WASHINGTON — On June 20, 2016, then-Vice President Joe Biden delivered keynote remarks at an event hosted by the Center for a New American Security, the think tank founded and, at that point, led by Michèle Flournoy.
Flournoy introduced Biden, praising him as a national security thinker and noting the ties between his staff at the White House and CNAS. Biden, in turn, acknowledged the little-kept secret of the defense world: that Flournoy was in line to become the first woman to serve as defense secretary under President Hillary Clinton.
“Well, madam secretary,” Biden said with a laugh as the crowd applauded. “I’m writing a recommendation for her, you know.”
The Clinton administration never materialized, following the election of President Donald Trump. But four years later, president-elect Biden is widely expected to fulfill his promise and tap Flournoy to lead the U.S. military.
Some observers have suggested that if Susan Rice, the former national security adviser to President Barack Obama and a close confidant of Biden, seeks the Pentagon’s top job, she would be heavily considered, but there are few signs she wants that position. Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, an Iraq War combat veteran, is another name that has been mentioned as a possibility, and other names will inevitably pop up in the coming weeks.
But for months, Flournoy has appeared to be the closest thing to a shoo-in as possible.
“Michèle Flournoy would be a solid choice as defense secretary,” said Kori Schake, a former national security official in the Bush administration, now with the American Enterprise Institute. “She’s a fine leader, knows the building and the issues, has an agenda that’s both congenial for the defense establishment and also likely to improve it.”
Flournoy’s career at the Pentagon launched under the administration of President Bill Clinton, where she served as principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and threat reduction, and then deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy. Later, she spent several years at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
The 2007 decision to launch CNAS, a bipartisan think tank focused on the future of national security, raised Flournoy’s visibility in the defense community and led to a role on Obama’s transition team for the Department of Defense. (Editor’s note: the author was part of a 2017 CNAS fellowship program.)
That in turn led to her confirmation in 2009 as undersecretary of defense for policy, seen by many as the third most powerful civilian role in the department. There, she helped craft the plans for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and was seen as a major driver of the counterinsurgency strategy.
Flournoy left the administration in 2012, joining a few corporate boards before returning to CNAS as chief executive officer. In between, she was three times in conversations to take senior Pentagon jobs.
She was seen as the Obama administration’s top pick to replace Chuck Hagel as defense secretary in 2014, but withdrew her name due to family concerns; the job eventually went to Ash Carter. The Clinton speculation followed. In addition, then-incoming Defense Secretary Jim Mattis reached out to her about becoming his deputy at the start of the Trump administration.
Following the outcome of the 2016 election, Flournoy stepped down from running the think tank and launched WestExec Advisors, a strategic risk consultancy group alongside Antony Blinken, a former national security adviser to then-Vice President Biden. Blinken has been a senior adviser to Biden during the presidential campaign and, like Flournoy, is expected to land a top job should Biden win the race, perhaps as Secretary of State or national security adviser.
The WestExec team is rounded out by more than a dozen individuals who held positions at the State Department, the DoD or the National Security Council during the Obama administration. Among them is Ely Ratner, who perhaps best personifies the Flournoy-Biden connection: Ratner was a CNAS fellow who joined the Obama administration, became Biden’s deputy national security adviser, then returned to CNAS as director of studies. He is also expected to take a role in a new Biden administration.
“She leads by taking people on a journey with her rather than giving edicts, but she’s also strong and direct when needed” a source who previously worked under Flournoy told Defense News. “She knows how to lead and communicate in the building: deliver a core message over and over until everybody gets it and starts working to that message.”
Asked how Flournoy would deal with people not falling in line, the former employee said: “People would be too embarrassed to let that happen. No one wants to be the person to let Michèle down.”
This respect from throughout the defense community would likely lead to a fairly smooth confirmation hearing. The toughest questions could come from progressives over her business dealings while at WestExec. A July feature on the firm in The American Prospect cast the group as cashing in on ties formed during government service, although WestExec does not accept funding from foreign governments.
But what would a Flournoy-led Defense Department look like?
Because she has been viewed as a potential secretary for so long, her writing and speeches have received extra scrutiny as a way to draw conclusions about her potential time at the helm.
Generally, the national security community does not expect Flournoy to upend the Pentagon. She has personal relationships with many of the top officials in the department. In addition, her broad approaches to geopolitical issues — including a belief that China represents the biggest long-term security threat to America — fits into the traditional defense orthodoxy.
However, she would look to make changes, as every secretary does. In September, Flournoy sat down with Defense News for an hour-long exclusive interview, covering a range of topics from acquisition policy to her thoughts on North Korea.
Based on that conversation and other speaking engagements in recent months, here are five areas that would serve as priorities:
She wants “big bets” on technology. In several interviews over the past year, Flournoy has talked about needing to invest in “big bets” for future defense technologies. Two areas in which she’s heavily focused: a “network of networks” to ensure reliable command and control even when facing advanced foes, and an increased focus on unmanned systems augmented by artificial intelligence.
If those sound like efforts already well underway at the Pentagon, that’s because they are. Flournoy acknowledged the department has been working on those areas for several years, most notably with its push for Combined Joint All-Domain Command and Control, or CJADC2. (The effort was most recently referred to as JADC2.) But she is less impressed with the funding for those initiatives to date.
“We’re talking the talk, but where is that substantial commitment of multiyear funding? That’s, I think, something we need to work towards,” she said.
To supplement those long-term investments, Flournoy wants more near-term repurposing of available technology. One example she offered is to place Navy long-range munitions onto Air Force bombers.
Notably, she called out by name the work done by the Strategic Capabilities Office — whose mission is to find new applications for existing weaponry — as a model that had some success; it’s possible that office, which lost power inside the department in the last three years, would see a resurgence under her leadership.
But those bets have to come with retiring legacy equipment. Big ideas don’t come cheap, and the consensus in Washington is that defense budgets are going to be flat at best, if not significantly shrink. Hence, Flournoy said, something must go. But this scaling back may not look like attempts to retire whole systems seen in the last decade.
“There are probably very few cases where you’re talking about a whole-scale divestment,” she said. Instead, she explained, the focus should be on when the DoD can decide to stop buying more, and then use those saved funds to invest in future capabilities and to enhance existing capacity.
However, just because a decision might be made to stop buying more of a specific ship or plane, that doesn’t mean the department should get rid of what is already in its inventory. “To me, it’s the kind of ‘knee [of] the curve’ more than whole-sale dramatic cancellations across the board,” Flournoy said.
Divesting anything requires Congress' approval, a famously difficult task. Flournoy, however, expressed confidence that lawmakers can be convinced an action is a good idea if the department improves its approach by reaching out early and involving members in the discussions from the start.
“We have got to bring people inside the tent,” she said, echoing an idea she published in an April op-ed that called for Congress to get more involved in new technological discussions at an early stage in order to develop buy-in at the start of a prototyping process.
She wants to reset the civilian-military relationship in the building. Flournoy has been vocal since the end of the Obama administration about the balance between the civilian staff in the Office of the Secretary of Defense staff and the uniformed Joint Staff, arguing that it has become off kilter. On paper, OSD is supposed to drive the policy with inputs from the Joint Staff; in reality, there has been a slide toward the Joint Staff pushing policy, which was exacerbated under Mattis, a former Marine Corps general who relied more on the uniformed officials than civilians.
Expect Flournoy to challenge that status quo if she became secretary. When she was undersecretary for policy, she had the backing of then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates to wield the power of her office as needed. Expect her to attempt to empower those in OSD to do the same.
“The key on the civilian side is there’s a huge rebuilding to be done. You’ve got to bring in a really talented team, you’ve got to invest in your human capital and that civilian workforce, and you’ve got to have some stability,” she said. “I do believe that can be corrected with the right vision and leadership.”
More broadly, Flournoy would seek to reestablish the American military’s political neutrality following Trump’s moves to tie himself closely to what he has called “my military.”
“The next president, commander in chief, has to take pains to reset … to ensure that the military is treated and respected as an apolitical institution, that it’s understood that they take an oath to support and defend the Constitution, not a particular president, not a particular person, not a particular party,” she said.
Expect a continued hard line on China. Perhaps the most cohesive foreign policy stance across the Trump administration was its focus on China as America’s top competitor. It’s an idea Flournoy has embraced fully for several years, and she has repeatedly talked about the need to deter China from taking action in the Asia-Pacific region.
“We have to have enough of an edge, that first and foremost we can deter China from attacking or endangering our vital interests and our allies. That means resolve,” Flournoy said.
At the same time, she wants a change from the “myopic” way the Trump administration has viewed the Sino-U.S. relationship, with no room for coordination on issues of joint interest. “There are a whole set of threats, whether it’s preventing the next pandemic, or dealing with climate change, or dealing with North Korean nuclear proliferation where, like it or not, we have to deal with China as a partner or we cannot solve the problem,” she said.
She added that America’s best asset in the region is the other nations who can jointly pressure Beijing.
Nuclear modernization plans may change. Flournoy’s desire for a strong deterrent for China includes a nuclear deterrent. But given the costs of the ongoing nuclear modernization strategy, Flournoy wants to consider all options.
“The question in my mind is: Are there ways to modernize the deterrent to keep it safe and effective at lower costs? Are there more cost-effective approaches? And I think that’s probably the kind of core question for the next Nuclear Posture Review. Yes, we need to keep the deterrent safe and effective. There are some key programs like in the submarine area that do need to be recapitalized,” she said, adding that she wants “creative ways that we can approach this” to get costs down.
Flournoy specifically questioned the need for a new nuclear warhead in the earliest stages of development by the Trump administration, calling herself a “skeptic” on the topic.
“I need to be convinced on that because … I’m not sure I buy the strategic rationale for it. And certainly from a cost perspective, is that the highest priority for nuclear modernization? Is that the highest priority when competed against the full range of defense modernization? I’m not sure it passes the test,” she said.
Flournoy also cast strong support for renewing the New START nuclear pact and said that a nuclear weapons budget that cuts across all the services may be something worth pursuing.
Updated 11/9/20 at 8:37 AM EST to clarify that WestExec does not accept funding from government clients.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.