Quick Review of National Insecurity

David Rothkopf’s latest book, National Insecurity, is a look at how the US National Security Council (NSC) system has functioned across the two most recent presidential administrations, that of George W. Bush and Barrack Obama.  Rothkopf’s intent is to review when and how the NSC system performed well and when it didn’t, and to offer both a cautionary and a somewhat light set of recommendations for future presidents and NSC staffers.

As a professional futurist, one of Rothkopf’s minor themes that of course resonates with me is his occasional references to the lack of institutional foresight capability (in the overarching sense of the US Government in general, but also in the particular cases of specific agencies).  Not that he suggests that the USG isn’t expending resources and high caliber brain power on questions of the future, but rather that their collective and individual ability and discretion to do truly creative and insightful long term thinking is definitely circumscribed.  For example, in talking about the financial crisis that drew everyone’s attention in 2008, Rothkopf again alludes to the issue of effective institutional foresight:

The story of the financial crisis of 2008-2009 illustrates a recurring theme for national security planners: the next big risk or shock often does not come from an expected source or direction… The implications of the brewing risk in the US financial system for America, its economy, and the wellsprings of its national strength were far greater than anything that terrorists or other global rivals could muster.

There’s little need to dwell on the point, and Rothkopf himself only spends a small amount of time engaging the reader in the lack of good foresight and creative thinking.  It is important to note that Rothkopf contextualizes the issue by looking at the broader institutional and political landscape in which the characters in his book (key political appointees and experts and players in the national security arena) have to work and build careers.  Like any workforce development issue, the kinds of people an industry space attracts (in general) and the particular organizational and positional incentives that govern their selection and promotion have major ramifications for the types of individuals who can succeed and the kind of thinking and work in which they can engage.

It is Rothkopf’s intention in National Insecurity to get “inside the drama” of the NSC system, to focus on the decisions that have shaped US policy rather than provide a more comprehensive explication of how the NSC works in the day-to-day or how precisely it has evolved over the past few decades.  Given that, the book certainly comes across as being more journalistic than analytic, with the emphasis on specific characters, something of their personalities and predilections, and the interactions amongst them.

Still, given that Rothkopf’s underlying point was that there are better and worse roles for the NSC to play in the formulation of American policy, that there are better and worse processes for formulating that policy, and because he is clearly trying to speak to future presidents and NSC staffers, I think that the book would have greatly benefited from the use of a more… structured organizing framework.  Something that would have made it easier to trace (and later, recall) the ramifications of personalities, roles, and process to the formulation and implementation of US national security strategy.  And if such a framework would have too badly distorted the narrative he was trying to construct, than at least a chapter at the end of the book that more explicitly present his conclusions and prescriptions for the future.

And finally:visualizations.  In this day and age it is almost inexcusable to not communicate some this material, much of which is inherently about multiple interactions, multiple lines of cause and effect – and fundamentally temporal – in some visual way.  But perhaps that’s my prescription for the next writer of inherently fascinating but inherently complex national security history.


National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear

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