An Interview with Michèle Flournoy, Former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy

by Meghan Healy Luecke


Michèle Flournoy served as the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy of the United States from February 2009 to February 2012. She was the principal adviser to the Secretary of Defense in the formulation of national security and defense policy, oversight of military plans and operations, and in National Security Council deliberations. She is the highest-ranking woman in the history of the Pentagon.

Last spring, Michèle Flournoy spoke to The Fletcher Forum about the greatest policy challenges of the upcoming presidential election and her career in national security. She also commented on her vision for American grand strategy, the future character of American leadership, and U.S.-China relations — and she shared with us the best career advice she ever received.

Interview conducted by Meghan Healy Luecke, former Managing Editor for Web at The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs and currently a Foreign Service Officer with the Department of State.


Challenges for American Security and Grand Strategy

Meghan Healy Luecke: In your last speech before departing office, you said that you vehemently disagree with the narrative of American decline and the narrative that the challenges we currently face are unique in American history, or challenge American leadership in a unique way. Could you comment on this, and your ideas on American grand strategy and your vision for going forward?

Michèle Flournoy: There is this emerging narrative of American decline both abroad and, in some circles, at home, and I do reject it. I think it’s premature and I think it’s erroneous, but I understand the reasons. I think people look at the extent of our economic challenges, the financial crisis, and the situation with our deficit, but just as importantly they see what I think is a breakdown of governance. They see a breakdown in what they expect of our governance because our politics have become so polarized, so partisan, and so parochial that we’ve had trouble grappling with the issues we need to in a pragmatic and principled way. I think it’s the combination of the economic situation and the political situation that has led to this narrative [of decline] and I think it’s a very dangerous narrative for the United States given our strategic interests around the world and how we envision our own role as a global leader.

So I do think there’s some very pragmatic things that we’ve got to get done. One is we have to see our way through this current budgetary crisis. We’ve got to get leaders on both sides of the aisle in a room to agree on a plan that involves both restraints on spending and a generation of new revenues to deal with the problem. More fundamentally, there are a whole number of investment areas that if we are going to sustain the national resilience, the innovation–the things that have defined our ability to see our way through challenges historically–we’ve got to invest in education, in science and technology, in infrastructure, in the things that create the platforms from which that dynamism that’s always defined America as a nation, and certainly the American economy, has come from. Those are the foundations that we’ve got to reinvest in.

MHL: You published a report through the Center for a New American Security in 2007 in which you had several different authors who presented their idea for a grand strategy and a vision for America’s future. Which of those visions of America’s future appeal to you the most?

MF: I think the vision that appeals to me most is the idea of the U.S. playing a unique and indispensable role, enabling elements of the international community to come together to solve shared challenges and problems. I am not someone who champions a sort of ‘go-it-alone’ approach to American leadership. There are times where we may have to act unilaterally to protect our interests, no question, and we always want to preserve both the ability to do that and the willingness to do that when necessary. But our preferred option–especially given the nature of the challenges that we face, where it’s difficult for any one nation to deal with climate change effectively, or proliferation, or terrorism, or shifting power relations–is to solve problems through collective action. I think the U.S. has a unique role to play in facilitating that collective action, whether it’s a common response to what happened in Libya, a common response to the challenges of Afghanistan, or other issues.  I think U.S. leadership is critical, but the discussion we need to have is on the nature of that leadership and the role of the U.S. and what’s really unique about our contribution.

MHL: Do you think we currently have adequate interagency infrastructure for grappling with these kinds of issues? What do you think we should change, whether it’s structural or it’s about bringing in individuals with a kind of leadership vision?

MF: I think there is a leadership element and a capacity element. The first thing you have to have is a leadership in the NSC structure, the principals on the NSC but also the National Security Staff, that really creates a demand signal for strategic conversation and strategic thinking. Because my biggest challenge in my last position in government was the tyranny of the inbox. You could fill your entire day twice over with all of the required tasks that someone has come up with. But not all those tasks are ‘A’ priorities, a lot of them are ‘C’ priorities in there. So one of the biggest challenges is creating space not only at the leader level but at the staff level to actually do that strategic, forward-looking thinking about where should we be going, where should we be proactive, what should we be seeking, and looking at opportunities as well as challenges. I think there’s a leadership element of creating that demand signal and the space for that to happen and the structure for that to happen.

But I also think there’s a capacity question. The Department of Defense has a very unique culture that values planning, strategy and strategic thinking. We’re probably the only department that religiously tries to follow the strategic guidance, so we recruit people to be strategists and planners. We develop them, they have career paths, they have training, they have support, and they are rewarded. It’s hard to find another agency in the national security domain that has that same investment in people who are doing strategy and planning. You have a Policy Planning Staff at the State Department–very impressive, but very, very small–where when people join that office they have to step out of their normal career path. They may or may not be rewarded for having that experience. Hopefully there’s insight to reward them, but not always. So the idea of fully resourcing all the national security agencies to be able to put people aside to really do that strategic thinking and planning is a really important resourcing question that we haven’t grappled with effectively.

MHL: I want to go back briefly to the question of America’s vision for the future. In your personal experience and given all the effort and thinking you’ve put into this, can you see in forty years a world balance of power in which China and the United States are co-equals, politically and not just economically? And can that future be sufficient to satisfy American national interests and the vision that you see as right for American leadership?

MF: I can see a point at which economically they will be closer to co-equals. I do not see us being compared from the political or influence perspective because I don’t think there are countries around the world that are clamoring to imitate the Chinese model. I think a lot of the United States’ influence obviously comes from our economic role and dynamism and our contribution to the global economy. But it also stems from our model of government, our experience with democracy, and it stems from our record of often being an upholder, if you will, of an international order that is rules-based, law-based, and principles-based, and that invites participation from everyone. I don’t see the Chinese putting forward a model that will appeal to other countries and have the same kind of traction and influence as the U.S. model. Now I am not saying that every country wants to be like the United States, but I do think that the way in which America in its best moments has wielded its power is a fairly unique approach that other countries do appreciate.

MHL: Who do you think in the interagency right now is best positioned to grapple with these types of questions? I was pleased to hear you say just how personally involved the President was in the Quadrennial Defense Review, for example. Who else, besides the man at the top, is well positioned?

MF: I would start with President Obama because I think he actually, and remarkably, has found the time to think about these issues fairly deeply and has a very strong view about the role of the United States in the world, how we should wield our power, and how we should regain the connection between our economic health and dynamism and our national security in the long term. But I think that ideally, this is a question for the Principals Committee and the national security structure, and you would like to see time set aside on the calendars of the National Security Advisor, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the Director of National Intelligence, and so forth, to have these kinds of conversations. Now that has happened, particularly early in the administration. I really appreciate the extent to which the presidential policy reviews were taken very seriously and these kinds of conversations were had in the development of the first National Security Strategy. But I think as the press of crises bears down upon people it’s hard to carve out that time and space to have these conversations. But they do get interwoven into specific case discussions. In dealing with the crisis with Iran, or North Korea, or our relationship with China, or the future of Afghanistan, you will frequently hear one of the principals say “Wait a minute, let’s step back. If we do go down this path, where will that put American power in the long-term? What will the legacy of that be? What will the second, third, and fourth order consequences be in the long term?”

MHL: I have a fairly specific question that relates to your talk about just how intimately budget concerns must be related to our strategic priorities and vision. And that is the idea of capitalizing on the investments we have made over the past 10 years in two wars in personnel. We have such an incredible core of veterans, and some who are just transitioning out of military service who have expertise in so many areas that would be terrifically useful to the entire interagency now. We had a really fantastic op-ed written by a Fletcher student who is a veteran about the challenges that so many people like him face in trying to transition into civilian government positions. He told me something I didn’t realize, which is that some of the veterans’ preference programs, in fact most of them, are focused on disability. You mentioned today the ‘wounded warrior’ approach to recruiting. He was very concerned that that doesn’t reward experience and targeted expertise. I was wondering if you could comment on that.

MF: Well I think there’s certainly a number of programs that are targeting those that will have the greatest challenge in making the transition, which includes many of our wounded warriors. But I think there are a lot of programs that are either in existence or being developed to look at transition for the broader population. Especially as we experience the drawdown [in Afghanistan], I think the services are now working closely with the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Labor, and other parts of the government to create transition plans, assistance, and incentives. I know that when I was Under Secretary for Policy and I would interview job candidates there was a general veterans’ preference. If I had three qualified candidates and one was a veteran of any stripe, the preference was for the veteran, in terms of bringing them into the Office of the Secretary. I think that is a rule across the federal government, so for government that is certainly true.

I think that the larger question is how do we get private sector to realize the incredible treasure that is coming on the market here and how do we help? I know there are programs to help military people write resumes that translate military experience into language that the private sector can relate to and appreciate and say, “Ok I get it, he could be at this level, or he could do that.” I think those kinds of programs are being developed but a lot more work is needed there.

The 2012 Presidential Campaign

MHL: I would love to know a bit more about your role in the U.S. Presidential Campaign. Also, what worries you most if President Obama is not reelected?

MF: I’ve been asked to play a leadership role in organizing a group of senior surrogates, for lack of a better term–including former administration officials and senior people who have been supporters of the president–to speak to national security issues should they come up in the campaign, whether it’s simply explaining the President’s record on an issue, debunking a myth, or presenting a different view on a mischaracterization of the record. I think all of us who have been a part of this administration feel that this is a strong suit for this President. He’s had a very challenging set of issues come his way but I think he’s had a lot of successes–everything from the bin Laden raid to a responsible end to the Iraq war, from a difficult but I believe still workable transition plan for Afghanistan to managing great power relations, and on and on–there’s a lot of success there. We just want to make sure the record is understood, should it become an issue.

The thing that would worry me most if he were not reelected is that there is a lot that’s been done to restore respect for America as a country that champions the rule of law in the international system. There’s a lot that’s been done to restore our reputation for working well with others, for seeking to create and strengthen alliances and bring together coalitions. [The Administration has made it a priority to] not be a go-it-alone power, but a power that enables and supports international action to deal with common problems. I don’t want to see any of that reversed. That has been our history, it’s something to be proud of, and it’s something that we should continue no matter who is President.

MHL: And what worries you most if he is reelected?

MF: What worries me most is just the extent of the economic challenges that we face and the extent of the political polarization in this country that is keeping senior leaders in Congress from making the necessary compromises to govern and get us moving forward to solve the problems that we face, rather than simply trying to gain political points against one another by refusing to move forward and compromise.

MHL: Do you think a new election will help budge everyone out of that dynamic? Or would it take a new charismatic evangelist? Would it take a national version of a health scare to jump people out of it?

MF: I think it’s going to be very difficult to get to that compromise–and compromise in my view is not a dirty word, it is the nature of democracy and how we work and have always worked in our history. You take the best ideas from both sides, you find a middle ground, and you move forward. But I think it’s going to take getting past the elections and looking sequestration in the face–and really looking at what that is going to do to this country and to our national security. It’s going to take people looking into the abyss and being frightened, as they should be. And perhaps it may take a signal from the voters, since Congress has the lowest approval rating that it’s ever had in its history.

The American people want people to govern. They want Congress to solve problems, they want the President to solve problems, they want them to work together to solve problems and move forward. And to the extent that the Congressional side of the elections reflect that frustration and, in some quarters, the disgust at where we are, that will also send a signal of “Hey, you guys have to get moving, you have to move forward and solve the problem.” It’s not going to be a perfect solution for either side’s extremes, but the reasonable middle can agree and move forward.

Career Guidance and the Role of Women in Security

MHL: Switching gears , I have a question about the role of women, particularly civilian women, in security fields. It was once a common refrain, and may still be, that a woman – particularly in the Pentagon – would need to have a “Dr.” or a military title in front of her name to get the attention and focus that she might seek. Is that still the case?

MF: Well, I have neither. I don’t think it’s about title. First of all, let me say that a lot of progress has been made since my first tour in the Pentagon [during the Clinton Administration]. During my first tour in the Pentagon, another woman and I decided to host a lunch for all the civilian women leaders that we could find and we all fit at one table. And then for months there were conspiracy theories about “What were we talking about?!” But now, if a few months ago I had invited all the civilian women leaders to lunch I would have filled the entire executive dining room. That is a very good new story. When I look over my shoulder to see who’s coming behind me, it’s a very talented cohort of people, much more diversity at the one, two and three levels below the Under Secretary level.

The issue is still the glass ceiling and it has not yet become commonplace to have women in the most senior levels of positions and in the smaller, closed-door decision-making conversations that occur. I think, and I hope, that my tenure helped get people across the barrier of being comfortable with having women involved in those processes and I’m quite sure that this leadership group was and others would be as well. But again, it’s about being excellent in what you do, it’s about how you present yourself as a leader, how you work in an environment like the Pentagon. All that speaks for itself. I don’t think titles and formal rank matter nearly as much as how you conduct yourself and what you bring to the table in terms of expertise and the ability to support your principals and solve problems.

MHL: You mentioned your work as a mentor via the Women in International Security (WIIS) group, and we in that group sort of struggle with the question of who has the power to change this? When I became involved in the group and invited a friend, her response was “I don’t want to be involved in some ‘knitting-group’ that separates out women.” I understand her response, I don’t know that I agree with it, but I understand it. Can you comment on that?

MF: There are many things that will contribute to further change. One is we need women to enter the field. We need women to choose to study hard security issues even if they look and don’t see that many women at the very top of that field yet. When I came into the field there were probably five women who had started Women in International Security (WIIS) and they met and talked to each other. I basically entered on faith that by the time I progressed in my career, more opportunities would be open to women.  I think that’s true now and that’s going to be true in the future.

The second is that there has to be leadership from the top that values diversity, not just diversity of gender but diversity of perspective and diversity of experience. I know that certainly this President has put an emphasis on that. I know that both Secretary Gates and Secretary Panetta put an emphasis on this, and I did as well. It’s not affirmative action but all things being equal [the leadership should] seek a more diverse and representative set of people that reflect the U.S. population and the full town pool that we have and are very lucky to have as a nation.

I think for my part, I was assisted by senior men and women who didn’t see gender as any kind of barrier. I was helped out by those folks in my career, and I feel that it is incumbent on me to give back and help others in the same way. And I always tell people that you are never too young to be a mentor as well as a mentee. You’re here in one of the country’s most prestigious graduate school programs, you can mentor an undergrad that would like to get into this program. The young captain in the military can mentor the young first lieutenant. It’s never too early to be a mentor even as you are mentored by others.

MHL: Before we wrap up, is there anything else you would want to have this graduate student audience know, any advice you’d want to share? Any funny stories about a challenging experience that you think might be informative?

MF: I would say a couple things. One is that the people who I have seen be more effective at any level of leadership–in the Pentagon and in national security more broadly–are people who are very clear about their values and very clear about their own personal integrity. Someone early on in my career in government back in the Clinton days said to me one day “Michèle, as a political appointee, you should come to work every day ready to be fired, because your job is to give your best advice and counsel even when your bosses don’t want to hear it. You cannot come with a careerist mentality, you have to come with the mentality of taking risk to give your best advice and counsel.” That was such a formative thing for someone to tell me early on and it has been very meaningful to me in many circumstances where I had to take that risk.

You also have to couple that with choosing bosses. I learned early on to choose the boss, not the job, and to choose bosses who genuinely want to hear dissent, who genuinely want you to give them your best advice and counsel, even if its going to irritate the heck out of them at the time. I have been very fortunate to choose bosses who would allow me to write memos of conscience, and would allow me to come in at the eleventh hour and say “I think you are about to make a terrible mistake, you need to change your mind, and you need to call the President.”

About the Author


Meghan Healy Luecke graduated from the Fletcher School in 2012 with a master’s degree focusing on security and Chinese foreign policy. She is a founder of The Fletcher Forum Online and served as its original project director and Managing Editor. She was also president of Fletcher’s International Law Society, a leader of the Boston chapter of Women in International Security, and a co-founder of Fletcher’s Diplomacy Club. While at Fletcher, New York Times reporter David E. Sanger hired Meghan to do research and writing for his 2012 book, Confront and Conceal. After completing her degree, Meghan joined the U.S. Foreign Service. She most recently worked at the U.S. Embassy in Tunisia. Her previous State Department service included work for the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff and the U.S. Embassy to France.

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