Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts U.S. National Security and the Future
U.S. National Security and the Future

U.S. National Security and the Future

The current international environment is in a state of flux with numerous security threats both present or on the horizon. Whatever future historians call this era, undoubtedly, the present and near future offers threats or challengers from great powers (China and Russia), regional powers (Iran, North Korea, etc.), non-state actors (al-Qaeda, ISIS, etc.), environmental issues, and other factors. There is some debate over just how engaged the United States should be. Disagreements also arise over the role of technology in security affairs. Where are we heading? How will future generations cope with the international environment in the medium- and long-term?

To address these issues, the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute convened a roundtable. Program Director Michael P. Noonan led a discussion with Senior Fellow, and members of its Board of Advisors, John Nagl (Headmaster of the Haverford School) and Marisa Porges (Head of School at the Baldwin School). Porges and Nagl both hold PhDs in international relations and are combat veterans of the Navy and Army, respectively. They have served in high -level offices in the White House (Porges) and Pentagon (Nagl) and in think tanks and academia.

Michael P. Noonan: First off, thank you both for agreeing to take part in this discussion. With your backgrounds and current positions, I thought you would be the perfect people to discuss the contemporary and future threat environments that do—or will—confront U.S. national security and how the younger generations will rise to these challenges.

With your unique previous operational backgrounds as an armor officer (Nagl) and naval aviator (Porges) and your accumulated expertise and experience on matters relating to counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and cyber issues, to name a few areas, what do you see as the primary challenges to U.S. national security in the medium to long term? Is great power competition the key domain that will affect our security? If so, what will this competition look like? If not, what concerns you the most?

John Nagl: We certainly live in interesting times. In a session of the “Main Line Discussions” held at the Haverford School about a year ago, Marisa and I discussed the challenge America faces of deterring great power competition, continuing to fight the long war against radical Islamic extremism, and simultaneously confronting what I expect to be the biggest fight of this century: climate change. The clear and present danger of climate change is now quite clear to our friends in Australia and California, which have been facing horrific wildfires; as temperatures rise and the climate shifts, disasters like those will occur more frequently and be more damaging. So far, the biggest impact on the East Coast has been more frequent and more powerful hurricanes, but let’s not forget the near eradication of snow days just during the tenure of my Headmastership. This generation of Americans will have their work cut out for them.

Marisa Porges: I agree that climate change is our most serious long-term threat, for the environmental reasons that John talked about and for a long list of economic, national security, and humanitarian reasons, too. It’s also is the sort of non-traditional national security threat that we’ll see dominate news headlines from here on out in the same way that we hear more often about transnational threats like cybersecurity, terrorism, and pandemic disease.

Which is also why, when you ask about great power competition and the most serious national security challenges of our time, I think about the cyber operations intended to undermine our democratic processes and weaken U.S. alliances. Debates about how state-on-state competition, including with countries like China, Russia, and Iran, impacts national security should take into account the role of online disinformation campaigns—both overt and covert ones. It’s also why it’s so important that we teach kids to be critical thinkers who can analyze data, assess whether sources are accurate, and consider any issue from multiple perspectives. And why one part of Baldwin’s coursework that I’m most proud of is how our faculty teach these skills and help our girls practice using them in the real world. It means they’ll be prepared to face and solve the types of challenges we’re describing, including climate change.

Noonan: Carnes Lord, a noted strategist at the U.S. Naval War College, has argued that U.S. strategic culture tends to favor technology while being ahistorical. Do you think he is right? What role do you think technology plays today and in the near term for the execution of U.S. national security policy? Are we moving into an era where robotics and artificial intelligence will be the key elements in great power military capabilities?

Nagl: I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the impact of culture on military adaptation, later published as the book Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife. In it, I argued that it was far easier for the U.S. military to attempt to apply technological solutions to the counterinsurgency challenge we faced in Vietnam than it was to apply the lessons of history to that conflict. We remain far better at using technology to fight our current war on radical Islamic extremism than the cultural and soft skills that would multiply our effectiveness; I worked hard to provide more interpreters to our combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan and to improve our understanding of how to use the economic instrument of power to combat insurgency, for instance. None of this is to say that robots and artificial intelligence don’t have an important role to play in the future force; indeed, I recently published an article in Army Magazine making just that argument. But warfare is a human endeavor, and technological prowess won’t solve all of our problems. (Although it will be a big part of mitigating the effects of climate change!)

Porges: We can’t ignore the fact that technology like artificial intelligence and robots have become a critical “tool” in our national security “toolbox.” I say that not just as a former naval aviator watching manned jets like the sort I used to fly displaced by the increased use of unmanned drones, or as a counter-terrorism scholar who knows how essential big data analytics are to U.S. intelligence operations. But I also firmly believe that these tools can only be effective if directed by trained men and women who understand lessons learned from history and can contextualize strategic decisions.

It’s why the Leadership Seminar I teach students each year focuses so much on what people call the “soft skills” of leadership—things like communication and collaboration, emotional intelligence and empathy. We often overlook these elements when we talk about national security strategy, but they’re critical restraints on technology-driven solutions. It’s also why the personnel-side of U.S. military planning and operations—here I mean how we support and develop our soldiers, sailors, and aviators—remains the most important aspect of America’s national security strategy.

Noonan: How did you both become headmasters of elite schools on the Main Line? When one thinks of that area, security studies doesn’t leap to the forefront of one’s mind. Sure, Smedley Darlington Butler, a fighting Quaker, was an alum of the Haverford School, but Marisa, you are an alumna of the Baldwin School and went on to get a commission through NROTC, correct? Did other members of your class and their parents see you as somewhat of a unicorn? How is military service seen by younger elites today?

Nagl: I think the Haverford School Board was so impressed with my predecessor’s fifteen-year leadership of the School that it was easier to contemplate me in that role; Joe was a retired Army Colonel, West Point Professor, and Vietnam veteran, and I think they saw me as a bit of a chip off the old block. Marisa was on the Baldwin Board and has been a designated badass for a long time, since before we worked in the Pentagon together killing terrorists; I encouraged her to consider the role and the Baldwin Board to consider her. I like to think that my military service leads Haverford boys to think about attending Service Academies themselves; in fact, we recently hosted the Superintendent of the US Air Force Academy in our Centennial Hall. I’ve seen an increase during my tenure in the number of Haverford boys—and Baldwin and Agnes Irwin girls—attending Service Academies, and I very much hope that trend continues.

Porges: It’s funny that the partnership John and I started years ago, in the E-Ring of the Pentagon and in Afghanistan, is now part of our work as Heads of School. Definitely adds a new angle to school traditions like when Baldwin and Haverford play each other in sports! It also provides a good model for our students, for different ways they can have impact after graduation. I’ve been proud to see multiple Baldwin graduates go on to attend service academies or join ROTC during my tenure as Head. While it was not the norm when I graduated, every year, I meet with students who want to talk about how the military could be an ideal place to use their academic skills, grow their leadership abilities, and serve their communities.

As for my path to become Baldwin’s Head of School… I’ve long been committed to the School’s mission of empowering young women to lead their generation, and always been grateful for the education and supportive sisterhood that Baldwin gave me. It’s what made it possible for me to, quite literally, pursue my dream of flying off aircraft carriers and working in the White House. I jumped at the chance to lead a community that gave me so much and has such a big impact on today’s girls. Plus, Baldwin is an incredibly fun place to call home on a daily basis!

Noonan: You have both been in positions of authority there to cover both the youngest Millennials and now exclusively Generation Z. We are all Gen Xers and know something about being estimated and underestimated by both our elders and juniors. What would you say about students from the younger generations? What are the biggest misconceptions and lazy stereotypes about today’s students?

Nagl: This is a great generation of young Americans, comparable in a lot of ways to the kids who came of age during the Eisenhower administration. They are drinking and using drugs less than any generation since—including ours—and work extremely hard. While I’m deeply concerned about vaping and its long-term impact on their health, in general, I have only good things to say about these kids. Good thing, because they’re going to have their hands full with the messes we’re leaving them!

Porges: The students I see at school every day, including our youngest, post-Gen Z students who are now being called Generation A, give me an tremendous hope. Studies show—and my personal experience confirms—that children today are more entrepreneurial than previous generations, highly oriented toward change, and are eager to play an active role in their community. All signs that, with the right preparation, they will be the leaders, problem-solvers and change-makers we need in the future.

It’s why I was inspired to write my forthcoming book What Girls Need, about how parents and teachers can help today’s young women take advantage of their natural talents and raise girls to be bold and resilient when they’re older. So that they’re ready for the real-world awaiting them—and so they’re never underestimated as adults. Look for it in bookstores and online this summer!

Noonan: How engaged are current students with international issues and how to deal with them? And, as former combat leaders, each of you, what about the current generation do you see as its strengths for dealing with the current and future international environments?

Nagl: We teach courses in both American politics and International Relations; both are oversubscribed. I give a biweekly talk titled “History Behind the Headlines” to interpret current events for the boys; although it’s not for credit, we may have to move it to a bigger room, as there’s been lots of interest. I think these kids are deeply concerned about their future and the future of the planet; America has been at war literally since the day they were born. Their ability to use technology, their diligence and work ethic, and their innate goodness all give me hope for the future.

Porges: Our students are incredibly excited to study, debate, and get involved in international affairs, in school and off campus. And many want careers in foreign policy after college. It’s why classes like our elective on Contemporary World Issues are among our most popular, clubs like Model United Nations are full, and our students constantly find ways to get involved in organizations outside of school that work on global issues. I know they especially enjoy interning at FPRI, even while in high school.

One strength that they bring to all these places is their ability to make connections across subjects and apply the problem-solving they learn in class to the real world. This is something we stress at Baldwin with special interdisciplinary programs that helps our girls understand how their STEAM and humanities programs apply to the world around them—including the international issues that excite them. It’s also the sort of skillset that will be a tremendous strength for the next generation, no matter where they head next.

Noonan: Final question: What threats to U.S. national security keep you up at night?

Nagl: I’m less concerned about external threats to our nation right now than I am about internal ones; in fact, I gave a TEDx talk in Media in November that highlighted the threats to NATO and the European Union, which I consider to be two of the great accomplishments in human history, but that are now under duress. There has been an extraordinary consensus on the basic direction of American foreign policy since Harry Truman; that consensus is under strain, and the ability of Democrats and Republicans to agree to come together as Americans to keep us safe is, sadly, not evident. Our internal divisions are nearly as severe as they were during the leadup to the Civil War, a period I’m now studying in preparation for teaching a course on it next year to our seniors, and I see no sign that those tensions will diminish in the immediate future. Hold on to your hats; it’s going to be a wild ride!

Porges: What keeps me up at night? I still often think about my work at the White House, when I was focused on cybersecurity. Not just threats of a cyberattack on critical infrastructure systems, but also cyber espionage—cyberattacks that target the flow of information, our financial systems, and the internet of things, as well as cyber-theft directed at key American industries. Plus, the online information campaigns that I talked about at the start of our roundtable, which feed internal divisions that John described.

Before I joined Baldwin, I focused on finding new ways for the federal government to partner with the private sector to protect U.S. interests from these types of cyber threats. Those solutions are still a work in progress, even as the threat continues to grow and rapidly change as technology changes. Meaning that it will remain a serious and complex national security concern for years to come. It’s why teaching the next generation to be engaged citizens with an eye for complex problem-solving is so important to our long-term security.

Noonan: Marisa and John, thank you both so much for not only for taking part in this discussion, but also for your collegiality at FPRI and for your work as scholars and educators in order to foster debate and enlighten both policy audiences and the public. I am certain that the students of your institutions are grateful for your leadership roles and the knowledge and experiences that you both bring to the task of producing well-rounded citizens.