Foreign Policy Essay

Why Strategic Planning Matters to National Security

By Jordan Tama
Sunday, March 6, 2016, 10:07 AM

Editor's Note: Most national security bureaucracies regularly go through time-consuming reviews and strategic planning exercises. Are these efforts valuable? Jordan Tama of American University argues that they are – at least some of the time and under select conditions. Reviews can change policy when an external crisis or failure challenges existing policy and when the president or other senior leaders are directly involved. In addition, they can help bureaucracies achieve buy-in and otherwise sort themselves out.

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The great complexity of most contemporary international challenges – think climate change, the war in Syria, the struggle against ISIS, the refugee crisis, the Zika virus, and cyber threats – means that these challenges can only be addressed if government agencies plan effectively. In an apparent recognition of the need for such planning, strategy statements have become ubiquitous in government.

In the United States, these statements range from the overarching National Security Strategy issued by the president to more tailored strategy documents produced by the White House or individual agencies on specific issues, such as terrorism or cyberspace. Security strategy statements have also become standard practice among many other countries and international institutions, from the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, to Japan and Australia, to the United Nations and the European Union.

Government strategy statements are typically developed via strategic reviews in which officials consider and deliberate over strategic proposals. In recent research, I have evaluated the outcomes of several U.S. national security reviews in an effort to understand whether these reviews generate important changes in government strategy or other aspects of government operations.

 Government strategic planning efforts do sometimes result in major strategic changes.

My findings are mixed. Government strategic planning efforts do sometimes result in major strategic changes. This is much more likely when an external shock places pressure on policymakers to change course. In that context, a strategic review can shape the specific character of change by fostering administration deliberation that generates greater consensus regarding the merits of strategic options and policy choices. But in the absence of an external shock, inertia and the pro-status quo bias of bureaucracies tend to make it difficult for senior officials to institute major changes.

A recent example illustrates this pattern. After the Republican Party took control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2011, Congress cut U.S. defense spending by about $500 billion over 10 years. This major cut - following a decade of large defense budget increases – prompted Barack Obama to order a defense strategy review. Obama took charge of this review, chairing several of its meetings. The review’s outcome was new Defense Strategic Guidance that the United States would no longer maintain military forces large enough "to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations.” In conjunction with this strategic shift, the Obama administration decided to reduce the size of the Army and Marine Corps by a total of 82,000 personnel. These changes effectively ended the post-9/11 era of major U.S. counterinsurgency operations. While the review was certainly not entirely responsible for this strategic shift – Obama had a pre-existing preference to move away from counterinsurgency missions – the review process helped to bring key defense officials on board and determined how the shift would be articulated and carried out.

By contrast, many other strategic reviews occur periodically, based on a predetermined timeline. For instance, the U.S. government conducts quadrennial reviews in the areas of defense, diplomacy and development, homeland security, and energy. These reviews have generally not resulted in groundbreaking strategic changes, because the president is rarely involved in them and because senior officials typically make most of their own key decisions in response to events, rather than a quadrennial calendar.

[Q]uadrennial reviews can make the government better prepared to address security challenges and operate effectively.

Nevertheless, quadrennial reviews can make the government better prepared to address security challenges and operate effectively. In particular, they can serve as useful devices for the leaders of government agencies to generate buy-in within the bureaucracy for changes in policy or management that give greater attention to emerging priorities or address organizational shortcomings.

Consider the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) and Quadrennial Homeland Security Review (QHSR), each of which was conducted for the first two times during the Obama administration. The QDDR has resulted in State Department reforms that have strengthened State’s capacity on certain key issues and provided a foundation for improvements in State’s operational effectiveness. These changes have included reorganizations that elevated the importance of energy, economics, civilian security, counterterrorism, and cyber issues within State; personnel reforms that fostered the cultivation of more diverse skills and interagency experience among State officials; and investments designed to bolster State’s use of sophisticated data analysis tools. While these reform ideas were not all original to the QDDR, the review provided a necessary mechanism to overcome resistance to many of them from powerful constituencies within the department.

The QHSR has also generated organizational improvements. Since the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) after the 9/11 attacks, the department’s effectiveness has been constrained by its internal fragmentation – many DHS units that previously existed elsewhere in the government retain distinct identities – and by the department’s heavy reliance on state, local, and private sector actors to achieve its goals. The QHSR has helped DHS leaders chip away at these challenges by building a more common understanding of the department’s missions; articulating department-wide priorities; integrating the department’s accounting systems; and bringing outside stakeholders into the department’s planning. As with the QDDR, the inclusive QHSR process was an essential ingredient of some of these outcomes.

These kinds of changes are not glamorous, and as a result, the outcomes of quadrennial reviews usually seem underwhelming to most observers. But organizational changes can represent the difference between being prepared and being unprepared to anticipate or respond effectively to security dangers and other challenges.

These kinds of changes are not glamorous, and as a result, the outcomes of quadrennial reviews usually seem underwhelming to most observers. But organizational changes can represent the difference between being prepared and being unprepared to anticipate or respond effectively to security dangers and other challenges.

Certainly the track record of quadrennial reviews is far from perfect. Many quadrennial review proposals represent restatements of pre-existing administration policy. Even when review proposals are new and innovative, those proposals are not always implemented. The success of implementation tends to depend heavily on the extent to which government leaders prioritize implementation and empower a team led by a senior official to direct and monitor it. Since many strategic initiatives require funding, it is also important to link review processes to the formulation of government budget proposals.

At the same time, government effectiveness in addressing emerging challenges requires that strategic planning occur in a variety of forms and on a range of timelines. When a deadly virus, cyber attack, terrorist threat, or large number of refugees suddenly moves across borders, the understandable tendency in government is for day-to-day crisis decision-making to crowd out strategic planning. But our leaders would be able to make better decisions in such crises if their decision-making was informed by rigorous planning that evaluated the pros and cons of different policy options. Integrating this type of planning into crisis decision-making is perhaps the hardest and most important strategic challenge for governments.