Michèle Flournoy discusses US defense policy, differences between Trump and Biden administrations

Michèle Flournoy (left), American defense policy adviser and former government official, talks with Monica Toft (right), director of the Center for Strategic Studies at The Fletcher School, at a Tisch College event on Wednesday. Sophie Dolan / The Tufts Daily
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The Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life and The Fletcher School hosted Michèle Flournoy, former under secretary of defense for policy, as part of the Civic Life Lunch speaker series on March 24.

Dean of Tisch College Alan Solomont introduced Flournoy at the beginning of the event, listing her various experiences as a public servant and other career accomplishments.

“Our guest today is one of the country’s leading experts on defense policy and national security,” Solomont said. “From 2009 to 2012, she served as the U.S. under secretary of defense for policy, where she was the principal advisor to the secretary of defense in the formulation of national security and defense policy, oversight of military plans and operations and in National Security Council deliberations.”

The discussion with Flournoy was moderated by Monica Toft, professor of international politics and director of the Center for Strategic Studies at Fletcher. 

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Toft began the conversation with the acknowledgement that both she and Flournoy are children of the Cold War era before transitioning into a question about the early parts of Flournoy’s career and, specifically, the nuclear situation.

“The advice I got very early on was you’ve got to pick something you’re passionate about and then go deep; really make yourself an expert in something,” Flournoy said. “For me, that was nuclear weapons, beam counting, it was arms control treaties, it was nuclear proliferation, and that’s really the focus area that I spent the first eight years of my career [on].”

Toft said that people don’t talk about nuclear weapons as much as they did in the 1970s and ‘80s, and asked about safety today. Flournoy advocated for the consideration of various aspects of the United States’ relationship with nuclear powers such as China and Russia, so that nuclear politics are not the sole focal point of these relationships.

“I think that we have to be thinking about how to maintain strategic stability with Russia, with China, not only from a nuclear perspective, but from the perspective of all the different capabilities and the things that can touch that strategic stability, including things like cyber weapons or hypersonics or other types of technologies,” Flournoy said. 

In discussing the transition from the Trump administration to the Biden administration, Flournoy discussed how the use of waivers to instate retired generals as the secretaries of defense has been a consistent decision that may have negative implications in government.

“There are only two civilians in the chain of command in our democracy, and they are the president and the secretary of defense,” Flournoy said. “The fact that [a military official has become secretary of defense] twice in a row … is, I don’t think, healthy as a long term trend … it’s very, very important to reempower the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the civilians there to support the civilian oversight functions in the department, because those had been either neglected or had atrophied substantially in the last four years.”

Regarding differences between the two administrations, Flournoy said that President Joe Biden strives to consider China as both a competitor of the United States in several ways, as well as China’s potential to be a partner of the United States in solving global issues.

“I think you’re going to see the Biden Administration take a less tactical approach and more of a strategic approach; they’re taking time upfront to do a series of policy reviews, [and a] classic example is on China,” Flournoy said. “Trump was very trade-focused, very tactically focused on tariffs and the Phase 1 trade deal, whereas Biden is really trying to take a look at the relationship in a much broader context and the competition across economic, technological, military, and ideological or political dimensions, but also the fact that we’re going to have to cooperate with China in key areas like climate change and pandemic prevention.”

Toft asked Flournoy about advice she would give to students who are pursuing careers in these fields.

“I would just ask that you find a way to serve in some capacity, whether that’s military, whether it’s federal government, whether it’s through the nonprofit sector, NGOs, find a way to serve because there’s nothing more rewarding than being part of advancing a mission that serves a greater public good,” Flournoy said.

She then touched on the gender dynamics in government jobs and encouraged young women to pursue careers in national security. 

“Don’t let the fact that it’s a male-dominated area deter you,” Flournoy said.

She acknowledged the progress that has been made, but noted that there is still a long way to go.

“When I first was in the Pentagon, we had a women’s lunch and all eight of us sat at one table in the dining room, and everyone was staring at it, like ‘Why are the women having lunch together?’ … Now you could fill, at least in the Obama Administration you could have filled, the entire dining room with women leaders,” Flournoy said. “So, it has gotten better. It’s not where it needs to be, but it is getting better.”

Flournoy then answered questions from the audience, one of which asked what led her to become a policymaker. She mentioned how the experience of having an idea implemented is very empowering.

“One of the things I was most proud of is we put in place a human capital strategy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense that started investing in our people and developing them as professionals, and that had a profound impact on performance, on morale, and became a model for other parts of the department,” Flournoy said. “In terms of lasting impact and what people come back to me and say ‘Oh my goodness, that was the most amazing thing,’ it’s not the bin Laden raid … it’s not this or that policy, it is the impact we had on the people who are still there in the workforce and who had an opportunity to really grow and shine during that period.”

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