National security specialists offer new strategy for dealing with surprises

 Thomas Pickering Thomas Pickering Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

The accelerating pace of change in the world -- in economics, war, technology and weather -- requires a revamping of the U.S. national security apparatus to make it more nimble in dealing with surprises.

So argued Leon Fuerth, former national security adviser to Vice President Al Gore, on Monday at a global policy forum at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

To “bring the government up to pace so it can deal with complex problems,” he said, the new approach would rely on foresight, nonhierarchical networking of different elements of government and new feedback mechanisms to identify failing policies earlier.

Fuerth’s recent paper, “Anticipatory Governance: Practical Upgrades,” was praised Monday by veteran Ambassador Thomas Pickering, the vice chairman of Hills & Co. who recently led the State Department’s review of the terrorist killings of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, last September. With the Obama administration still filling positions for its second term, Pickering said, “there’s no better time than now to make this a national crusade.”

Examples of unanticipated and rapid changes “that stress the social order and functioning of bureaucracy,” Fuerth argued, include the 9/11 attacks; the aftermath of the 2003 U.S-led invasion of Iraq; hurricanes Katrina and Sandy; the 2008 financial crisis, the rise of Asia as an economic power and the Arab spring. “We’ve not been tuned into the contingencies before they became reality,” he said. “Complexity is the new norm, and the defensive game is ultimately a losing game.”

After meeting with dozens of experts since 2011, Fuerth assembled reforms he calls “practical, credible and nonpartisan” that would tap into interagency networks at the deputy secretary level. The key, however, is that reforms require no new resources and no legislation, relying completely on presidential authority.

Foresight cannot not depend on prophecy, but government staff “can collect data and scan the horizon and imagine alternative events and plug them into the policy process in a way that is actionable on today’s decisions, for present and perhaps the future,” Fuerth said.

“Networked governance structures can facilitate rapid flow of information and can thus serve as the basis for a smarter and more prescient bureaucracy,” the report said. “Networks can help to engage the full of government in the form of adjustable groupings, and in arrangements that encourage a high degree of initiative, although responsive to overall strategic guidance from the president.” Budgets and management of a given issue must be geared “to mission, not jurisdiction,” Fuerth said.

The reason feedback is vital, Fuerth added, is that policies are often revealed as flawed right away, so the executers of policy need an information stream to policymakers to identify problems and define success.

“Feedback is a set of areas where the government has fallen short,” said Pickering, noting that policymakers get irritated when told the emperor has no clothes.

A good model, Fuerth said, can be found in the government of Singapore’s Horizon Scanning Centre located within its National Security Coordination Secretariat.

In Washington, similar approaches are under way in the Office of Management and Budget’s implementation of cross-agency priority goals and metrics under the 2010 Government Performance and Results Modernization Act, Fuerth said, as well as in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. A like effort by the Obama White House national security team, however, was derailed by congressional appropriators who felt undermined, he said.

Pickering said the three-pronged approach of foresight, networking and feedback was helpful in 1998 when he and an interagency task force worked with the government of Colombia to reform the military to confront long-term problems with drug trafficking.

“Reform is tough inside the U.S. government,” Pickering said. “No secretary of State will want to address reforms in the first year because they’re still learning problems and getting on top of issues with White House appointments. In the second year, reform means getting rid of the people you just appointed,” he joked. “So you wait until the final year, when the volume of over-the-transom issues forces you to decide to leave reform to your successor. That’s the box we’re in, on a Nordic track to getting nowhere.”

Yet both Pickering and Fuerth said the election cycle creates a two-year window that bodes for action now. “The old people who know a lot are tired, and the new people still learning,” Pickering said, “But those are not insuperable barriers.”

Fuerth said the second-term Obama team needs six to 10 months to settle in with its sub-tier appointments. But then they “have to claw back some time to anticipate sooner, to go the extra mile and extra effort to get it up and running,” he said. “If not, we’ll continue to lag behind the pace of change, which is dangerous in a democracy.”

Fuerth’s report was endorsed by such bipartisan policy marquee names as Madeleine Albright, Zbigniew Brezezinski, David Abshire, Robert Kagan, Thomas “Mack” McClarty, James Woolsey, William Cohen and Tom Daschle.

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