Dennis Blair, retired Admiral and current Director of National Intelligence, has said the economic crisis is “the primary near-term security concern” for the United States. No surprise, makes sense.
It would also make sense if the Treasury Department, State Department, and National Security Council — along with other political and economic agencies — are actively engaged in thinking through and dealing with future risks emerging from current efforts to manage the crisis.
What is a bit surprising — but really shouldn’t be — is proactive engagement by the mililtary in considering the global economic crisis. According to Politico the pentagon recently hosted its first economic war game. Eamon Javers writes, “The two-day event near Ft. Meade, Maryland, had all the earmarks of a regular war game. Participants sat along a V-shaped set of desks beneath an enormous wall of video monitors displaying economic data, according to the accounts of three participants.”
The war-game is yet another example of the US military’s aggressive, imaginative, and outside-the-box approach to learning new skills and developing new perspectives. Especially for such a large enterprise oriented toward a command-and-control culture, the ability of the US military to reach-out, relearn, and reinvent itself is an extraordinary and – in most ways – reassuring example of human and organizational potential.
What worries me is not what the military is doing, but what others are not doing. Newsweek reminds us that back in 1994 US Senator Bryan Dorgan — among others — raised serious concerns regarding the long-term economic risks associated with a new type of financial swap and related derivatives. Dorgan and the others lost in their effort to impose more transparency and a modicum of regulation on the exotic financial trades.
In 1994 or 1996 or at anytime — simply as an exercise in risk-readiness — did one or more of our major economic agencies engage in the imaginative development of intellectual capital of the kind now being undertaken by the military? Did someone “war-game” a worst case scenario? I don’t know, but I expect not. Outside DOD the typical approach to risk evaluation is to commission an academic study by the usual suspects and then convene a meeting. The results too often tend toward an echo-chamber.
In the aftermath of Vietnam a profoundly dysfunctional US military very consciously remade itself. A big part of this renewal was to embrace self-critical and creative intellectual capital-formation. Research, outreach, gaming, exercising, training, long-term professional development, education, rigorously seeking and speaking the truth, and problem-solving agility have become fundamental to military culture.
Can we confidently say the same of our economic agencies? Of our homeland security agencies?
Postscript: Yes, yes, I know. There are still plenty of military Catch 22’s too, but the balance — especially for such a large bureaucracy — is remarkably healthy.