Last week, I attended the annual lunch of the Bureau of Governmental Research in New Orleans where Mike Leiter, former Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, spoke about his views on national security, counterterrorism, and cybersecurity. When I tell you, this guy has an impressive resume, it’s a dramatic understatement. He is a former naval officer and combat veteran, who went on to Harvard Law where he graduated # 1 in his class and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. He served as head of the National Counter Terrorism Department under two Presidents. He was in the Situation Room when we went in to Pakistan to get Bin Laden, and he’s only 49 years old. Today he is a partner in the national security practice for Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.
What he said about geopolitics, the U.S. education system, and what it will take for the U.S. to maintain its position as world leader in the 21st century was riveting and made a lot of sense. The packed crowd included Walter Isaacson, James Carville, Mary Matalin, the Mayor of New Orleans, numerous elected officials and leaders in the local business community. We were all on the edge of our seats.
Urgent – Serious – Strategic
Leiter made a few remarks on the current geopolitical threats to America. He classified them in three categories; urgent, serious, and strategic. North Korea is urgent. He said the rogue nuclear regime is uncontrollable and does not respond to conventional foreign policy. Russia is a serious threat that he compared to a “large, drunken bear”. Vladimir Putin never accepted the fall of the Soviet Union and will continue to poke at us in an attempt to regain power. China is strategic. No other country has grown using state-controlled capitalism and the manpower of 1.4 billion people. They are growing their military at a faster clip than any nation in history.
Leiter presented his recommendations for the path forward with this acronym.
Technology – The race for AI and machine learning is on, and China has the early lead. China minted 4.7 million undergraduate degrees in STEM fields last year compared to 562,000 in the U.S. Half of all PhDs awarded by U.S. universities in technological fields went to Chinese students studying abroad. They returned home. We need a coordinated policy to steer our students to STEM fields and re-make our education system to train 21st century workers.
Ideas – This is where we shine. No other country enjoys the prosperity and freedom we have in America. This is what breeds the world’s most innovative companies with the brightest new ideas. We must hold on to the values and ecosystem that created this environment. Here he stressed the importance of standing up to foreign powers that assassinate U.S. journalists on foreign soil (Khashoggi) and received a round of applause.
Partnerships – Leiter made a fascinating case for trade and treaties with other countries. One stat that shocked me, our trade with countries increases by 34% when we have troops on the ground; i.e. Germany. The trade more than pays for the cost of the troops and military bases. He told a story of travel to Africa, where the leaders of a country were increasing trade with China because the Chinese were building them new roads and infrastructure. This completely changed my opinion on foreign aid.
Professionalism – This one seems obvious but is a good reminder that we need people working in government who put professionalism before politics. The talent of these professionals is required to do the everyday work of running the government. Forget all the mess about the “deep state” being a bad thing.
Rational – Public policy should be based on facts and analysis. These are massive programs with the potential to improve the lives of millions or people or to be a complete waste of taxpayer money. Developing public policy is a process that requires intense research and input from all stakeholders. It is important to take the time to get it right. Healthcare is the perfect example.
Needless to say, I don’t regret taking two hours from the middle of my day to attend the lunch. I am reminded that we have a lot of reasons to be positive about the current state of our country and our future potential. That’s a concept that is easy to lost in the day to day craziness of the news.
More on BGR here.