Leon Fuerth Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Thinking about the Future: Conversation with Leon Fuerth,
Research Professor of International Affairs, Elliott School, George Washington University; February 7, 2005 by Harry Kreisler

Page 5 of 6

New Ideas

Talk now a little about your work in White House and how it sensitized you even more to the extent to which we had to figure out mechanisms by which to take the long-term perspective and anticipate problems that were going to be on the foreign policy and national security agenda.

I had a very fortunate mandate. The President appointed me to be the Vice President's National Security Advisor. There's been a long string of such people. We don't work for the National Security Council, we work for the Vice President. But we obviously are working very closely with the National Security Council. But under Gore, the system reached an unusual level of expansiveness, and I had the encouragement of my colleagues, the National Security Advisor, and his deputy to explore issues that I thought were important, but which were not yet on the agenda of the system, and had to be taken seriously. My specialty you might describe as looking around corners and asking questions about what might be there, in addition to keeping up with the flow of the regular work and of making a contribution to that.

Anyway, because of my natural tendencies, which you've explored already, I had a seat of my own on the Deputy's Committee and the Principal's Committee in the National Security Council, and similar privileges on the National Economic Council, and if I'd had the time, on the Science Council as well. So I had the ability to track issues that were otherwise compartmentalized to the point where they fused together, and where the national trade-offs might have to be made.

So, for example, during the East Asian meltdown, the banking meltdown, the National Economic Council would meet. The secretary of treasury and the deputy would be there, and they would be talking about measures to stop the collapse and also to force countries, if necessary, using leverage at our disposal, to reform their banking system so that this would not happen again. Except that was hard love, and there would come a time when there would be another meeting and the secretary of state would be there saying, "These are close U.S. allies; how close to the brink do you want to shove them?" At that point, you had apples and oranges from the strategic side and the economic side. How could they be synthesized into coherent policy? There were many issues like that.

The other thing that happened is I began to have the feeling that issues were hitting us faster from what I had thought was the more distant future. It seemed that there was less and less time to perceive these as they were developing and less time to figure out what to do about them. So I would walk into a meeting and discover that some development I thought was at the laboratory level had actually already zoomed past that when my attention was diverted to other matters, and it was already a trade dispute. It's a big shift from people who are interested in something because it's a scientific development, like genetically modifying foodstuffs, to people who are in a full-up trade war with the European Union over whether or not the United States can export any of these things to the Union. And there were other issues like that.

I began to wonder whether somewhere out ahead of the horizon line that we were typically watching, there weren't a set of issues coming at us that we were not recognizing because we were not looking, and that if we didn't pay attention these issues might arrive and really rock us because we didn't have enough time. It's also a peculiarity of our system that it takes us time to debate what it is that's happening, and more time to debate what to do about it. If something hits us inside of that cycle, we can be disoriented.

So I began to think about a forward-looking system which I eventually called "forward engagement" to try to get at what might be in the longer range, and what might be done immediately that could have a positive impact on what was coming.

So you want to anticipate what might be happening down the road; but you're suggesting that our institutions are not organized to do that, and the incentives might not be there to do that. It creates a political dilemma over and above whether you're pointing in the right direction.

That's right. If somebody somewhere in the government is trying to figure out whether to build a new nuclear reactor -- a very theoretical question, because I'm not sure any have been commissioned in the United States for a while -- but suppose they're doing that. In the old days they would have be concerned with the capital cost of building the thing, and they would have left for later the whole question of what do you do when it's too old to function anymore and how do you dispose of the spent fuel and the like. I arrived in the Armed Services Committee in time to see the Congress struggling with immense estimates of the cost of handling the downside of the fuel cycle.

Or if you're thinking about whether or not to allow genetically modified organisms to be commercially used, well, you could have seeds that don't replicate -- fine, although there's a possibility that they'll still hybridize -- or you can have seeds that will replicate, in which case you're going to release into the world stuff that can never be taken back, and that's a very wrong decision. If you're thinking about storing nuclear waste, it depends on the half-life, and so you could be talking about where to put something so that for geological periods of time it won't get into the water table, or if our descendants stumble across it they will not be able to release it upon themselves, and so on.

But those are isolated instances. At the national level, there is no forward-looking system. There is none that serves the White House. There are things that often have the names in various parts of the Executive Branch, but not really the function. Maybe in the Department of Defense you have things like the Quadrennial Defense Review, and the CIA is now doing a rolling series of "World in 2015," "World in 2020," and so on. The Congress has nothing whatsoever.

You used the term "network" in a short paper that you wrote for the conference here at Berkeley. Talk a little about that. You're suggesting that the solutions for some of these problems lie in a ... I think you used the term "a network architecture." They have to be addressed in an entirely different way. Explain that for us.

The basic organization that one sees, let's say, in the Executive Branch is still based on top-down control. It looks like the corporate structure that you would associate with a company like IBM before it had to reinvent itself. In a similar way, the congressional system is also based on a kind of pyramid of authority, though it's more diffused and confusing. Networking is essentially what happens to power systems when they have to reorganize to reflect the impact of new information technology. Typically, they become flatter. There's less bureaucracy between somebody nominally at the top; in fact, the top starts to come down closer to the operating levels. There's more authority and flexibility lower down, and more initiative to be used. The flow of information has to be redesigned so that it is distributed rather than hoarded. Knowledge is power, so [under the old system], if you can keep everybody else from knowing what you know, you're in a better [position]. Well, that will destroy you if you're working in a networked system.

So there is a whole new shift in the corporate world and in the Department of Defense toward networked arrangements, because the problems of economic competition in the world under globalization, and the problems of national security in a world that isn't bipolar -- bipolar in the political [sense] ...

U.S.-Soviet ...

... those things are now essentially diffuse and interactive, and they mutate rapidly. Government, under the old top-down system, lags in its ability to develop tactics, develop solutions, deploy, and so on. Networking is a way to speed that up and to give an edge back to government, so they can hope to keep up with these rapidly changing challenges. So it's my feeling that we're going to have to redesign some of these systems to give them some of the attributes of networked approaches in order to be able to keep up with these rapidly changing challenges. The Elliott School, where I teach within George Washington University, and Johns Hopkins are collaborating on a program to examine networked systems and the national security. So I'm hoping now that there are a lot more heads than mine thinking about this will come up with more interesting insights. There's a very important book written by two Rand analysts, Arquilla and Ronfeldt, on networks.

John Arquilla was a guest on our program.

Right. Every once in a while I will read a book that has the effect of throwing things into sharp relief. That was one of those books. He tracked the way in which networking has affected the operation of public discourse through NGOs, international crime, international terror, and so on. After reading that book, I began to think about the problem that governance has in keeping up with challenges of that sort, which are networked and much faster to respond than they used to be. The only answer I could think of was, "[Government] has to be networked as well."

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