Everyone knows that the United States needs to shrink its defense budget and national security organization; the challenge is doing so intelligently. Without attention to the long-term effects of the downsizing, the rush to cut could stifle creativity and fail to cultivate strategic visionaries. The net effect would be pawning America’s future security to make today’s budget.
Fostering creativity is not easy for an immense, ponderous bureaucracy even in the best of times. This is particularly true for the national security organization, which instinctively leans toward risk aversion, cautious consensus-building and a focus on the short term. Senior officials know that they will be judged only for what happens during their brief time in power rather than whether they set the stage for success decades down the road. Because of this, it takes active leadership to promote creativity and thinking about the future. During the 1990s, a series of wise policymakers, military leaders and elected official did exactly that, but now their handiwork is at risk.
There are many signs that today’s hasty downsizing has taken a penny-wise, pound-foolish tack. Take, for example, a recent Government Accountability Office assessment of the research institutions in the Joint Professional Military Educational System. The report criticized what it saw as redundancy among the military’s think tanks, suggesting that if one of them was researching a strategic issue like, for instance, the future Asia-Pacific security environment, none of the others should do so. At first glance this makes sense, but the authors of the report did not understand the difference between businesses and organizations specifically designed to foster creativity. In business, functional redundancy is wasteful. In the world of creativity, having multiple, competing sets of eyes on the same problem increases the chances of innovation and decreases groupthink. Preventing research institutes from analyzing the same issue in parallel would be short-sighted.