Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 10, 2012

The National Preparedness Report: Trying to describe reality and outlining how to engage it

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on May 10, 2012

Presidential Policy Directive 8 begat the National Preparedness Goal, the NPG begat the National Preparedness System.  This lineage has now begat the National Preparedness Report.

The forebears for this race of documents might be extended into the mist of history and myth: a veritable Book of Numbers or Metamorphoses of policy-making.

But surely the one common ancestor looming over this titillating thicket of conceptual coupling would be NSC-68.    If ever there was an Ur text, this is one.  In fifty-eight pages a national policy was articulated with such clarity and strength that it seemed to call-forth — creating not just framing — a half-century of national purpose.   President Truman signed the document on September 30, 1950.  Some suggest NSC-68 achieved its apotheosis on November 9, 1989.

The problem of preparedness is no less acute or consequential than the problems facing Truman, Acheson, Nitze, Kennan, et al.  Here’s how PPD-8 situates our current challenge:

This directive is aimed at strengthening the security and resilience of the United States through systematic preparation for the threats that pose the greatest risk to the security of the Nation, including acts of terrorism, cyber attacks, pandemics, and catastrophic natural disasters. Our national preparedness is the shared responsibility of all levels of government, the private and nonprofit sectors, and individual citizens. Everyone can contribute to safeguarding the Nation from harm. As such, while this directive is intended to galvanize action by the Federal Government, it is also aimed at facilitating an integrated, all-of-Nation, capabilities-based approach to preparedness.

This is a big idea.  Read it again, not as a dollop of  political/bureaucratic prose but as if it was an earnest expression of national intent.

NSC-68 was also capabilities-oriented.  A long quote:

In examining our capabilities it is relevant to ask at the outset–capabilities for what? The answer cannot be stated solely in the negative terms of resisting the Kremlin design. It includes also our capabilities to attain the fundamental purpose of the United States, and to foster a world environment in which our free society can survive and flourish.

Potentially we have these capabilities. We know we have them in the economic and military fields. Potentially we also have them in the political and psychological fields. The vast majority of Americans are confident that the system of values which animates our society–the principles of freedom, tolerance, the importance of the individual, and the supremacy of reason over will–are valid and more vital than the ideology which is the fuel of Soviet dynamism. Translated into terms relevant to the lives of other peoples–our system of values can become perhaps a powerful appeal to millions who now seek or find in authoritarianism a refuge from anxieties, bafflement, and insecurity…

These capabilities within us constitute a great potential force in our international relations. The potential within us of bearing witness to the values by which we live holds promise for a dynamic manifestation to the rest of the world of the vitality of our system. The essential tolerance of our world outlook, our generous and constructive impulses, and the absence of covetousness in our international relations are assets of potentially enormous influence.

These then are our potential capabilities. Between them and our capabilities currently being utilized is a wide gap of unactualized power.

It is worth recalling that NSC-68 was a classified document.  The public did not see it until a quarter-century after the President’s signature.   In our Ur text policy-makers are self-consciously communicating, arguing, analyzing, trying to persuade their fellow policy-makers.

The National Preparedness Goal lists thirty-one core capabilities.  The National Preparedness Report gives attention to each.  ”Freedom, tolerance, the importance of the individual, and the supremacy of reason over will” are not  among the thirty-one.

Each of the core capabilities are organized by five mission priorities.  Within the government, these mission-with-capability-clusters increasingly reflect lines of authority and responsibility.  What we have in the NPG, NPS, and NPR is an effort to describe reality and an emerging structure for engaging that reality.

It tends to be a very instrumental view of reality, almost mechanistic.   It is, at least in my judgment, consistent with observations of reality. It is also complicated.  The National Preparedness System has begun to remind me of Ptolemy’s eccentric, epicycle,  and equant.  It works, but is less than elegant.

This is not meant as a fundamental critique of the National Preparedness collection and is certainly not a criticism of these documents’ authors.

It is an expression of concern regarding contemporary rhetoric, by which I mean the art of decision making.

If the National Preparedness authors had used a rhetoric similar to NSC-68, my obscure voice at this little blog would have congratulated them.  From nearly every other corner they would have been savaged, being accused of superficiality, hypocrisy, and — probably — jaw-dropping hubris.  Yet this older rhetoric and its now seemingly quaint gathering of evidence and argument is still honored for having set-the-stage for winning the Cold War.

Beyond matters of style, I perceive an important substantive difference between the intellectual and operational assumptions set out in NSC-68 and those unfolding from the National Preparedness collection.  What are those differences?  What may be their practical implications?

Take some time to read NSC-68 and come back tomorrow.

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4 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 10, 2012 @ 7:13 pm

Suggest all read the John Lewis Gaddis Pulitizer Prize winning biography of George Kennan prepared over 4 decades and released in 2011 before deciding on the relative merits of NSC 68!

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » National Preparedness Report: Voice, vision, and a reality beyond systems engineering

May 11, 2012 @ 12:11 am

[...] This is the second in a two-part consideration of the recently released National Preparedness Report.  Please see the prior discussion immediately below. [...]

Comment by Philip J. Palin

May 11, 2012 @ 3:38 am

Bill, In this instance, I am not trying to argue the ultimate wisdom of NSC-68 vis-a-vis its alternatives (though that would be a valuable discussion). Rather I am wanting to point to NSC-68 as an interesting model of argumentation and decision-making in contrast to the National Preparedness series and most contemporary governmental exposition, thinking, and decision-making. The difference may be clearer in my Friday post.

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 11, 2012 @ 7:43 am

AT the bottom line NSC-68 said and gave the USA no options for our relations with the Soviet Union. Perhaps each individuals vision as to whether the USA won or the Soviets lost the Cold War guide our memories.

Few understood the tradeoffs made by NSC-68 and many still don’t know. MAD [Mutual Assured Destruction} was one end point of NSC-68!

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