Michèle Flournoy discusses her distinguished career in public service including working as former undersecretary of defense for policy.
Visit “How I Got Here: Michèle Flournoy” on the Foreign Affairs Career Center for more information.
The Lives in Public Service Roundtable Series features some of the country’s outstanding public servants discussing the lessons learned from their lives and careers.
ROSE: Hi, thank you very much, and it's my absolute pleasure to welcome you to the first session of the Round Table on Lives in Public Service for CFR. While we gather people, let me just tell you a little bit about what we're doing and why. When people started talking about the supposed deep state in America a few years ago, I thought it was really silly and I laughed it all off because it was obviously ridiculous 'cause the concept meant something, and it was just a term of abuse. When it stuck around after a while and didn't get laughed off, but became a thing and it started to get tarred with a lot of the elites more generally and a lot of establishment types, I got a little worried. And then, when I saw actual purges and show trials start, when I saw the Min-mins and the Jovanovichs, hauled before the cameras and blinking in the light from coming out from the subterranean depths of the professional technocracy and get abused for doing their jobs, I got really scared. And at that point, I assigned myself a new project and that project was to be the Alan Lomax of the deep state, I decided to be a folk lore-ist of the voices. Gathering the voices of a dwindling venerable community under great stress in the modern world.
And so I started this thing called the Foreign Affairs Career Center, and I did a whole bunch of cool interviews, like the one you just read with Michèle Flournoy, for inclusion as models for professional service to the youngins of the world. And the criteria for inclusion in this club were that the people had to be great professionals, they had to be great people, and they had to be willing to be honest, when I asked them anything I wanted to ask them, not therapy honest, but friend honest, like no bullshit. Sorry. And so, we're now racking these up. There's one going up every month. And we decided to do a public live version with follow-on discussions with some of these same heroic public servants so that you all could get a chance to ask Ms. Wizard or Mr. Wizard, whatever you wanted, and I get to continue the conversation. That's why we're here with Michèle today. Michèle, as you all know, because you've all read the interview that we sent you, which was wonderfully detailed, but honest and frank about her glorious career. Now, we're going to follow up on that. Michèle, you once told me a story about going to a funeral of a colleague that you thought would be sparsely attended, finding it quite populated and having that be a revelation, which helped set you on a different path or an important path. Do you remember that story and can you please tell it?
FLOURNOY: First of all, I'm honored and a little anxious about being your guinea pig, Gideon, but I'm very happy to be here and share any insights that I can for those who were listening in. I think I told you the story of Shawn Brimley, who had been my special assistant at CSIS. He came with me and Curt when we founded CNAS and was a plain colder there. He eventually became the director of studies there, he served in government with me, he helped start WestExec Advisors with me. He really was my partner in crime in all endeavors, and just an incredible young leader in his own right. Very sadly, he had developed a form of incurable cancer and within a matter of weeks died just as he was entering his 40s. And so, I knew he had a lot of friends and colleagues and so forth. So, it wasn't that I expected a sparsely attended funeral, but I expected a normal funeral. And I was asked to give the eulogy, and one of the things that was so striking to me about Shawn, was that even as a relatively... He was still mid-career himself with many years ahead of him, he was always focused on mentoring and developing younger people. And he was brilliant at it. And so, in the course of my eulogy, I paused and looked at the audience...
And first of all, this was St. Columba's church, and literally it was standing room only. There were probably 6-700 people. It was huge. A packed sanctuary. And I said, "Shawn was an amazing coach and mentor. Raise your hand if at some point you were mentored or coached by Shawn." And two-thirds of the congregation raised their... Hundreds and hundreds of people. And this guy was barely 40 years old. And it was a revelation in the sense that I think it made me realize that I'd been doing a lot of mentoring through my career, but you really don't have to be a senior gray haired pooba to be a good mentor. You can start mentoring now. I've told my son who went to the one of the service academies, "There's some other kid from your high school who's dying to figure out how to get into a service academy. It's not too early for you as a freshman to turn around and mentor that young student who's coming behind you. It's never too early." And when I think about Shawn's impact, even though his life was tragically cut short, the number of people he touched in profound ways personally and professionally because he focused on that, helping other people in their development and their journeys, it was remarkable for someone who had his life cut so short.
ROSE: You've been the beneficiary of a lot of those great mentors. One of the great lines from your interview is, "Choose the boss, not the job." Based on your experiences. 'Cause you had good jobs with bad bosses that you didn't like, and good bosses and jobs that wouldn't otherwise be seen as great but that you loved. The story I want you to tell now is the one of the delivery of the first QDR, as an example of mentorship in action, in which you presented.
FLOURNOY: Yes. You have too good a memory. When we were doing the 1997 QDR, correspondingly, I was very pregnant with my first child. And I had a wonderful boss, Ted Warner, who is famous in his time in the Pentagon, he's now passed. But he was an incredible mentor of young people, and particularly notable at the time, a mentor of young women coming into the field. He was a mentor to me. He was a mentor to Kath Hicks, now the Deputy Secretary. He was a mentor to Christine Wormuth, now the first female Secretary of the Army, and the list goes on and on. Two or three generations. He was gonna single-handedly try to cultivate a balanced and diverse talent pipeline all by himself. A wonderful boss. And so it was coming time to present the QDR, and you can imagine, the secretary, the chairman, the chiefs, the combatant commands, all of the under secretaries, the entire department leadership coming in to be briefed on the defense strategy and the QDR. And Ted, like a day before says, "Why don't you do the briefing?"
FLOURNOY: Now, any assistant secretary in their right mind is gonna wanna stand up there and do the briefing, but Ted was like, "No, I don't need any more face time with all these guys. They know... You, this will be a great opportunity for you. They need to discover you." He puts me up on the stage and I am so pregnant, my first son was born six months later, that the Admiral that I was briefing with the joint staff, he was my co-briefer, he kept offering me a chair and trying to insist that I sit down. I was making everybody very nervous by being up there. But, it was just a wonderful example where someone said, "I could do this, but I don't need to do this, the more important thing is to give this young person an opportunity to shine and to be out there in front." And again, just a wonderful example of leadership and mentorship in my view.
ROSE: This is actually great. Let me actually go from there to something I was gonna touch on later, but... Well, no, actually, I'm gonna take what you said. The women you just mentioned, and you, and I, are all part of not just the same tribe, but the same sub-tribe. A venerable one called the civilian defense analyst. Not a military professional, but a military adjacent professional with disciplines of its own, McNamara’s wiz kids on, etcetera. That tribe seems not even to be recognized by most people anymore and I'm curious whether you think it has a future. When you and I were growing up and being trained, there were whole sets of role models and a distinct notion of what a civilian defense professional was. In either foreign policy or national security or defense. There was a whole reft. And then the last several years, it's almost like, there is no professionals in here. We can get a secretary. We can bring principles into the areas that used to be run by civilian defense professionals or foreign policy professionals and we can put anybody in those jobs, because there's no professionalism there. I was raised to think differently, Do you think that whole concept has now exploded?
FLOURNOY: I don't think it's exploded. I think the cadre and the valuing of real expertise and people who spend years and years building depth of expertise, building policy experience, building knowledge, that that was marginalized or undervalued in the last administration. And so, you had all kinds of folks who have very little defense background coming in, or you have senior military officers being put in traditionally civilian positions, I think you're seeing a course correction with the Biden administration. You look at the people that are filling in the leadership jobs, and every single one of them has real credentials, years and years of experience as a defense civilian. I do think that was a bit of an aberration. But I would say that we can't just rest on our laurels here, we have to do a better job of cultivating a talent pipeline that looks more like America. That's really important in a Democracy, really important if we're gonna leverage all of the talent that's available, really important if we're gonna have high performing organizations, because all of the business literature says, more diverse decision-making teams make better decisions, better bottom line, better performance, etcetera.
FLOURNOY: I think where that is a job, there's progress in some areas. Evidence of a female Deputy Secretary, a female Secretary of the Army, but we are not done. We are particularly not done on the womens side, and we're also not done particularly with regarding people of color and ethnicity, because there the pipeline is not any where of what it needs to be. And that's a long process. When you take Kath and Christine as examples, they started as interns in my office 30 years ago. And I'm not taking exclusive credit for them, they are their own incredibly talented people, but I'm saying it's literally a 30-year process to grow someone from a Presidential Management Intern to a Deputy Secretary of Defense. And we have not made that investment in cultivating that diversity more broadly, and that's something we really need to do, I think. As a field.
ROSE: I wanna follow up on that in detail because there's two stories there. One, a relative story, and one an absolute story. The absolute story is what you're talking about, which is there's a long way to go. You look at the number line and you look forward and my God, there's a lot more to get to full inclusion, full equity, etcetera. But if you look the other direction, if you look either backwards from where we were, or if you look horizontally compared to other institutions in American society, I think the US military is a glorious example in the long run of professional meritocracy, inclusion and diversity compared to any other sector of American professional life. I can't think of any other institution of that scale who's record in bringing the various sectors of American society together into careers, open to talents in a single institution that you can trust and has real learning. I can't think of any other better than academia, so how do you account for where we've come and where we still have to go?
FLOURNOY: Okay, yes and no. I agree, the military was probably the first major US institution that ended segregation and really integrated seriously. And they've taken that very seriously. And when you look at the rank and file, it is a very diverse organization, and it certainly aspires to be a meritocracy. But where that argument falls down or it falls short, is when you look at leadership ranks. When you move into the leadership ranks, General and Flag Officers, you do not have a fully representative leadership rank. There's some kind of drop-off that's happening for both women and for people of color when you get to leadership ranks. And so you can have... I'd have to count the years, 20 plus years between the first black Chairman, Colin Powell, and the first Black Service Chief, CQ Brown. More than 20 years. What's going on there? You can have the fact that General Brown has mentioned, when he entered the Air Force 30 year-plus years ago, 2% of pilots were people of color or African-American. Today, what percentage of pilots are African-American? Two percent. Where does the Air Force leadership come from? Pilots. And others, but predominantly.
And strange statistics where if you look at the number of African-Americans in the total of 40-plus four stars, the numbers go up and down. I don't have the numbers off the top of my head, but they went as high as seven, I think, 10, 15 years ago. And now, it's back down to two. We have a real problem in terms of representation in the leadership ranks and the way in which people are being tracked and promoted, and whether or not they're being retained and developed properly.
ROSE: Okay, good. I've got another follow-up on this because it's an important subject. I once sat next to former Senator Barbara Mikulski, at some gala dinner and making small talk, I asked her what she liked and didn't like about the Senate. And to my surprise, she launched into a thing about how much she loved the committee work. Getting stuff done, passing a bill, making it through the system, and I looked at her and I was thinking to myself, "What kind of person is this that actually enjoys senate committee work? Oh my God." You're the same type of weirdo. You like bureaucratic reform and management. You've thought long and hard, not just about the line of we need to do something better, what could an organization like DOD or the military services, broadly speaking, do to address the problems you're talking about? What specific bureaucratic reforms and policy changes could actually make a difference in this situation? 'Cause I know you've thought about this type of thing a lot.
FLOURNOY: Yeah. I think the first thing... I hope that Secretary Austin, to his credit, has established a task force on this issue. And I hope that they are starting with a baseline assessment, soup to nuts. From the earliest recruitment all the way through to career development, career paths, promotion, retention, leader promotion to general officer. So, I hope they're doing that soup to nuts view. Because the one other organization where I participated in something like this was the CIA, where they brought in an external panel to help them with diversity. It was Vernon Jordan, the wonderful. God bless him. Madeleine Albright, Mike Mall, Admiral Mullen, and myself and some staff. And the question was, they were recruiting perfectly diversed classes. Gender-balanced, representative, and then fast forward 12-13 years to a promotion, the point where you're considered for senior intelligence service, which is their equivalent of senior executive service, suddenly the numbers fell through the floor. Not enough women, not enough people of color, and the question is, what is happening in those first 13-15 years? Why are people not coming up the ranks? That's the kind of work DOD has to do, because it's not one thing. There's gonna be a recruiting issue, because we recruit where it's easy as opposed to really working hard to recruit a fully diverse force.
Too often, some services tend to track people in certain specialties down the line that's gonna determine whether you really are competitive for promotion and ultimately for general officer. You have mentoring and sponsorship issues. If you have a Mini Me culture of mentorship. If you're the predominant majority leader in the military, you'll be a white man and if you're taking a Mini me approach, you're gonna find another young white male officer who reminds you of yourself and say, "Oh, he's so wonderful, I'm gonna help him along." But if that's the dynamic mentoring and that senior man is not mentoring a woman, or mentoring a person color as well, then that becomes a barrier. And then, there are just so many other points along the path. You really have to take a systematic look and then you have to go after it in a systematic way, and I do hope that's what the task force will be doing.
ROSE: You've said to me, you said in the interview, that the bureaucracy works, it can work if the people at the top want to make it work in effect and they have clear rules and they know what they're doing, and that the notion that it's all un-governable and you can't do anything or get anything done, is just wrong. So explain why it's actually... Explain how you can make the building work.
FLOURNOY: First of all, you have to have some vision for what you wanna do and a sense of priorities, it can't be everything is a priority, then you have no priorities, but some clear sense of where you're gonna focus your time and bandwidth and energy. You gotta pick a team that is capable and then empower that team to go out and try to achieve the priorities and objectives you've set, and then you have to measure their progress, you have to hold people accountable, you have to be willing to coach people, move people, replace people, you gotta hold people accountable. But the key thing that I found that was kind of missing, that I actually learned from my prior private sector experience and management consulting, was this issue of aligning incentives. When people behave the same way again and again, despite how the guidance changes, that tells me you've changed the guidance, but you haven't changed the incentive structure, and when you make a relatively small tweaks to the incentive structure to align with your goals, it's amazing how quickly behavior will change. And I do have a story on this too. Do you want me to tell it?
ROSE: Heck yeah, tell that story.
FLOURNOY: My one favorite story, because it's very simple to understand, is when I came into policy, we had a very exhausted, low morale staff, extremely mission-focused, extremely service-focused, but just exhausted, and so we decided, what this team needed was some love and attention in the form of, "We're gonna actually invest in your professional development," and part of that is getting people to training, getting people to courses that would then set them up for promotion, and all of this stuff. And so, we brought all the supervisors in, said, We're gonna emphasize training, we're gonna... The goal is, everybody gets to the Office of Personnel Management OPM standard of two weeks a year, and we're gonna do this. Yes, ma'am." And then I waited and I got two training requests out of a 600-plus person organization. "Hmm. Maybe I need to say it again." So the next Town Hall, I'm there saying it again.
Anyway, long story short... Probably short long, I realized that people said, "Well, we're too busy. Haven't you heard there're two wars going on? That's my best person, I can't possibly lose them to training for two weeks. I don't have any way to cover them," all these excuses, and I finally realized I had to align the incentives for the supervisors. And so, I said basically, "If you're a supervisor and you do not get at least 80% of your staff to the required training this year, and we're very flexible about what the training is, that's for you and the employee to decide, but you gotta get them to two weeks of training, you cannot get a five on your performance evaluation," and that is the kiss of death in the bureaucracy. If you don't have consistent fives, that's like... You'll never make SES, you'll never get promoted, it's just a disaster. I literally got hundreds of training requests within the weeks that followed, because suddenly, "Oh, okay. Now it matters to me and my career, and so I'm gonna get with the program." So you have to think through, "How do you realign those incentives, to change behavior?"
ROSE: Okay, let me ask you one policy question before going into another little thing, and then turning it over to our distinguished participants, who will then murder board you as they wish. I've served with a lot of really smart people, as have you, and we've also watched, as all of those administrations have done really dumb things time and again and again. Why do smart people grouped together, end up doing repeatedly dumb things like screwing up interventions, like screwing up policies, stuff that if you go back and look at it, you could say afterwards, "Well, of course, you should have done this," because all the people in the real-time, it looks so easy after the fact, and the mistakes look so obvious after the fact. But there are smart people going along and somehow things don't always work right. Why is our track record not better if bright people like Michèle Flournoy and her colleagues have been running things for the last 30 years? Why aren't we in a better place?
FLOURNOY: I don't think there's a single answer. I think there are lots of answers. I'll list a couple of them. One is, you have to create a leadership climate, where dissent is not punished, that people can speak up and say... Even if they're the most junior person in the room, they can speak up and say, "I'm not sure we're going in the right direction," or, "Have we really thought about this or thought about that?" I can't speak to prior administrations, but one of, I think, Barack Obama's greatest strengths in the Situation Room was, he created that environment, where even if you were the person, the back bencher against the wall at the far end of the room, and he saw you scowling, he was gonna call you out and say, "What do you think?" And so, he solicited dissent to make sure he had different points of view. So that's one thing, you gotta... You can't... And then you contrast that with someone like Rumsfeld, when he was Secretary, who literally fired general officers who didn't agree with him on... Who raised questions about the Iraq war plan.
A second thing is, I think we need to give history a seat at the table. There are countless times when we were trying to get our hands... Our heads around a problem, and we would certainly get great assessment and analysis from the intelligence community, but we didn't have anyone who could really offer a historical perspective. For example, if you're going to shift to a counter-insurgency strategy, could you have an historian of counter-insurgency that could have come in and said, "These are the ones that succeeded and these were the conditions that allowed the success, and these are the ones that failed, and these are the conditions that led to failure," and you have that context to evaluate, "Okay. Which of these groupings is what I'm considering doing in?" That would have been extremely helpful, to avoid some of those mistakes. So those are just a couple of ideas, and I'm sure there are many, many, many more.
ROSE: I look forward to your support and your various capacities for funding for PhD programs for people studying counter-insurgency. I'm sure, the SWAMOS crowd and other people will be very happy to take new people coming in to write those books, and John Nogle can train them up the wazoo. So let me, before turning you over to the piranhas, ask you one question on a more personal note. I started this project partly, to sort of seek out guidance from people who seem to have it more together than I did, and in the hope that I could learn some lessons, and what I found was sort of depressing, 'cause people like you, you seem to have had an incredibly healthy, resilient psychological temperament throughout, leading you to do all the things you've done and to go through psychologically unscathed and un-troubled, obviously, not some freakish way. But the lessons learned... It's not like you can... You don't seem able to tell me how to be you because you seem to have been you throughout, and you just are like that.
And my question to you is, what makes you so calm and resilient and preternaturally, psychologically healthy, that can allow you to have the kind of professional career you had, through all the various personal stuff that you've done and still be a nice, normal human being, rather than some freakazoid? And it's an honest question.
FLOURNOY: Okay. I'm not always calm, cool, and collected, but I have my moments. But I think one thing is, I... And without going into too much detail, I did have... There were some externalities in my life, as a young person, that were very challenging in my growing up, and loss of a parent, a divorce, some other things going on, and so I learned survival and resilience and making my own way as an escape and survival mechanism, really really early. And that's one of the reasons why I did so well at school. School was the ticket out, school was the ticket to control my own future. So I got well trained the hard way, early on.
But then I think the other thing I would say, and I wouldn't wish that on anybody to get that, but I would say, I think the other thing is, I've always had been counseled to pay attention to the things that ground you. For me, it's things like having some quiet time each day, whether it's to meditate or... I am a person of faith, whether it's have other things in your life besides work, whether it's dear friends, whether it's spending time with your family, whether it's a hobby, or working out or whatever it is, but even when you're at the max in those very challenging public service positions, try to... You can't get the hour and a half workout, get the half-hour workout, you can't have five hours with your family have one hour with your family, but try to keep a hold of the things that nourish you as a person and keep you centered and grounded and healthy.
ROSE: Michèle, thank you very much. I am now gonna open it to discussion. And we have a number of people here and the moderator will tell us how to do that.
SPEAKER: As a reminder to ask a question, please click on the "Raise Hand" icon on your Zoom window. When you're called on, please accept the "Unmute Now" prompt, then proceed with your name and affiliation, followed by your question.
ROSE: Who wants to be the first to ask Michèle Flournoy a question?
SPEAKER: So we'll take our first question from Mary Boise.
BOISE: Hello, and thank you both. I am not a member of this tribe, but I am a keen observer of this tribe, and I've always liked what I see. What worries me about the Pentagon, is that if someone today came up with the idea of a Higgins boat, and we really needed it, I have no confidence that it would get built. Why is it that so many good people can work there and so few things seem to get done quickly, efficiently and effectively? Thank you so much.
FLOURNOY: It's a great question, because it's really critical to adapting, for the future environment that we're going to face in building up our capacity and our confidence to be able to deter aggression from a great power like a rising China in the future. We've got to be able to harness commercially cutting edge technologies, bring it in quickly and scale it and integrate it with our existing systems much more quickly than we're doing today. I think the reasons for that are many, but one of them is that we're working off of an acquisition approach that was really designed by Bob McNamara in the 1950s, and it was brought over from Ford Motor Company, it was the best practice at the time, but not so well suited to the digital age and a period of emerging, rapidly emerging new technologies. And so, I think we have to...
I think the practical solution is that approach may work for big complex systems, like buying a... Building a nuclear submarine over years, or a fleet of new aircraft, but if you're trying to integrate AI, you're trying to integrate... Develop a new one-man system quickly, you're gonna have to take a different approach that emphasizes agile development and so forth, which goes back to my incentive piece, which is you actually have to take a portion of the acquisition core who's only been taught to do the one way and actually train them on a different approach, to rapidly develop and integrate new technologies into programs, and then you have to incent them to do that, they have to have a higher risk profile, they have to know... Be comfortable with the technology, they have to be able to be willing and have the top cover to disrupt existing programs to do that integration. So it takes training, incentivizing and then promoting and making a career path for a sub-cadre of acquisition and kind of the green berets of the acquisition core, is what I'm advocating for. But it does take some systemic change to be able to go after that.
And I do think, that's... I think this team is gonna try. And you just had Secretary Austin make a very powerful statement about how we're talking the talk and not walking the walk, and the department... What about this challenge does the department not understand? We've gotta move faster.
SPEAKER: We'll take the next question from Beth Pond.
POND: Can you hear me? How long do you think it's going to take, well, both the Department of Defense and the Department of State, to recover from Trump?
FLOURNOY: I think it's gonna take at least this first term, if not longer. Some of it's gonna take longer. So I do think that you're seeing a re-balancing already, where career civilians are being brought into leadership discussions, they're being given important responsibilities, they're being made part of the team, and so, that's very positive. But what's something that you can't recover overnight, even if you try, is the fact that if you look at the state department, you had over 100 ambassador level rank Foreign Service professionals walk, vote with their feet and leave during the Trump administration, because they couldn't... They just couldn't stomach what was going on. You can't regrow that talent over night, there's gonna be a gap in the pipeline now. Maybe they can try to hire some of those folks back if they get authorization from Congress and they're willing, but it's gonna take many years to create that next group of ambassadors that's ready to fill those empty shoes. So some of this, you can create, kind of course correct immediately, and other things will take probably 10, 20 years to re-grow some of the human capital... The most experienced human capital that you lost.
SPEAKER: And there are no other questions at this time in the queue, so back to you, Gideon.
ROSE: Okay. So I used to be much less cynical, because I used to think that we were all sort of reasonably well-intentioned technocrats, and that their problems were those of knowledge, not sort of intention or capability, and that if we only consider, figure out, as you said, which circumstances counter-insurgency worked and in which it didn't, then of course, once you had answers like that, you'd put them there. I wrote an entire dissertation about how you screwed up the ends of wars every single time, and in the time since I started that dissertation, we fought several different wars of interventions and the worst mistakes have been made after I started writing my book, saying, "All the things we've done will follow this way." So I'm no longer optimistic about the system yielding good outcomes, as I said, even when there are good people inside it and even when we have the knowledge. So I'm curious, why you're still optimistic towards the end or later stages of your career, when I've become so cynical.
FLOURNOY: I guess if I'm gonna get out of the bed in the morning, I have to believe that we're still... We're capable of learning from our mistakes. I would add to that list that we started with, a why good people make bad decisions. There is a certain... And I think Americans are more prone to it than maybe others, a certain confidence in our ability to change things and change conditions and change others, and I remember a... One of... Former Israeli Defense Minister that was visiting CNAS for a round table, Mr. Yaalon, and we were talking about some horrific and perennial problem in the Middle East, and he said, "You know... And how to solve it, and he said, "The problem with you Americans, you think every problem can be solved. Some problems are insolvable and you just have to manage them." Now, you've gotta be careful, that can be an excuse for not dealing with something really important like the Israeli-Palestinian problem or whatever, but we do... Regularly around the Situation Room table, you'll have conversations about, "How do we change this country's strategic calculus or this... That country's perception of their interest?" And when you think about that, that's a really hard thing to do.
So it's probably flag, to say, "Do we wanna base our policy on being able to do that, or do we need to accept that their interest and their calculus is what it is, but then alter their incentive structure, in terms of what they're gonna do to pursue those interests or what range of things they will and won't try?" A more humble approach, maybe.
ROSE: You raise those questions in the situation... Put it this way, when someone in the Situation Room says something like that, does some guy in the back or on the table, or the side say, "Excuse me, that's probably never gonna happen, so we should lower our sites to have a more successful policy," or will you be hounded out of the room for being a defeatist?
FLOURNOY: I think it's a mix. Sometimes, someone will question, oftentimes, an intelligence professional who knows the country inside out and knows their history will say, "Well, this is how they've looked at it for 200 years," or something. They'll stop short of the policy recommendation 'cause they feel that's not their job, but it's kind of like, "You can try, but for the last 200 years, this is pretty much how they viewed the world." But I do think, again, back to the climate that's created, you need to be able to have those discussions, create a climate where someone can speak up and say, "Wait a minute, we're being way too hopeful, way too confident in what we're able to do, and maybe we need to take an appetites suppressant before we define our objectives in this particular intervention or policy."
ROSE: With that, we'll go to Bill Nash.
NASH: Thank you, Gideon, I appreciate you doing this. Michèle, appreciate you getting on the hot seat and sharing your experience and wisdom with us.
FLOURNOY: It's great to hear your voice, sir.
NASH: I'd like to go back to your professional development issue and you changing the incentive structure to get people to go to two weeks of training, etcetera, etcetera. It seems to me, I would agree that the military model has some deficiencies and is turbulent at times, in its model. But the matter of fact is... The fact of the matter is, is that professional development is part of career progression, and so... And often, a leader has no choice but to send his best officers off to school 'cause they're selected by a higher authority.
FLOURNOY: Yeah, it's an interesting model. Maybe that is a great idea to look at, whether that we should have something closer to that on the civilian side. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt you, sir. Was that the end of your...
NASH: No, I just was gonna say, both the state department and the civilian side of the Defense Department have a great deal of difficulty in institutionalizing, and too often, the slots that the military give to the civilian sides, not necessarily... The people are not necessarily chosen for their future potential.
FLOURNOY: Right. So two comments on that. One is, I do think it is a... The military's culture of being a profession of arms and being a profession, means you have to have professional development and all of this sort of step-by-step skills building and leadership building is... It's a very unique thing. I do think some of that would be great, to replicate on the civilian side, but if you do that, it has resource implications. So the military is resourced to have a rotation base, to have a basically a training and education slope, meaning at every one time, it's understood on the Hill, that a certain thousands of military people will be in the school house, in training, doing something other than being available for operational tasks and deployment, and they resource them that way. We do not resource the civilian cadre in the State Department that way, there is no training slope, so they may squeeze in an ambassador course, quick course or a language course before they deploy off to their next job, but they are not resourced to do that, and that has implications. It means they literally don't have the additional people in the system to show up when the military, or a defense college, or a training exercise offers a place to the state department, they're pulling someone out of an operational job to go do that, and that is not always gonna be their highest priority.
So I think if we're... I agree with you, but I think we have to recognize, there are resource implications and you've gotta convince the hill that they've got to invest more in the State Department, without necessarily... Without not just buying more people, but buying that training impressional development time as well.
ROSE: That is such a crucial point, because every time someone calls for a civilian surge, I just want to shake my head and go, "It's crazy," because there's no giant pool of civilians to surge, because there isn't a whole pool of them like there is in the military.
FLOURNOY: One of the tasks that Tom Nides and I had, Tom Nides in particular, and I tried to help on the OST side, was finding civilians to surge to Afghanistan, and we got up to a 1000 and I remember, at the end of that year and all those people were coming out, people turned Tom, "Okay, where this is the next 1000?" and he's like, "I'm out of schlits, I have no... There is no other 1000 because they don't exist, they've never been resourced, they're just... They're not there, and nor have we trained and incented people in the Foreign Service, to be expeditionary and operational and so forth. That's a minority of the Foreign Service." So anyway, if you really want to take that on, you've got to address the politics of the color of money on the hill, voting for an extra defense dollar in many... For many, is a patriotic act. On the conservative end of the spectrum, voting for more money for the state department is, "Well, why are we building bureaucracy?" Literally, people sort of see a soldier in one way and a Foreign Service officer in another way, which is... Doesn't make sense in my view, but we've gotta make the for why you need this capability, and it needs to be strong and it needs to be professional, going forward.
ROSE: Meena Bose, Cynthia Roberts and Barnett Rubin are on the list. Meena, you're up next.
BOSE: Thank you. Thank you, Gideon. And thank you, Michèle, this is a very informative talk. The interview was also so instructive, I really enjoyed the questions and I wanted to pick up on one, and your answer. A question the Gideon asked you was, in op-ed that says, "Here's what you should do on Syria tomorrow, is worthless to policy makers," and you replied, "It's not that helpful." And your answer about the importance of kind of looking long-term, just, I think addressed so well, what academics do, what scholars do. Yet, I guess my question is about the public education process in foreign policy, because I know, I think many of us in this session could speak to getting queries regularly, about wanting instant reactions about what is happening with the border crisis, refugee policy, what's going to happen with the withdrawal from Afghanistan, people... Queries often come from journalists, from students, about immediate results and or immediate action, and how do we communicate... How do we balance that educational process, the kind of immediate term, immediate reaction, short-term, long-term, I guess as academics, policy makers would welcome your thought.
FLOURNOY: Well, I think it's a great question. If you're in a position of teaching young people, I think when courses are able to introduce some kind of strategy or long-term planning exercise into the curriculum, so it's not just a current events course, but if it's like, "Okay, your job is to design the sort of grand strategy, vis a vis or the strategy vis a vis, China for the next five to 10 years," How do you do that? I think those are the kinds of things you can integrate into an academic preparation that gets people thinking longer term. I think, on the think tank side, I used to always say, "We all love to... There are lot of people... People like to tweet or be the commentator on the news of the day, but the real value of think tanks is in developing intellectual capital that the policy maker doesn't know they need yet, 'cause when you're in the policy job, you're... It's the tyranny of the inbox is, surviving your day, surviving your week, but where you're not spending a lot of time necessarily, developing brilliant, great ideas for the long-term future. Those are gonna come mostly from the outside or from what you brought in in your intellectual suitcase and those around you.
But that's a huge service that think tanks play, and too often, they allow themselves to get sucked into the day-to-day at the expense of doing that more substantial intellectual capital development. The last thing I'll say, and this is something I'm trying to do in my own portfolio, going forward, we spend a lot of time talking to each other, experts to experts. I'm on so many... I've done so many podcasts, where it's a policy wonk talking to a policy wonk and there are a bunch of policy wonks listening. So I've been asked to do a podcast actually, for a really smart lay audience, consider your NPR listener or your Freakonomics radio listener, and I've decided to do it because I really feel strongly about the point you're making, which is, we have got to reach the American people and have them understand, "Why is this stuff important? Why should they care?" and to bring them in via stories and people... Examples of people, who they're like, "Wow, I've never heard of that person, but that was... Phew, wow. What a fascinating person, and I'm so interested now in learning more about policy question X." so I just think we have to reach beyond our own circles and comfort zones, to really try to engage people much more than we have bee. Very important, going forward.
ROSE: Cynthia Roberts.
ROBERTS: Thank you, Gideon, and thank you, Michèle Flournoy, for doing this. So as a precursor to my question, I should say that thanks to the Council on Foreign Relations, I had a CFR fellowship, year 2019 for the more advanced older scholars to go to Washington, and I spent that time in the Pentagon, in the Joint Staff, working in J5 in SDNP, and it was a choice I made exactly as you recommended, though I don't know you personally, in the sense of I picked the person and the shop, not just the idea of going to Washington, which I didn't need to do and my family thought I was crazy to do. But not having any young child responsibilities, I thought it was a great time and it was. And it was exactly the right choice, exactly the right office, and a really tremendous experience. But it leads me to two questions for you. One is, it almost didn't happen because security clearances now take an infinity to occur. I'm a Russia specialist, I do some work now in China, but that wasn't the issue, it's just the bureaucracy, it takes forever. The physicist in my office had the same problem.
So, this has to be fixed and not enough attention is addressed to it. I was able to delay my year by a semester, so it could still happen, but it almost didn't happen. And thanks to my university and to the council, we were able to do that. And it was an invaluable experience, and I would recommend it to others, which leads to my real question, which is, I have the sense now, that Washington has become more insular than ever, people always say, "We don't have enough academic experts on X, Y, and Z," but they never look beyond Washington. We have plenty of Russia experts, we have a lot of great China experts, we have fewer, but I know people like me are trying to build more expertise on nuclear issues, and some granting organizations have also been really instrumental in doing that at the graduate level, but I think I'm teaching one of the few undergraduate courses in this area. So the question is, why aren't people like you doing more, to reach out beyond Washington and encourage what we used to have, when Giddy and I started graduate school?
Our professors often worked in Washington, there was more engagement in the academic community, and now it's only think tanks. So I tell my graduate students, "Try and get a job at RAND or get a job at one of the great think tanks, like your old thing tank, and then maybe you can get into Washington, because from academe, it's not possible anymore," and I'm by the way, not looking for a job, I'm happy as a professor, but I'm worried about my students feeling they all have to pile into Washington think tanks. And I'm also worried about policy, you're not getting that historical perspective, you're not getting the larger, longer-term perspective, you're just getting... I think a lot of what I read, even really good reports from Washington think tanks are still very different from the academic analysis on the same issues. Thanks a lot.
FLOURNOY: No, it's a really... No, two really good points. First of all, I think everybody on this call would be absolutely in agreement with you, about the need to overhaul and fix our security clearance system, it's become a huge barrier to talent, not only people like you who are coming in for fellowship tours, but also their ability to attract tech talent, which is becoming increasingly important. There has been a transfer of responsibility in this area, there is talk of reform and changing the fundamental approach, but the proof is in the pudding, the question is, "Is it going... It's currently taking over a year for a lot of people, that needs to come down to a matter of weeks, to have it be effective, and given the modern tools of... You're probably gonna learn more from an extensive Google and database search and real digital due diligence, than you will today... In today's day and age, going and interviewing the neighbors to the right and the left of the people who are being considered for position. So, not that they're exclusive, but there's a lot that can be done in the digital domain, that will give you the bulk of the information you need to make a judgement about someone, as well as making telephone interviews or what have you.
But to your point about... I agree we should be casting the net more widely, and I would love to see... There used to be offices that we counted on to do that. So when Andy Marshall ran net assessment, he was basically a grant-giving office that would fund fundamental, really long-term strategic research on how the environment is changing, how differently we're evolving, how thinking about deterrence is changing, and it was a way to bring real academic expertise. If you went to his summer studies, it was a nice mix of policy and academia, but the academics were the majority and the policy makers were there to listen and learn. So I would like to see more of that happening. I agree, it's atrophied. I don't have a clear sense of why, except for maybe some of the funding for those programs drying up, but I would think that each agency would wanna find the academics who are at the cutting edge of research in the areas that they're covering, and find ways to tap into their work and to their talent. So I think it's a very good point.
ROSE: Barnett Rubin.
RUBIN: Thank you. Hi, Michèle. As you know, there's a lot of discussion these days, about the over-militarization of US foreign and national security policy, and that means several different things. One of them is, a disproportionate on military types of threats rather than on threats like climate change, pandemics and so on. And another is, something that I experienced personally during my time in government is, what I would say is an organizational cognitive bias against diplomacy or the peaceful resolution of disputes, in favor of military action, which I would summarize just saying that if you have a few meetings and you don't get anywhere with the negotiations, then their response is, "Well, you need more pressure. Let's send more troops." If your military strategy is not doing well, then you say, "Well, the strategy is sound, but we need more troops," and you almost have to be apologetic about proposing negotiations, the presumption was they wouldn't work, whereas the military would be very gung ho and difficult to challenge in their presumption that they would succeed. I just wonder what you think about those set of problems.
FLOURNOY: Well, again, I'd go first, to your point about militarization of foreign policy. There have been periods where you've had DOD on steroids, and other agencies on... Civilian agencies on life support, and when you have that resource imbalance, you have trouble. You have a three-legged stool that's diplomacy, defence and development, that's pretty lopsided, and you have trouble when you go to integrate for a whole government strategy, it's kind of hard to do, it goes to, that you don't have the civilian surge or the Congress won't fund your diplomatic footprint, but they'll fund a huge military footprint or what have you. So I do think that that sort rebalancing is important, and I think at least the administration is... This administration is talking the talk on that, they are talking about a diplomacy-first approach, they are asking for some substantial precepts of resources for the State Department and USAID and others, there's downward pressure on the defense budget. So anyway, I do think... But I do, I think there's some rebalancing that is appropriate.
In terms of the broader mindset, I think, one, I would love, CFR is a great venue for this, I would... And you, Barney, personally, you're a great person to do some of this, I do think it's worth thinking about what lessons do we learn from interventions like Afghanistan and Iraq, and I think one of the patterns that we see is, you can... Military intervention can reach certain objectives in terms of creating a more secure, stable environment, but they can kind of get you to the 50-yard line, the 20-yard-line, wherever you are, but they can't get you over the final line. That is a question of politics and diplomacy, and negotiation, and political resolution of conflict. And I think when we don't resource that part of the campaign, when we don't plan for that as the primary objective, that's what we're trying to get to, and suddenly, it's upon us and we don't have the right people, we don't have the research, we don't have the focus, we don't have the plan. This is a lesson that we need to try to learn, as we also take a greater dose of humility in how we define our objectives in the first place.
ROSE: From your lips to God's ears, as my other tribe says. So, Michèle Flournoy, thank you very much for your service to our country and the world, and for your repeated willingness to subject yourself to be the woman in the arena, on my pestering events. So thank you. Thank all of you. Thank you, Mary. I am the Mary and David Boies Distinguished Fellow in US Foreign Policy in American... At the CFR, and I look forward to seeing all of you who want to... At future round tables.
FLOURNOY: Great. Thanks, everybody.