Stanford Drell Lecturer advises rethinking U.S. national security in an age of global disruptions

As the 2019 Drell Lecturer, former Pentagon leader Michèle Flournoy spoke on U.S

As the 2019 Drell Lecturer, former Pentagon leader Michèle Flournoy spoke on U.S. national security in a time of great geopolitical and technological change. (Image credit: Farrin Abbott)

At Stanford, former Pentagon leader Michèle Flournoy advises rethinking U.S. national security and defense in an era where great-power rivalries and geopolitical and technological change have shifted the strategic landscape.

Former Pentagon leader Michèle Flournoy says America needs to stand up for its values as an open society, while also protecting itself from a meddling Russia and ascendant China that are seeking to exploit that very openness.

"We need to be clear-eyed," Flournoy said Thursday, Oct. 3, in the annual Drell Lecture for Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC). CISAC co-director Colin Kahl moderated the conversation.

The Drell Lecture honors the late Sidney Drell , CISAC’s co-founder and former deputy director of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

Flournoy, whose talk was titled "U.S. National Security in an Era of Great Power Competition and Technological Disruption," has served in top leadership roles within the Pentagon. She most recently served during the Obama administration as undersecretary of defense for policy and was a principal advisor to Secretaries of Defense Robert Gates and Leon Panetta. When the U.S. Senate confirmed her nomination in 2009, Flournoy was at the time the highest-ranking woman at the Pentagon in the department’s history.

China, Russia

Flournoy said the world is experiencing unprecedented geopolitical and technological change, as well as escalating great-power competition among the United States, China and Russia. The challenge, she said, is how to rethink U.S. national security and defense in a way that reflects long-cherished American principles of openness, freedom and democracy. The current administration’s strategy emphasizes interstate competition or great-power rivalries over terrorism and such other issues as nuclear nonproliferation, she said.

"I do agree we have to give more focus or more attention and bandwidth to great-power competition. But I have some issues with how the strategy treats it," she said.

A revisionist Russia and a rising China pose different types of challenges to America, she added. But viewing them as solely military enemies is a strategic flaw in the current U.S. policy. Though China is a competitor, America needs its cooperation on such issues as climate change, nuclear nonproliferation, North Korea and even Iran.

Russia and President Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, continue to meddle in elections and democracy in the United States and elsewhere, she said. Russia, therefore, needs to be treated differently.

Flournoy said it would be foolish for the United States to restart an arms race with Russia. She is concerned about what happens to the New START (New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) when it expires in February 2021. The current administration has suggested it will let the treaty lapse to pursue another agreement involving the United States, Russia and China.

"If New START is allowed to expire, we’ll find ourselves back in a nuclear competition with Russia," she said, suggesting that the United States and Russia would be much better off to sign a five-year extension for START.

Countries like Russia and China have cyber capabilities that could hinder how the United States projects military power beyond its shores, she pointed out.

American leadership needs to better understand how cyber and space issues could be involved in contemporary conflicts, she said. Talking candidly with the Chinese, for example, about the American casualties that could result from possible cyberattacks on the U.S. homeland would make the point that cyberwarfare is fundamentally unacceptable, she added.

"We have to be having those strategic discussions," Flournoy said, "and we’re not."

During the Cold War, for example, the United States and the Soviet Union had successful dialogues on how to prevent nuclear miscalculations that could have resulted in an all-out war, said Flournoy, a co-founder of the think tank Center for a New American Security.

China today is different from the former Soviet Union, she said. Unlike during the Cold War, a U.S. containment approach toward China is not possible, Flournoy said.

"We need an affirmative agenda and a much more deeply engaged diplomatic relationship with China," she said.

In America, investing in innovation and brainpower - and allowing immigration to grow the economy - is important. However, China and Russia, she noted, will take advantage of America’s open society and systems, especially in a globally connected and integrated world.

But a "sledgehammer" approach in terms of U.S. policy is not the answer. A more precise approach would work better, Flournoy said. In other words, if the United States launches broad measures against China - such as cutting off all Chinese investment in tech companies - that would dry up needed funding for those American companies.

"We need to be clear-eyed and also very careful that we don’t lose all the benefits that we’ve gained from the free flow of people and ideas," she said, describing herself as an optimist who values higher education, technological progress and an engaged diplomatic strategy.

She added that America needs to be the "champion of universal human rights" around the world.

Flournoy formerly served on the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, the CIA Director’s External Advisory Board and the Defense Policy Board. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and holds a position on the Leadership Council for Women in National Security. Flournoy is advising U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, a current presidential candidate, on foreign policy issues.

By tradition, the Drell lecturer addresses a national or international security issue that has important scientific or technical dimensions. Recent speakers have included Alex Stamos (2018), Bob R. Inman (2017), Ashton Carter (2015) and Vinton G. Cerf (2014).

Flournoy’s talk is available on video.

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