America the Confused

An Interview with Michèle Flournoy Michèle Flournoy

OR: What does a successful pushback from the U.S. look like on that front?

Flournoy: I think the first thing is to reestablish a clear sense of deterrence, to make it clear that we are willing to impose costs if Russia tries to meddle in our elections again in the future and that we are serious about our commitment to NATO and in our statements and our military posture that Russia should not make the mistake of testing that resolve or coming across a border into the Poland or the Baltics. Not with military forces but with non-military measures. I also think we do have areas of common interest and can we get back to trying to work together those areas. Is there another chapter of arms control? Is there a way to try to negotiate some sort of settlement in Syria? Is there a way to work on other nonproliferation issues together? Or climate, if we had an administration that cared about climate.

These relationships are not purely competitive or they're certainly not purely cooperative. They're elements of both and even when you're in a very competitive relationship, you need to try to find areas where if you do have common interests, you can try to develop some habits of cooperation around those.

OR: What is the shape of U.S. foreign policy now? How is it affecting our our national security?

Flournoy: Despite the fact that the administration has put out some strategy documents — they published a national security strategy and a defense strategy; the latter in particular most people on both sides of the isle thought was a reasonable document — neither of those strategies appears to be the actual strategy of the president. The biggest question right now is trying to make sense of where this administration actually stands. Are they isolationists? Are they unilateralist? When you have the U.S. president objecting to the G7 using the term "rules-based international order" in a communiqué (when we were the ones who architected that order and have always been its staunchest defender), you've gone down the rabbit hole.

You listen to different officials, you get different answers to that question. You listen to the President and, depending on the day, you get different answers to that question. I think the biggest challenge we have right now is a lack of clear strategy, the lack of clear U.S. leadership, and direction in terms of what role are we going to play in the world and how are we going to treat our allies and our competitors and opponents. The stark images of the atmospherics of the G7 and the atmospherics of the Kim Jong-un summit, if you were arriving from another planet, might have suggested that the G7 was a bunch of adversaries and Kim Jong-un was our ally. We're in a period that I think our interlocutors internationally find very confusing and very hard to make sense of.

OR: To what extent has it, if you think it has, compromised our national security?

Flournoy: I think that we're certainly missing opportunities to leverage the strength of our alliances to get things done together, lie I said. I think a trans-Atlantic unity in approaching China would be much more effective than the way we’re approaching the China trade issues today. But I also think there's damage being done. Whether its failure to go forward with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which leaves a huge vacuum economically in the region into which China will happily step and create an alternative trade set of agreements or arrangements that are not as supportive of our interests. Whether its relationship damage being done in the sense that our allies, if they feel that we're not on the same page, they feel that we're unpredictable, they feel that they can't really on us, are likely to start hedging in terms of turning elsewhere to safeguard their own interests.

The question is: can we limit that damage and can we recover from it — or is going to be permanent?

OR: Do we live in a post-American world?

Flournoy: It depends on what we mean by post-American. To the extent we believe we had a unipolar moment after the end of the Cold War, I think that moment has passed. We're already in a much more multipolar world. The question is, will the US still lead a coalition of like-minded states to remain the most influential power in the world, able to pursue collective interests and objectives effectively? I think there, the jury's out. I think it depends on what happens in the next presidential election and whether we have more of this or whether we elect a president — Democrat or Republican — who is more mainstream and understands the value of our alliances and the importance of our continued leadership role in the world.

Playing our cards right here means investing in the drivers of our economic competitiveness. Higher education, technology, and the ecosystem that supports our innovation and infrastructure. If you look at what China's doing, they're investing heavily. Now, we're not going to do it in the way they do it because we have a different system. But the government does have a role to play in creating the incentives for that investment to occur.

We have the best military in the world. But if we stand still, and we don't reinvest in new technologies in the cyber domain, artificial intelligence, hypersonics — there's a whole list of these — and we don't continue to stay on the cutting edge, that superiority will be harder to sustain. Deterrence will be harder to sustain in the face of other great powers who are making those investments. There's a lot of work that we need to be doing, and it's not clear to me that we have the focus and the sense of urgency that's required to be ready for this much more intensive competitive period.