HAASS: Yeah, very well. Yeah. He's often the answer I give to the same question. And also, what impressed me most about him, in addition to everything you said, which I agree with, was his ability to change late in life, when he basically went from the military man to the peacemaker. And the fact that he, It was so difficult for him, and in a funny sort of way gave him tremendous influence with the Israeli people in ways that somebody like Shimon Peres never enjoyed because he was almost too enthusiastic as a peacemaker. But Rabin's very reluctance, which he showed publicly, built enormous trust and confidence in the public that, if he's willing to take a risk for peace, then I can too. So I agree with you completely.
DONILON: Yeah. Yeah.
HAASS: Special man. And yeah, often history would have turned out similar ways if people had or had not been assassinated. I actually think his assassination, may have fundamentally changed history for the worst in significant ways.
DONILON: Yeah, I agree.
HAASS: Sam we probably have time for one last question. So let's, uh, if we got a hand up, let's, let's squeeze it in.
STAFF: I think we just...oh, the last hand just dropped since we're getting close to the end. So I think we're are finished with questions.
HAASS: Okay, then we...so Tom, I'll ask you then one last question, which is, any parting wisdom for, about...I mean, we've talked about process, we've talked about priorities. I don't know how to replicate luck. You were fortunate, though, with your exposure to people like Warren Christopher, and, and, and all that. What about in the way of preparation? You talked about that, you talked about small things. Anything you wish I'd been smart enough to ask you that you want to impart?
DONILON: Oh, preparation is key to everything, right? I mean, there's no way, you know, that part of the national security advisor's job is to run the process, as we talked about, and just sit at the head of the table with the cabinet members, the vice president, and then cabinet members from the national security side of the house, right down the table. You run these meetings, and try to get them to conclusions, which is not always, not always easy, you know. But it's not possible to do that well without being the best prepared person in the room. Not possible, you know. So there's, there's no substitute for, no matter how high a level.
HAASS: Yeah, so I'm gonna push it out for thirty more seconds. What is the key to being, when you say to be the best prepared person in the world, what does that mean? Does it mean that you know the most about the subject? Or is it something else?
DONILON: I think it's basically you know enough about the subject. You thought about it, you've consulted on it, that you have a general sense of what the key issues are. What the president needs to know, what he needs options on. And in some cases where you need a decision on. To do that, you have to understand, you've got to understand the substance, right? And then take it a step further, which is what I would do is to on a legal pad, which is to write out—Les Gelb gave me this advice—which is that if you're trying to work on a policy issue, have the discipline to sit down with a legal pad and write five or six declarative simple sentences of what the problem is, you know, what the policy options are and what the answer might be. And he said, close the door, right? Don't let anybody bother you—and George Shultz actually tells a similar story, right about kind of being over the State Department taking time on a Saturday afternoon to kind of sit down and do that—and take a pen in your own hand, I guess and you write, as Les would say with, say five or six really good, simple declarative sentences, right? Which is one of the hardest things to do, right? And then I would go in to the meetings with that on the legal pad sitting next to me. As I explained the issue, right, and then tried to drive it to try to drive it to a conclusion. But you can't... how can you run the meeting or direct it if you're...you can't fake it, right? If you fake it people...because I'm sitting there and who's at the table? It's Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Bob Gates, Dave Petraeus, Dick Holbrooke, you know, and you have to you got it takes time to time to prepare. But that's the most important thing. Les's advice to me I think on one of the first days I was there was a good piece of simple yet profound advice.
The one area we haven't talked about, Richard, which is an area which they're making some progress on fixing in the Biden National Security Council. Anne Neuberger is actually speaking at one of your events today, who's got this job as assistant to the president for cybersecurity and emerging technologies. One of the areas that I certainly thought that we had to do better on, and it's even more important now is technology. Technological literacy has not been one of the strengths of the leading national security people in the United States over the last twenty, thirty years, and it's now becoming essential to almost every issue that we face. So that would be one, for example, if I were going to teach habits have a when I'd hired, they have done that they built out an emerging technology director, Jake has, Jake Sullivan has on the national security council, which is absolutely essential. But to, but to go to school, and take the time to really try to master the technology. Question states, the United States is pretty essential. And we've been deficient. We've just been deficient on that. We weren't always, we weren't always, right? I mean, we had people in during the arms control era, right? Who were scientists and, you know, then who became involved in national security because of the impact technology has on our secure society, our security. Technology has a massive impact on our society and our security now, and we're weak, I think on that, in the policy world.
HAASS: It's interesting you mention it, because it was sixty-seven years ago, you're right, it was getting the military people, the scientists, the mathematicians together, the policy people. Thirty or so years ago, the idea was to get economics types together with political military types. And now yet again, we've got to cross departmental lines or disciplinary lines, because the world doesn't neatly divided itself. Mr. Donilon, thank you for the four decades of public service and sixty minutes of service that the Council on Foreign Relations and anyone who's fortunate enough to have joined us for this meeting. So Tom, thank you and enjoy the fact that you're probably the only member of your family not to be in the administration. But take care stay well stay healthy. And again, thank you for this.
DONILON: Great to be here with you, Richard, thank you for everything. Thanks, everybody. Bye bye.