Home The Washington Diplomat September 2008 New Think Tank Aims to Craft Grand U.S. Security Strategy

New Think Tank Aims to Craft Grand U.S. Security Strategy


Both John McCain and Barack Obama have received no shortage of advice from foreign policy experts telling them how they should lead the United States in the complex and tumultuous world of the 21st century. Anne-Marie Slaughter, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, has some strong views of her own in this regard based on her extensive international affairs background.

But she also offers some tongue-in-cheek advice for the next president that is rooted in her experience as the mother of two young sons.

She thinks the next president would do well to spend a few minutes watching children use the Internet. “If you watch kids on the Web it’s so interesting and it’s very instructive,” she said. “They are used to being in an environment where all sorts of stuff is coming at them. They are able to go with the flow. They are very fluid. They don’t try to stop and categorize everything and force it into a straightjacket.”

In an interview with The Washington Diplomat, Slaughter said that successful international leadership requires this type of flexibility, adaptability and skillful maneuvering — after having established careful goals and a clear direction.

“I always say the 21st century is a really bad time for control freaks. Even for the best leaders and managers it’s more like surfing and balancing. You really have to embrace the complexity.”

Widely regarded as one of the most creative and thoughtful international affairs thinkers in the country, Slaughter moves easily from the intricacies of international law to broad assessments of grand strategy and national renewal.

Prior to becoming dean of the Woodrow Wilson School and a professor at Princeton University, Slaughter taught international law at Harvard and the University of Chicago law schools. A former president of the American Society of International Law, she also serves on the board of the Council on Foreign Relations and is the recipient of the 2007 Thomas Jefferson Award for excellence in the field of law.

Slaughter’s name also frequently comes up when analysts speculate about whom might be offered high-ranking national security jobs if Obama is elected president. She has been mentioned as a candidate to be either secretary of state or U.S ambassador to the United Nations.

Slaughter declines to speculate on how her career might change if Obama is elected, but she does say that an Obama presidency would encourage young people to consider government service and could launch a period of national renewal.

“I absolutely feel this country can come back. I actually think we are well positioned for it,” she said. “We have to do some very important domestic things. Unless we fix education, health care and infrastructure, we’re in trouble.”

In the meantime, Slaughter is relishing her work at the Woodrow Wilson School, saying it allows her to lead an institution, interact with students, teach, and participate in important policy debates.

“It’s a great job for me because I’m still close to the intellectual issues I care about. It’s a deeply hands-on job. It’s a perfect job for a generalist. And it’s a job where you are a role model for work-family balance,” she said. “I talk a lot about my children and family, and I tell them if you put family first, work won’t come in second. Work will actually work. It will make you more productive.”

And Slaughter has certainly been productive in recent years, authoring two books and serving on several high-profile commissions and projects.

In her 2004 book, “A New World Order,” she expanded and refined her pioneering work on the growing importance of formal and informal networks in international affairs.

Several years ago, Slaughter and a colleague at Princeton, G. John Ikenberry, launched the Princeton Project on National Security, which brought together nearly 400 experts from government, academia, business and the nonprofit sector to analyze global challenges and develop a new conceptual framework for U.S. foreign policy. Under the honorary chairmanship of former National Security Adviser Anthony Lake and former Secretary of State George Shultz, the three-year, bipartisan initiative held nine conferences in the United States and overseas and commissioned 17 working papers on critical national security issues.

According to Slaughter, the project was inspired in part by the work done more than half a century earlier by George Kennan, the legendary U.S. diplomat and Princeton professor. His so-called “X” essay in Foreign Affairs in 1947 outlined the main elements of the containment doctrine that would guide U.S. foreign policy for more than four decades.

“In a way, we set out to write a collective ‘X’ article, to do together what no one person in our highly specialized world could hope to do alone. I don’t think that even someone of George Kennan’s caliber could tackle the breadth of issues required to formulate a successful national security strategy today,” Slaughter said.

“One of the things that I took away from this project is that the search for the one big issue that will dominate the 21st century is misguided. You have to embrace complexity or at least accept it,” she added. “That doesn’t mean you don’t have any priorities, but it does mean you have to think about strategy differently. It’s much more about being ready to respond than setting a rigid agenda. There are so many different players and so many different issues.”

Given this complexity, Slaughter believes it is unrealistic to expect the United States to be guided by a single organizing principle for its foreign policy, such as the containment strategy used to confront communism during the Cold War. She strongly endorses the Princeton Project’s assertion that the main goal of U.S. policy should be to seek “A World of Liberty Under Law,” which she says “captures what we are really trying to achieve: open societies operating under the rule of law.”

To accomplish this, the United States must support governments that are popular, accountable and protect human rights, Slaughter said, noting that there also needs to be reform of major international institutions such as the United Nations, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization and NATO. In addition, she argues that the U.S. government needs to reassess how the concepts of deterrence and preventive war apply in a world threatened by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

The Princeton report was released in 2006, after which Slaughter and Ikenberry spent almost a year attending events in Europe, Asia and across the United States to discuss its findings and receive feedback from policy experts and the public.

More recently, Slaughter and others who worked on the report hoped it would be useful to the U.S. presidential candidates as they developed their foreign policy agendas.

“We wanted it to be influential on both sides as candidates formulated their positions, and we’ve been very pleased,” she said. “It has succeeded as well as we could have expected. It was supposed to inform the conversation and be a resource. We never thought the next president or the next president’s advisors would say, ‘Great, the Princeton Project has come up with all of the answers.’”

While promoting the Princeton Project, Slaughter shifted gears and wrote another book, “The Idea That is America,” which sought to spark a vigorous debate of American values and patriotism by discussing the essential principles on which the United States was established: liberty, democracy, equality, justice, tolerance, humility and faith.

“This was a book written for a very different audience than the one I usually write for. It’s not a scholarly book. I’m not a historian. It was a book written because of a very, very deep feeling on my part that something was going terribly wrong after 2004, especially with the revelations about Abu Ghraib and other things,” Slaughter explained.

“It was an effort to write to a much, much broader audience and say that there is a way to think about patriotism and American values that is both honest and critical. It is possible to say, ‘I love this country,’ but then point out all the places where we’ve fallen short. It was a rejection of the ‘my country right or wrong’ patriotism. What I think makes this country so strong is our ability to say that these are our values and we’re falling short and we have to make good on our word.”

In addition to her work on the Princeton Project and two books, Slaughter has served on a number of blue-ribbon commissions over the years, including a recent one chaired by two former secretaries of state, Warren Christopher and James A. Baker III, on the division of war powers between the president and Congress.

The panel explored complex and consequential issues without getting ensnared in endless constitutional debates, Slaughter said, noting that it tried to tackle questions that are deeply relevant given the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The panel concluded that the 1973 War Powers Act should be repealed and a new law should be enacted to create a more balanced, collaborative relationship between Congress and the White House before the country goes to war.

“People are focusing on the fact that Congress needs to be more involved when the nation goes to war. I’m pretty optimistic that the climate will be right regardless of who wins the presidency in November to at least try. It would be a very powerful symbol for the new president starting out,” she said.

The November election will also offer a fresh opportunity for the country to develop a clear vision of its role in the world and regain its purpose, confidence — and humility.

“The combination of humility and faith is vital,” Slaughter said. “We have to have the humility to say we’ve made mistakes. We need to learn from others, accept their cooperation and even guidance in places. If we can do that, and lead in a new way, we can have renewal and resurgence.”

About the Author

John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.