Overcoming strategic thinking deficiency

by Kelly Deichert
Air University Public Affairs

7/13/2012 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- The nation must use all its resources - economic, military, diplomatic and political - to shape strategy, and apply creativity to resolve global and national conflicts, said a speaker at the Air Force Judge Advocate General's School last month.

"What I take away from the events of the past decade, is that we need to move to a new kind of strategic thinking, one that adapts to changing times," said William Smullen. "Take an honest appraisal of what the world looks like today and what it will look like tomorrow."

Smullen was the speaker for the third annual Maj. Gen. David C. Morehouse Distinguished Lecture Series, sponsored by the Air Force Judge Advocate General's School Foundation. The series honors Morehouse, the 10th judge advocate general of the Air Force who was instrumental in the construction of the Dickenson Law Center at Maxwell.

Smullen is the director of National Security Studies at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. He was chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell and served in the Army for 30 years.

"We thought he would be a great speaker to appeal to both the military and civilian leaders in the audience since he experienced such successful careers in the Department of Defense, the U.S. Department of State and now in academia," said Maj. Cynthia Kearley, a civil law instructor at the JAG School. "We also thought his experience advising senior military leaders is something that the lawyers in the audience could relate to."

Smullen credits a lack of imagination for political decisions since 9/11 when events shaped the nation, opposed to developing strategy. "For the past 20 years we've fallen victim to STD - strategic thinking deficiency," he said.

With its abundance of war, the 20th century was the bloodiest in history, he said. The end of the Cold War and start of unconditional peace caused a strategic disorientation in the United States. There was no enemy threatening the country, nor was there one to confront overseas.

"We lost our sense of strategic direction and balance," Smullen said. "We were the only super power ... the spoils were ours to enjoy."

Today, politics have changed, and the nation needs a grand strategy, rooted in balance, prudence, principles, purpose and sustainability.

"There are no guarantees ... but it beats suffering from strategic thinking deficiency, which has plagued us for far too long," he said. "This is especially important at a time when the United States faces an unusually uncertain strategic environment and does so under real fiscal constraints."

After the uprisings in Iran, Tunisia, Egypt and other countries, Smullen recommends that the U.S. examines new strategic thinking, looking more to soft power, such as social media, and reducing reliance on hard power, such as the military.

In a culture where the U.S.'s heavy-handed foreign policies have not been well received globally, the country should look toward tools that can reach people on a personal level.
"Economic and diplomatic relations can be more powerful than military strength," he said. Breaking through the electronic curtain using traditional and social media, can reach societies and shape nations.

"This is a rare and unprecedented time in history, holding unparalleled importance to bring stability and prosperity by making strategically wise and prudent foreign policy decisions," he said.