International Affairs Forum: Give us a little bit of background about the report, “Transforming the National Security Culture: A Report of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Defense Leadership Project,” that you co-authored. What was the impetus for the report?
Chris Taylor: It started as a project with two classmates at Harvard - Major Fernando Lujan and Major Kent Park. They felt compelled to do a study that talked about the leadership that will be necessary in the future within the national security establishment to be successful. What are the gaps, what are we doing well, what are we not doing well? And is it possible for us, from a ground perspective, a junior perspective, to make recommendations to current leaders in the national security apparatus about what could possibly be done in the future? So it was accepted as a study at the Center for Public Leadership.
IA-Forum: The report concludes with a description of the new national security professional, one who is intellectually curious, adaptive and innovative. It also says changes will come from young, emerging leaders and inspiring ideals will come from young minds. So is there little hope that older, seasoned national security professionals can bring forth the change that you desire? Are you basically saying old dogs cannot learn new tricks?
Mr. Taylor: No. I don’t think we’re saying that at all. What we’re saying is that the majority of the amount of time that older, experienced national security professionals have spent has been within a certain framework; and, that framework - I think that we all can agree - needed to change, to be revisited, to be pulled apart, inspected, cleaned. Keep the good pieces and throw away the bad pieces. Including younger national security professionals into the mix can only positively influence that experienced framework.
I think what we were talking about was that younger national security professionals have an advantage in that they have not been exposed necessarily to the old framework, and so therefore can bring fresh ideas to the process. So it’s a collaborative effort between younger and more experienced national security professionals.
IA-Forum: The report favors “norms over bureaucratic rules”. It goes on to say, “leaders should have a firm grasp on the spirit of the law and their organizations role within the national security apparatus”. Given the huge rift in recent years within that apparatus and in public debate over what constitutes torture, whose norms become the norm, how do your recommendations rebuild public trust in national security leaders’ grasp on the spirit of such an important policy?
Mr. Taylor: That’s a great question. I think it’s first important to note that we were espousing a normative statement versus a positive one, to talk about what should happen in the future. Of course we weren’t so naïve as to assume that there would be no friction or debate necessary to get to that place. So I don’t think I can give you a firm answer on whose “norm”. What we had hoped to do was to spirit along the discussion and the debate, to say, “here is a plethora of data that we have; here are the results of many of these different programs; here is what we can quantify and qualify as either successes or not”. What can we do going forward - what do we need to talk about even to go forward to be better at this - and to be better prepared to deal with these irregular and unconventional situations that everyone finds themselves in?
IA-Forum: Militaries are built on the idea of command and control, and a strong hierarchy. Now the idea of a “strategic corporal” is taking hold pushing authority down to lower levels. Is there a point where there’s too much decentralization and individual decision-making?
Mr. Taylor: Obviously the answer to that is yes - we can’t just have one man commands all over the place all the time. But I don’t think that that’s the spirit and intent of the strategic corporal. Remember, the strategic corporal is acting on commander’s orders and intent. I think what we were talking about was increasing the flexibility and versatility by which those strategic corporals, and their teams, who are on the ground and in many, many cases isolated from a very large group of brother and sister military professionals, to give them the flexibility to operate to the best of their ability within the context of the orders they’ve received. We’re trying to find that great balance between command and control and innovation toward greater success.
IA-Forum: The report also talks about media-savvy operations across the national security community. When you talk about “media-savvy operations”, do you mean to influence domestic populations, foreign groups, or both? Can you give me an example?
Mr. Taylor: Sure. The government is precluded from conducting information operations on U.S. civilians. Well at least we’re not supposed to. Having said that, there is always a way, given the asymmetrical nature and the unconventional nature of the operations that we find ourselves. And in conflict all over the world, information is one of our greatest assets. Being able to accurately and adequately report, describe, and recommend different solutions to different challenges is absolutely imperative for success. So does a company commander who’s working in Helmand [Afghanistan] need to understand how a reporter might ask questions, and be able to identify whether or not that reporter may have an agenda and be able to positively identify what could come of that story? Absolutely. Should that same captain also understand how to make the three main points of what he or she is trying to do without a bunch of superfluous information so that that’s the point that is driven home? Absolutely. Should we be able to explain to our coalition partners, and the local population, our ideals, our goals, our methodologies, and our intent for end state and get their buy-in? Absolutely. What’s most important is we’ve got to learn how to better do it in the context of the receiver by localizing the message, not simply in the way that we’ve normally used to driving information to people through our own American perspective. The value of understanding other people’s languages, cultural norms and methods of communication is enormous and cannot be overstated.
IA-Forum: One of the report’s policy ideas is to develop “institutionalized regional expertise”. What do you mean by that?
Mr. Taylor: For instance, we have geographic combatant commands and of course within those combatant commands they have military expertise for those regions. The State Department has regional desks, and within those desks they have regional expertise. USAID has regional expertise. Commerce, Agriculture, the private sector all have regional expertise. We asked, “how do we congeal all of that information into usable packages so that people who are acting in those regions can draw on everyone’s lessons learned, not only their own institution's lessons learned”?
IA-Forum: Do you see examples of that, even from Iraq or Afghanistan; have you seen recent examples of this happening?
Mr. Taylor: Sure. I think Joint Forces Command is trying to do that for the military. I think National Defense University does a great job, each of the services as well. But I’ll tell you, the State Department’s Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (S/CRS) is also endeavoring to pull together these "lessons learned" as they are the lead for stabilization operations from National Security Presidential Directive (NSPD)-44.
There’s a training center out in Muscatatuck, Indiana, that is becoming the interagency national training center. They are now training the State Department, USAID, the military and other professionals together in scenarios. The program is coming through S/CRS for the most part. We don’t have an overarching interagency training office if you will. From a policy coordination standpoint certainly there is the National Security Council. From a training standpoint we don’t have a national security university, but I think that we have the beginnings of one emerging at Muscatatuck under the command of General Tooley. Hopefully, this kind of exposure for it will end up driving more people within the government to go check that out more, and use the facility more.
IA-Forum: Two of the reports’ four categories of recommendations are (1) finding critical talent, and (2) turning that talent into institutional capacity. People tend to go into occupations that look like a good fit for their personality and abilities. To put it simplistically, creative types go into creative fields; conventional types go to conventional occupations. The military and federal service have long been classified as “conventional”. This report concludes that innovative, creative independent leaders will deliver the best national security for the U.S. Is there an effort under way to recruit more creative independent types, and how do you suggest established conventional organizations reward and retain them?
Mr. Taylor: I’m not convinced that we have to find only creative people. What we have to do is create the space inside these typically conventional organizations whereby that creativity can add value to the overall mission. People bring the creativity but that space is the place where it manifests itself. We need to create these creative spaces within typically conventional organizations so that it spreads a little bit. The majority of the time convention works. We’re not saying that convention is bad; we’re saying that there is space for creativity, creative thinking and creative action within these commands to make them better and more agile.
IA-Forum: The report also lists a variety of national security threats - from globalization and climate change to demographic shifts, cyber security, and failed states. You’ve covered almost everything. So where do you start, where do you embed these new national security professionals to get the most benefit?
Mr. Taylor: I would say the point of origin is in senior national security leadership. We naturally have young creative people who are service-oriented already in the United States. They want to serve, they want to be able to add value, but they do things a little differently than people did 20 years ago. And they think about things in different ways that perhaps more experienced people in the national security establishment have not. So they’re there. We need leadership to encourage them to show up. Then we have to give them that space and that training in order to do some great things for the national security of our country.
IA-Forum: A little bit along those lines, the report mentions a web program called “A Space”, that allows intelligence personnel across agencies to use a secure blog to share ideas and information. Do you know how that’s working out?
Mr. Taylor: I don’t. I know it’s received some attention in different stories I’ve read. Intelligence professionals have said “Yeah, this is innovative, it’s great, we’re actually sharing information”. I don’t think that there’s been enough time to say it was a good idea or a bad idea. I can say “nice job” - way to get something that’s working clearly in social network and bring it into the intelligence network. Fantastic.
IA-Forum: The report says its intent is “to stimulate thinking among policymakers”. What feedback have you received from the Pentagon or elsewhere on the report?
Mr. Taylor: Well, it was hand-delivered to Secretary Gates at West Point by Major Fernando Lujan just a few weeks ago. It was hand-delivered to General Petraeus when he visited Harvard in April. He has been nothing but supportive of this report. He has agreed in principle with the findings, as has David Gergen at the Center for Public Leadership. But so too have Sarah Sewall, Ash Carter, and Graham Allison, not to mention Frances Hesselbein, who is in the pinnacle of leadership training. Our “phase two” is trying to find a way to keep that momentum going. What can we do, how can we include other folks in what we found in the report, and how do we make the national security establishment better?
IA-Forum: Professor Ashton Carter has been involved with this at the Kennedy School and now he’s going to be Secretary Carter [for Acquisitions, Technology, and Logistics], at the Pentagon. Would you look at him as someone to carry the message inside?
Mr. Taylor: Secretary Carter has been fantastic in carrying this message forward about what we need to do in the national security establishment to meet tomorrow's challenges. The weight of his endorsement helps this report go a lot further.
IA-Forum: If this new national security professional model really takes hold, it’ll take time. In the meantime, did you talk within the group about any ideas or suggestions for near-term improvements in joint programs such as provincial reconstruction teams in Afghanistan?
Mr. Taylor: Before we put this out, we talked about 10 million things. We chose to put the things in the report that we felt that would help carry on a discussion about what they needed to do going forward. We did not put a lot of near-term objectives in because we were in the midst of an administration change, and nobody had any idea what the new national security strategy was going to look like. So, we could have made the report irrelevant had we tried to choose recommendations before we saw which direction the current administration was going to go. Instead, we created a relevant report and many of these recommendations could easily be implemented today within programs like the PRTs [provincial reconstruction teams].
IA-Forum: Thanks, Chris.
Chris Taylor is the Senior Vice President for Global Strategy at Mission Essential Personnel, a veteran-owned, service-disabled global professional services firm. Taylor was the Director of the Harvard Defense and Security Initiative while at Harvard. A former Marine, he holds an MBA from the College of William & Mary and an MPA from the Harvard Kennedy School.
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