Strategic Planning for National Security: A New Project Solarium

By Flournoy, Michele A.; Brimley, Shawn W. | Joint Force Quarterly, April 2006 | Go to article overview

Strategic Planning for National Security: A New Project Solarium


Flournoy, Michele A., Brimley, Shawn W., Joint Force Quarterly


For a country that continues to enjoy an unrivaled global position, it is both remarkable and disturbing that the United States has no truly effective strategic planning process for national security. Fifteen years after the Cold War, the United States still lacks a comprehensive interagency process that takes into account both the character of the international security environment and its own ability to deal with future challenges and opportunities. Today, the United States is engaged in conflicts that will, whether by success or failure, completely transform both the broader Middle East and the U.S. role in the world; yet there is no integrated planning process from which to derive the strategic guidance necessary to protect national interests and achieve U.S. objectives.

While the George W. Bush administration's 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States of America did articulate a set of national goals and objectives, it was not the product of serious strategic planning. More than 4 years after September 11, 2001, there is no established interagency process for assessing the full spectrum of threats and opportunities endemic to the new security environment and identifying priorities for policy development, execution, and resource allocation. The articulation of a national vision that describes America's purpose in the post-September 11 world is useful--indeed, it is vital--but describing a destination is no substitute for developing a comprehensive roadmap for how the country will achieve its stated goals. Various institutions in the national security apparatus have attempted strategic planning, but these efforts have been stovepiped within individual agencies and have varied in both approach and quality.

There is still no systematic effort at strategic planning for national security that is inclusive, deliberative, and integrative. David Abshire was correct in concluding that the demands of strategic transformation necessitate "structural reforms aimed at constructing a 'rooftop' that integrates the several key strategic pillars (diplomatic, economic, military, etc.) of American power and influence." (1) The reality is that America's most fundamental deliberations are made in an environment that remains dominated by the needs of the present and the cacophony of current crises. There must be a better way. Given that the United States has embarked on what is surely another long twilight struggle, it is past time to make a serious and sustained effort at integrating all the elements of national power in a manner that creates the unity of effort necessary for victory.

This article argues for establishing a strategic planning process for national security that includes three key elements: a quadrennial national security review that would identify national security objectives and priorities and develop a security strategy and implementing guidance for achieving them; an interagency process for regularly assessing the threats, challenges, and opportunities posed by the international security environment and informing the decisions of senior leaders; and a resource allocation process that would ensure that agency budgets reflect both the fiscal guidance and the national security priorities of the President. (2) This essay looks to the Project Solarium of the Eisenhower era for inspiration, design principles, and best practices, while also taking into account lessons to be learned from the experience of other administrations since then. Our aim is to offer a set of actionable recommendations to the President and National Security Adviser that would enhance their ability to integrate all the disparate elements of national power to enable the United States to meet today's challenges and be better prepared for those of tomorrow.

The Problem

Presidents, National Security Advisers, and Cabinet Secretaries face a vexing challenge from the moment they take office until the moment they leave: how to keep the urgent from crowding out the important. …

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