In Dwight Eisenhower’s famous phrase, “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.” That should be the watchword for national security policy in the Biden administration, all the more so after an administration in which policymaking too often was nothing more than a capitalized tweet. Absent planning, the new administration will find itself, like the Obama administration in which I (and many of the Biden’s nominees} served, consumed by a host of crises that continually distract attention from its broader strategic aims.
By Gregory F. Treverton
NOTE: The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SMA, Inc.
The top of the Biden agenda is plain—China, with cyber and Russia not far behind. With China, the main danger is a confrontation by accident or miscalculation, and the focal point of that concern is Taiwan, not the South China Sea. Beyond the obvious, there are the perennials that could become front burner at any minute—North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, plus winding down Syria and Afghanistan.
Then there are what we used to call when I chaired the National Intelligence Council (NIC) the “appaloosa swans” (since black swans are, in Nassim Taleb’s formulation, unforeseeable by definition) and what Don Rumsfeld might label “known unknowns,” smoldering uncertainties that could flare up anytime. This lists goes on and on—in no particular order (the way crises emerge), Ethiopia, not just fighting the separatists in Tigray but quarrels over dammed water with downstream Sudan and Egypt; renewed fighting on the China-India border; Lebanon falling from failed state to collapse; new dangers in old disputes between NATO members Greece and Turkey; Sudan’s precarious transition; deepening polarization in Brazil; renewed fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh; sharpening political crisis in Belarus; and a dangerous stew of political instability (with an ailing king) and nuclear ambition in Saudi Arabia.
Almost every administration takes office seeking to be more strategic and reap the benefits of planning, only to get buried in the onrush of current crises. In the Clinton administration when I was vice chair of the NIC, we had a great idea: we’d pick an issue, we’d do a two-page intelligence appreciation, State’s Policy Planning would do a two-page policy brief, the deputies from the national security departments would convene informally over sandwiches chaired by the deputy national security advisor. The conversation would begin with where we’d like the issue to be in a decade, then peal back to current policy choices. All concerned loved the idea. We got it on the calendar exactly once. As usual, the imminent drove out the important.
For the Biden team, doing better will mean paying attention to several requirements. While anyone who has been in government cringes at the thought of more bureaucracy, strengthened—dare we say, more institutionalized—crisis management, horizon scanning and planning probably are necessary.
For crisis management, the goal would be not just to better manage the crises that arise but to do so at less cost to non-crisis decision-making. Crises quickly bleed away the experts, regional specialists in particular, a particular problem with respect to Africa where crises abound but specialists in the government do not. Since such specialists do abound in academia and non-governmental organizations, I have thought for a long time that inviting some to them to, in effect, be on retainer would make sense. Surely, some would shun the government, but others—as the NIC’s Intelligence Community Associates demonstrate—would be drawn by the chance to serve their country and, perhaps, better manage crises in countries they care about.
Planning shops are scattered around the national security agencies, especially at State, the Pentagon, and the National Security Council staff. Problem is, they don’t do much planning; rather, they wind up doing special projects, or writing speeches or formal documents, like the National Security Strategy. I tried to position the NIC as a kind of clubhouse for those who sought to be more strategic, reaching out to, among others, the NSC planners, the J-5 and civilian planners at the Pentagon, and both Policy Planning and the undersecretary for political affairs at State. Making that clubhouse sturdier by building on the planners at the NSC would make sense.
At various times, most of the agencies have had units doing horizon scanning, by whatever label, but those typically are the first to go when budget crunches or reorganizations loom. At the NIC, we prepared the Worldwide Threat Assessment (WTA) for the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), which, however, was mostly about current threats and probably only earned a B– grade. (I was struck by how little difference there was between the classified and unclassified versions, and so thought of the exercise as good congressional and public education. However, my boss, DNI Jim Clapper, a career intelligence officer, likened the experience of testifying on intelligence in an open session as akin to a root canal or folding fitted sheets!)
Again, it would make sense to embody horizon scanning, probably as an adjunct to an NSC-centered planning shop, with strong and regular links to the Pentagon, intelligence agencies—including Service agencies which are meant to concentrate on future threats but also have been drawn into current question-answering—and civilian agencies looking at technology and disease in particular. Without regular foresight to reinforce contingency planning, the government will continue to resemble Gilbert and Sullivan’s English railroad: Saturday afternoon, a predictable occurrence, always catches it by surprise.
The final element is perhaps the most important, and perhaps the most elusive. None of this machinery will matter unless it is driven from the top. Without that, planning becomes, in the earthy language of officialdom, a self-licking ice cream cone. Planning pushes from below only matter if there is a pull from above. In that sense, the best example in the last half century is the George H.W. Bush administration’s handling of the end of the Soviet Union, with a president, national security advisor and Secretary of State all committed to careful contingency planning. Eisenhower would have approved. And Biden should emulate.
 This piece grew, in part, out of a panel discussion I did with Paul Stares for chiefs of staff to members of the House of Representatives. I thank him for his list of potential hot spots. See his “How to Prepare for a National Security Crisis: Washington Needs New Structures to Manage the Unexpected,” Foreign Affairs, 11 December 2020, available at https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2020-12-11/how-prepare-national-security-crisis.
 Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Random House, 2007. The distinctions among known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns were not new with Rumsfeld but he used them, famously, in a Pentagon press briefing, 12 December 2002. For the transcript, see http://www.defenselink.mil/transcripts/transcript.aspx?transcriptid=2636. I came to think the missing quadrant in his matrix was also interesting – unknown knowns, or think we didn’t know (or remember) we knew, for instance, the lack of awareness in the summer of 2001 that suspected terrorists earlier had also been interested in flying lessons.