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Diversity is America’s Untapped Competitive Edge

Without wholesale structural reform, we could be headed for a crisis.

Words: Zachery Tyson Brown
Pictures: Gaelle Marcel

The United States is fortunate to possess one of the most diverse, creative, and well-educated populations on the planet. Yet regardless of this great reservoir of talent and in spite of the appeal for fresh perspectives and new ideas from our leaders, we’ve essentially asked the same old national security workforce to come up with them, and failed to take advantage of this competitive edge, largely due to structural constraints of our own making.

One thing national security leaders from both parties agree on is that the United States has entered a renewed era of great power competition. America finds itself, they say, in a three-way scramble for the 21st-century that places our security and prosperity very much at risk and that requires the smart application of every aspect of our national power to win. 

They’re right. A bitter and emboldened Russia seeks to knock the United States off its pedestal and a risen and ambitious China intends to replace it on that pedestal outright. Over the last six months, the failures of a decrepit national security apparatus remarkably unsuited for contemporary challenges has been placed in high relief. Serious bi-partisan studies warn the United States may lose its next war.  

But today a fundamentally broken human capital system makes bringing young people into national security positions far more difficult than it needs to be. An archaic background investigation process built for a bygone age was designed precisely to keep most Americans out and to let only the right ones in. The security bureaucracy favors those who already hold security clearances (such as veterans, who are predominantly white and male and who mostly hail from a handful of states), and is either discouraging or outright disqualifying for many Americans who have badly-needed outsider perspectives.

An archaic background investigation process built for a bygone age was designed precisely to keep most Americans out and to let only the right ones in.

Together, the last century’s creaky governing mechanisms have proven unable to deliver on the promise of America’s vast underutilized potential, particularly when it comes to women, persons of color, and immigrants. It has, through inertia if not by design, shackled us with a national security workforce that is predominantly white, overwhelmingly male, and largely old.

And, look — there’s nothing wrong with being white, or male, or old. I happen to share two (maybe three) of those traits. We need the insight, expertise, and experience that those who have been there before bring. But there is something wrong with the over-representation of any demographic in a group. 

Institutional homogeneity instills organizational pathologies that kill creativity and leave us more vulnerable to myopia and miscalculation.

The challenges we face today are more abstract, more complex and more intractable than ever before. We are living through an era, as a former Director of National Intelligence told Congress, of persistently unpredictable instability. This means that the only thing we can be certain of is more surprises. Under these conditions, the United States simply can’t afford to shuffle the same cleared, aging workforce around from agency to agency or contract to contract any longer.

A national security workforce that’s more representative of America itself would at the very least mitigate, and perhaps even prevent strategic surprise by fostering more divergent thinking and better creativity. Different perspectives allow us to triangulate reality and guard against intellectual blind spots. They make everyone in the institution smarter. Simply put, diversity matters. In 21st-century great power competition, it matters more than ever, because the competition is over ideas and about technology — both of which rely upon the creative talent of groups of people.

The next president will have an incredible opportunity to remake the national security workforce. More than a third of federal employees are eligible for retirement in the next five years, ample time for Congress to enact the kind of common-sense civil service reforms bi-partisan expert groups have advocated for decades. Such reforms will be difficult, but anything worth the effort is. 

Incorporating the wisdom of many different kinds of Americans — male and female, young and old, gay and straight, cisgender and transgender, abled and disabled — will make us smarter, safer, and much more competitive. And the best part is, our adversaries can’t match it.

Undertaking this challenge, we should apply lessons from the private sector about inclusion efforts that actually work. We should review the structural biases inherent in things as mundane as position descriptions and hiring boards. We should implement wholesale reform to better manage a looming national security workforce crisis.

Women, for example, have long earned more college degrees, and now for the first time compose the majority of the nation’s educated workforce. Yet they somehow remain incredibly under-represented in the national security sector. There’s no excuse for this imbalance in the 21st-century and now is the time to finally fix it. The security and prosperity of our nation could very well depend upon making this change.

This isn’t a partisan issue — it is a national security imperative. Not only because it’s right or fair, but because diverse teams are smarter, faster, and more innovative — in other words, better.

Zachery Tyson Brown is a national security futurist. He is a Security Fellow at the Truman National Security Project, a proclaimed US Army Futures Command “Mad Scientist,” and a Board Member at the Military Writers Guild. He can be found on Twitter @ZaknafeinDC.

Zachery Tyson Brown

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