January 07, 2018

Bringing the national security debate beyond Washington

By Julianne Smith

Washingtonians who work on national security often pride themselves on how much they know about the world. Many of the nation’s top security experts speak foreign languages and have spent years studying and working overseas. They read international journals, maintain networks of other experts around the world and travel frequently to international conferences. But the one thing those same national security professionals aren’t particularly good at doing is connecting with Americans outside of Washington. While they occasionally travel to their home states to visit family or friends and attend conferences in places like Ohio or Texas, the Washington national security community spends a lot of time talking to itself. This needs to change.

The reasons for Washington’s insularity are multifold. First, not everyone outside of Washington wants to join a discussion on the future of NAFTA or Nagorno-Karabakh. Second, many Washingtonians grew up outside of Washington, which leads them to sometimes falsely conclude that they understand how the rest of the country (or at least one corner of it) thinks. Third, national security jobs often require you to know more about the domestic politics of Germany or China than the United States. The end result has been a growing cadre of national security professionals who are out of touch with how their fellow citizens think about foreign policy.

Never was that more apparent than during the 2016 election. Sure, many in Washington were surprised that the country elected Donald Trump as its 45th president. But what many members of the national security community found more shocking was the way that detractors from both sides of the aisle attacked the bipartisan consensus on the importance of American engagement in the world. National security professionals — myself included — had failed to notice the growing disaffection among our fellow citizens with globalization. We also failed to notice (or refused to acknowledge) the shift in public views towards things like democracy promotion, global trade deals, the NATO alliance and nation building. After joking about the “Washington bubble” for years, Washingtonians have come to appreciate how much truth lies in that analogy.

Read the full op-ed in Deseret News.

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