America Needs a Chief Strategy Officer

The White House needs someone to look beyond the crisis of the day and focus on the United States' role in the world.

As the presidential race enters its home stretch, politicos' obsession has turned to tactics: How can Mitt Romney win Ohio? Where is Barack Obama buying ad time?

But this focus on minutia is not just a symptom of the campaign's closing days -- it has become, unfortunately, the new normal for American politics. President Barack Obama's administration is just the latest example of this trend, which has been perpetuated by Republicans and Democrats alike. Much like its post-Cold War predecessors, the current White House appears to deliberate on key questions -- from Iran to trade to climate change -- without something it ought to have: an overarching framework that prioritizes U.S. goals in the world, and sketches out a plausible pathway to achieving them. In other words, it operates without a grand strategy.

The lack of a grand strategy represents an institutional failing within the U.S. government -- but one that could be addressed by creating a new executive branch position of "chief strategy officer" tasked with getting the big-picture questions of America's role in the world asked and answered.

Grand strategy is frequently belittled by national security operatives as a navel-gazing obsession of academics with too much time on their hands, which has limited relevance to the world in which decisions actually get made. The future is unknowable, they say. Crises have to be managed as they arise, and the world's complexity no longer lends itself to grand policy designs like "containment" -- certainly not ones that fit on bumper stickers.

But it's hard to see how the United States is better off if fateful decisions -- like what to do about Iran's nuclear program -- are made in isolation from a comprehensive and thoughtfully developed point of view about where the world is headed. If American officials can develop a better understanding of that, they will be better positioned to formulate a vision of a U.S. global role that is both desirable and achievable, together with a plausible roadmap for arriving at the desired destination.

And if grand strategy is worthwhile, common sense tells us that it ought to be the outcome of a well-designed deliberative process. It should not be the unthinking extension of a vision and strategy developed long ago in a dramatically different global and domestic context. Nor should it reflect an abrupt left or right turn driven by little more than someone's intuition -- even someone elected president.

No president since the end of the Cold War has presented such a blueprint, backed by a serious deliberative process. President George W. Bush' "global war on terror" and "democracy agenda" might seem to have elements of a grand strategy. But published insider accounts suggest that the Bush approach wasn't the outcome of a systematic strategy review process. Rather, it flowed from the 9/11 attacks, the strong views that several influential players brought into the administration, and the quick, intuition-based decisions made by a president who prided himself on being a "gut player."

This is not to say Washington completely neglects strategy. Administrations now routinely publish several strategy review documents: The Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), and most prominently the White House's National Security Strategy (NSS). But none of these is a comprehensive grand strategy statement. The QDR and QDDR are limited to their discrete policy spheres - the Defense Department and the State Department, respectively. And while the NSS has been expanded in recent years to include issues like global health, food security and finance, it typically reads more like a wish list than a meaningful strategy that recognizes tradeoffs, makes hard choices and is willing to submit legacy commitments to serious scrutiny.

One obstacle to the U.S. government's "doing strategy" better is that nobody below the president -- who has a lot on his plate, after all -- actually "owns" this responsibility. Senior figures like the national security advisor typically lack the freedom to look beyond short-term crises. Worse, they lack the jurisdictional breadth to formulate a far-reaching strategy for the entire U.S. government. It's only within individual agencies that positions like the State Department's Policy Planning director -- an office designed by Secretary of State George Marshall in 1947 to "look beyond the vision of the operating officers caught in the smoke and crises of the current battle" -- come close to cultivating meaningful vision and strategy. Yet such roles aren't designed to take the needed "whole-of-government" perspective.

In order to improve the nation's strategy performance, the White House might take a cue from the private sector. CEOs at companies from Merck to Microsoft, while retaining ultimate responsibility for strategy, increasingly look to a "chief strategy officer" to help them with strategy formulation and, especially, execution. While also helping ensure that a president's strategy gets executed, a White House CSO would add particular value on the strategy formulation side. A CSO would not usurp the president's role as chief strategist, but rather orchestrate a serious process by which the president and a select but diverse group of senior officials would deliberate over core questions of vision and strategy.

All this would help ensure that the most central questions pertaining to U.S. global objectives and resource commitments are continually asked and answered. These answers -- adding up to the nation's grand strategy -- would then underpin decisions on more specific issues, including the crises that regularly arise and demand quick decisions.

A CSO would not be a panacea. Many will argue that the U.S. political system is inescapably focused on the short-term due to election cycles, 24-hour news, the separation of powers and the prominent role that short-tenured political appointees play in the U.S. bureaucracy. All this is true. Yet the absence of a structure for orchestrating grand strategy in the White House consigns the U.S. government to avoidable policy incoherence, an unsatisfactory assessment of and response to global trends, and the unthinking perpetuation of yesterday's visions and strategies.

Without reform, these deficiencies will persist -- regardless of who Americans elect in November.

Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images


Whatever Happened to Chinese Human Rights?

On the American campaign trail this year, China's people went missing.

Every four years, presidential campaigns thrust China into the political limelight. The candidates seem to relish any opportunity to accuse their opponents of being "soft" on China and its human rights abuses. The campaign's intoxication with tough talk is often followed by a post-inauguration hangover, however, as the winner realizes the difficulty of finding solutions to a wide range of international challenges -- halting the spread of nuclear weapons, promoting economic growth, protecting the global environment, ensuring energy security -- without cooperation from the Chinese government. It is a Washington ritual that goes back to the country's 1949 founding and the debate over who lost China to the "immoral" and "godless" communists.

President Jimmy Carter is famed for injecting human rights issues more prominently into U.S. foreign policy, but when he normalized relations with Beijing in 1979, it was Republican candidate Ronald Reagan who seized the moral high ground, saying he "would not abandon friends and allies." (Ironically, Reagan went on to authorize the sale of advanced military hardware, including Blackhawk helicopters, to China's People's Liberation Army.) In the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, candidate Bill Clinton accused then President George H.W. Bush of coddling the "butchers of Beijing," and then promptly abandoned attempts to link trade and human rights after taking office.

But this year, the human rights element has largely been missing from the campaign. Even the dramatic case of blind human rights defender Cheng Guangcheng, who briefly thrust issues of rule of law and justice onto the U.S.-China agenda in April by fleeing into the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, has not inspired either candidate, beyond a brief attempt by Mitt Romney to politicize Chen's case. Compared with past campaigns, human rights in China have largely been an afterthought.

Both Romney and his opponent, President Barack Obama, had a chance to speak more comprehensively about China at their foreign-policy debate on Oct 22, but both punted. When moderator Bob Schieffer asked the candidates what kind of relationship they wanted to have with a rising China, Obama said China was both an "adversary" and also a "potential partner in the international community, if it's following the rules." The rules he referenced were those governing trade and freedom of navigation, not human rights.  Romney, like Obama, struck a cooperative tone: "We can collaborate with them if they're willing to be responsible."  But he too defined "responsible" only in terms of trade policy.

Neither candidate mentioned human rights, Tibet, Xinjiang, the Great Firewall, jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo, China's support for Sudan, or China's obstruction of United Nations Security Council action on Syria. Neither named the leader of China, President Hu Jintao, or made reference to the leadership transition underway and what it might portend.

China has been present in the campaign, but mostly in one dimension: trade. Obama fired a salvo in this year's State of the Union Address, noting that his administration had brought trade cases against China at nearly twice the rate of the previous administration. The president also announced the creation of a Trade Enforcement Unit to investigate "unfair trading practices in countries like China."

Romney countered with a February 2012 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, arguing that the United States should, "directly counter abusive Chinese practices in the areas of trade, intellectual property, and currency valuation." He promised to designate China a "currency manipulator" on the first day of his presidency, and also pledged to beef up U.S. military forces in the Pacific to "guarantee the region remains open for cooperative trade. Romney did briefly mention China's human rights record in his op-ed, but offered no specifics on how his administration would support Chinese dissidents, or how his approach would differ from Obama's.

China might now be powerful enough that both candidates are reluctant to raise human rights issues for fear of it withholding cooperation in other areas. In February 2009, on her first trip abroad, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said about issues like Taiwan, Tibet, and human rights that "Successive administrations and Chinese governments have been poised back and forth on these issues, and we have to continue to press them. But our pressing on those issues can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis."

But one of the principle architects of U.S. engagement with China, Ambassador Winston Lord, takes a different view. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Lord who was ambassador to China from 1985 to 1989, offered up his "10 commandments" for dealing effectively with China. First commandment: "Don't Demonize China." Second commandment: "Don't Sanitize China." Speaking up for human rights in China may not curry favor with China's ruling elite, but according to an October Pew Research Center poll, 52 percent of Chinese people remain favorably inclined toward U.S. ideas about democracy even though only 43 percent have a favorable view of the overall relationship. Perhaps not surprisingly, the younger, richer, and better-educated Chinese are, the more likely they are to identify with U.S. ideas about democracy and human rights. This suggests that U.S. advocacy for human rights may resonate among those Chinese most likely to shape the country's future.

And human rights issues don't have to be viewed in isolation. The candidates could easily pivot from human rights in China to the creation of U.S. jobs. The links between China's human rights practices and the ability of the United States to compete globally on a level playing field may not be obvious, but linked they are, as Yoda might say. China gains a competitive advantage from cheap labor, lax environmental protection laws, and expropriated land. Beijing will continue to enjoy those advantages so long as Chinese workers are denied the right to form independent labor unions, Chinese people are punished for demanding clean air and water, and Chinese peasants are pushed off their land without fair compensation.

The candidates' failure to put forward concrete ideas on how to advance human rights in China is a shame. There are many avenues available to encourage reforms -- through educational exchanges, judicial training, journalist training, rule of law seminars, support for civil society, broadcasting, Internet freedom initiatives, vocal support for dissidents, and official human rights dialogues.

Increasing U.S. support for rule of law and human rights in China would be a smart play for three reasons. First, it would garner favor within China. The most courageous advocates for human rights and justice in China live inside the country, not along the banks of the Potomac. Second, it would enhance U.S. economic opportunities by strengthening the Chinese middle class (the consumers of the future) and depriving Chinese state-owned enterprises of some of the unfair advantages they enjoy as a result of low-wage labor, lax environmental regulations, and stolen land. Third, it would actually promote China's own long-term stability. China is experiencing tens of thousands of protests every year, many focused on economic injustice. By repressing those seeking redress for grievances -- whether they are Tibetan monks or disconsolate factory workers -- the Chinese Communist Party is only undermining its own legitimacy and allowing problems to fester. Maybe by 2016, an American presidential contender will notice.

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