Kill The Czars: A No-Nonsense Approach to Security

Swapping soft power for hard power isn't a strategy.

There are smarter ways than “soft power” for the United States to outmatch its competitors for global influence. The next administration should focus on building competitive “power-niche capabilities”—deliverables focused on specific tasks and directed to achieve specific outcomes. This will give America, and its friends and allies, a much keener edge in the fight to preserve their freedom, prosperity and security in today’s messy world.


Post-Bush Governance

The Bush administration’s “long war” approach to fighting terrorism prompted many critics to prescribe nonlethal alternatives for dealing with international security threats. Most notable was the argument for soft power—using instruments like diplomacy and negotiation as an alternative to military force. But there were other suggestions as well: whole-of-government solutions, for example, that proposed harnessing all parts of the federal government to deal with big problems. Another alternative—the man-on-horseback solutions—called for empowering dedicated “czars” to whip through all the red tape and tackle tough tasks.

The Obama administration embraced all these alternatives, often simultaneously, and with decidedly mixed results. Soft power efforts included the “road to zero” initiative designed to inspire the world’s nuclear powers to eliminate their nukes voluntarily. That effort yielded zero results—other than to leave America with an aging nuclear arsenal in desperate need of modernization.

The administration wound up turning a cold shoulder to the major whole-of-government security proposal of the Obama era. But it did at least dabble in interagency activity. For example, it has taken this approach regarding U.S. Arctic policy—an area ripe for U.S. leadership, since the United States chairs the Arctic Council for two years. But the Arctic effort appears to be mostly for show. The administration did, however, make fair progress toward improving export-control reform—a task that required several federal agencies to all pull in one direction.

Finally, the White House made a halfhearted effort at creating appointed czars: the first for dealing with cybersecurity threats, the second for managing the Ebola scare. Neither had much effect on the problems at hand.


Alternatives Are Not Equivalents

Swapping soft power for hard power is not a strategy. Often, the two are not fungible—adding diplomats doesn’t offset cutting a carrier strike group. Further, having a preference for using one kind of instrument over another is not good statecraft. A multi-instrumentalist may be partial to the tone of his trumpet, but it would make no sense for him to play it instead of his viola when performing in a string quartet. Statecraft, too, is about using the right combination of tools at the right time, and that’s proved a formidable challenge for an administration enamored with soft power solutions.

The whole-of-government mantra has largely proved a disaster—little more than insisting that every federal agency get a participation ribbon for every problem.

Czars don’t work well in the U.S. government. Rarely are presidents willing to consolidate real power in the hands of one official, undermining their own authority to orchestrate government. Usually, czars are shiny objects used to distract attention, allowing the Oval Office to pretend it is dealing seriously with a challenge.

Reorganizing government is hard and demands considerable energy. That said, reformers love it, because process and organizational reform create the illusion of progress. Unfortunately, even when reorganization occurs, it seldom accomplishes more than rearranging deck chairs. Consider the current fascination with devising a “Goldwater-Nichols II” model for reorganizing the Pentagon. Our military’s real problem is that it lacks the capacity and capability to defend the nation’s vital interests. Yet reformers tinker around the edges, urging impractical suggestions like abolishing combat commands or giving even more power to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The next administration will face some really big challenges. It shouldn’t start out by trying to reorganize the puzzle palace that is the federal government. That would take too much time and demand too much attention. And ultimately, who knows what might come out the other end?


Just Do It