February 28, 2011

From the Field: New Venture For Marine Veteran

As a Marine Corps infantry officer, Nathaniel Fick MPA/MBA 2008 had a clear-cut standard for making decisions that would affect the safety of his men: “If anyone was killed, after the war I had to be able to go to that person’s hometown, sit down in the living room with his parents, and explain to them honestly why their son was killed working for me — and why I had thought it was worth it,” Fick said in a video interview for One Bullet Away, a best-selling account of his tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq in the earliest, bloodiest months of those conflicts. (After five years of service, he left the Marines as a captain in the elite First Recon Battalion.)
A similar sense of duty and mission motivate Fick today, as CEO of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a think tank founded in 2007 by former Harvard Kennedy School faculty member Kurt Campbell and Michèle Flournoy, the current under secretary of defense for policy. “CNAS is unique right now in that it’s the only top-tier national security think tank in the country that’s run by veterans of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” says Fick. “We have a visceral, emotional appreciation for the fact that real human beings are executing the decisions being made in Washington.”

With that said, Fick emphasizes that CNAS is not solely focused on military-related topics. “National security is a much more holistic issue,” he says. “Diplomatic, political, and economic components are equally, if not more, important.” Three broad trends drive CNAS’s research and outreach: the changing face of warfare; the growing global influence of Asia; and recognition that energy and resource competition will become an increasingly influential factor in diplomatic relations.

Fick notes that this last trend, described as “natural security” on CNAS’s Web site, offers a number of opportunities for action in the here-and-now of Iraq and Afghanistan; for example, moving to portable, renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power units will deny insurgents an easy, fixed target for attack while decreasing the military’s dependence on fuel, the full cost of which can reach about $400 per gallon in remote areas.

“That’s simply not sustainable,” Fick says. “The military as a whole trades in risk and is slow to change. One function that an organization like CNAS can serve is to help accelerate shifts in the national conversation. We can have a real impact on this particular issue — people are looking for information and are willing to think differently, but it has to come from folks with national security credibility.”

In his newest leadership role, Fick hopes to build CNAS into an enduring institution without changing its size or entrepreneurial culture. “I want to keep it small, agile, and intellectually egalitarian,” he says, noting that the organization’s interns have the same seat at the discussion table as its senior fellows. “A collateral mission of ours is to train the next generation of national security leaders,” he adds. With Fick as a model, that goal seems well within reach.