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Transcript: Nadia Schadlow talks with Sandy Winnefeld on "Intelligence Matters"






              SANDY WINNEFELD:

Nadia, thank you for joining us today on Intelligence Matters and for agreeing to share some of your insights on your important work and your impressive career. And to start with, please tell us a little bit about your background and how you found yourself in the White House as Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategy in the Trump administration. Did you have a political connection prior or were you strictly an academic? How did that all work out?


              NADIA SCHADLOW:

Hi, Sandy. Well, thanks so much for welcoming me to the show. I'm excited to be here and appreciate it. Let's see, I ended up in the White House after sort of a long career in thinking about and working on strategy from inside and outside the government in different ways.

Early on in my career, I started out in the Defense Department. I started out initially as a career civil servant, worked on issues related to the Soviet Union, I became the first country director for Ukraine. Early on in my career, I had also spent some time as a civilian in the Department of the Army working-- there's an internship program which you may have heard of called the Presidential Management Internship Program-- that allowed grad students to rotate through different offices in the Pentagon.

So, I ended up eventually in OSD policy, which is the Office of the Secretary of Defense policy office, where a lot of civilian academic types end up. I worked there for several years, and then decided that the best thing for me, for a bunch of reasons, would be to go back to school to pursue a Ph.D.

I ended up doing that in a topic related to military history-- looking at how the U.S. Army had to deal with the problems of political and economic reconstruction during and following war time. And that ended up being a very pertinent and relevant topic. I'm embarrassed to say how long it took me. And it was less obvious how relevant that would be in terms of Iraq and Afghanistan.

During the time that I went to school, I also worked. I worked for an organization called the Smith Richardson Foundation, which was a funder of foreign policy related research, national security related research and analysis.

So, that was really a good opportunity to look at the whole strategic landscape of the geopolitical problems, challenges, and opportunities facing the United States and thinking about how we could do better at both protecting ourselves from those challenges and threats, but also seizing opportunities as well.

              SANDY WINNEFELD:

Now, you were brought into the White House by H.R. McMaster. Can you tell us how you got to know H.R. and what was it like to work with him in the early days of the Trump administration?

              NADIA SCHADLOW:

Yeah, I got to know H.R. through my work in terms of my dissertation and the work I was doing, which was focused, as I said, on the U.S. military, but specifically on the U.S. Army and its experiences in economic and political reconstruction.

So, I wrote a fair amount earlier on in my career. And he's a big reader, so anyone who knows H.R. knows he's a big consumer of information. And some of my articles had come to his attention.

When this opportunity came up to write the national security strategy, given my background in thinking about strategy and writing and identifying and understanding the key issues facing the nation-- he asked if I was interested in coming on board. I mean, I'm a Republican and I was happy to serve for him and in the administration.

              SANDY WINNEFELD:

Great. Now, Nadia, you're a great story of a young professional coming up through the ranks. And you were given the opportunity of a lifetime for that kind of a career path. Crafting the national security strategy of the United States, who wouldn't dream of being able to do that?

Any academic or policy expert would absolutely crave that opportunity. Can you give our listeners a sense for what you thought of as the national security strategy, why do we need one? How does it differ -- strategy from policy, in your view, as you looked at this problem?

              NADIA SCHADLOW:

Yeah, it was a wonderful opportunity and I was honored to be able to do it. I relied on a lot of my friends, for that. I mean, there are a lot of smart people out there. I was fortunate over the years to know so many of them.

So, it was a perfect opportunity to take some of the best ideas and capture them in this document. In my view, a strategy sets a strategic direction for a country. I think it's important and that's why we worked really hard to get it out early in the administration. It's important for setting a direction, for identifying priorities, for bringing people on board to pursue a certain path so that you actually implement and achieve things by the end of the administration.

So-- a strategy sets the foundation for the kinds of policies you then develop in further detail. I think there's always a balance in a strategy between how much detail you actually have in the document versus the specifics of policy-- I think we did a good job in that balance. We identified sets of specific actions, but left the details and the nuts and bolts of the policy making to the experts in the departments and agencies.

              SANDY WINNEFELD:

So, Nadia, critics of national security strategies in general suggest that those strategies have become more of a rhetorical exercise rather than a practical document that informs Congressional appropriators and helps them align budgets with policies, and helps the Pentagon craft its own strategy. Do you feel like this was different? Or is that unfair criticism?

              NADIA SCHADLOW:

I think it's a bit of unfair criticism. I think everyone in Washington likes to criticize everyone else. I think there's a great utility in the process of strategy-making. There's that famous quote, which I'll get wrong. I think it's Eisenhower who essentially said, what's important is the process, itself -- is the planning.

And I think that that's very much the case in Washington, where to get anything done, you need to bring people on board. You need to be somewhat collaborative. You need to make your arguments about why you want to pursue a certain path.

And I think strategy-making helps that. I'm not sure if, in terms of your experiences at the Pentagon, you found that. I think there's a lot in this document which is now being implemented. The lack of civility in Washington today is such that people actually don't really want to admit that there areas of actual bipartisan consensus that run through the document and then we're seeing now are being implemented on the Hill, everything from the Build Act, which is an important new piece of legislation, bipartisan, which will help investments in fragile states and help investments in infrastructure around the world by creating incentives for American companies to go in and do more investments.

It's related to OPIC, our Overseas Private Investment Corporation. That's just one example. I think the administration shift on China, being more hard-headed about recognizing the challenges posed by China has much more bipartisan consensus than many might want to admit. So, I think throughout the defense budget-- all of that is consistent. What's identified in the strategy is consistent with the national defense strategy. We worked very closely with Secretary Mattis and his team.

              SANDY WINNEFELD:

So, let's talk a little bit about that process. This is actually, as you pointed out, the first administration to get an NSS out in its inaugural year. For somebody who is familiar with Washington bureaucracy, that's a remarkable feat. How did you pull that off? And was there a lot of pressure inside the White House to get that done in a short amount of time?

              NADIA SCHADLOW:

I think I was fortunate because I had a lot of autonomy. So, I think those who work in bureaucracies know that that's really critical. I had the support of my principles, General McMaster, but above him as well. There was a strong sense that they wanted me to get this done and they would empower me to do so. And that's important.

I had autonomy in that by having the pen and by just sitting down and working and writing and developing good relationships with so many people around the bureaucracy, but also-- you know, I have a wide Washington network, so people were responsive to me, which was nice. I had the right conditions which allowed me to be successful.

              SANDY WINNEFELD:

So, the opposite side of autonomy, which is a nice thing to have because you can get things done quickly is the collaborative approach. And certainly there are a lot of stakeholders in the inner agency who would want a voice in this document, including State Department, Defense Department, Intelligence Community, Treasury, and many others. How did you, or even did you-- pull them into that process?

              NADIA SCHADLOW:

Yeah, we definitely pulled them into the process. From the start, we had meetings, what are called PCCs. These are policy coordinating committees. Essentially it meant that we got people together periodically to talk about all the issues and challenges and the threats, opportunities, all of the substance of the document.

We got everyone together quite often. I had very much of an open door, sort of open-phone policy. People called me all the time with their concerns. There was an iterative drafting process. I'd send, you know, language out to State Department, "Are you okay with this?" They'd send language back. It didn't mean that I had to take all the changes, which goes back to autonomy, but it did mean that there was a constant flow of communication.

So, I was lucky. In some ways, my job was easier than my colleagues at D.O.D., who had 25, 26 people sort of ostensibly working on the national defense strategy. And me and my small team would walk into their office and feel a little bit overwhelmed because you'd have this whole room full of uniforms and civilians, and feeling a little bit daunted about our ability to get our strategy done first, because that was also the clear direction both from the White House, but also from, you know, Secretary Mattis's office.

They wanted the NSS out first to serve as an umbrella document. But we did it. I mean, it didn't mean that I took all the changes, but we considered all of the changes. In fact, we sent out portions of the document in PDF form so that people couldn't go in and do line-in, line-out edits. And I was pretty strong about that, that we would take content edits, but not line-in, line-out edits. Now, of course, some departments and agencies went to the trouble of turning the PDF back into an actual word document so they could make changes.

              SANDY WINNEFELD:

The digital age.

              NADIA SCHADLOW:

Yeah (LAUGH) so--

              SANDY WINNEFELD:

No, you gotta love that. You referred to we. Was there a core writing team? Did you have two or three, you know, close collaborators on this? Can you give us a sense for who those people were?

              NADIA SCHADLOW:

There was a diplomatic historian in my office, Seth Center; an Army colonel-- Stephanie Ahern. There was a Ph.D. physicist, Sean Kirkpatrick. So, we all worked on different parts of the document. And then later more people came in as well-- we relied on different offices.

There were the drafters, I mean the Asia Directorate Office, Matt Pottinger, and Fiona Hill, and Lisa Curtis, and the directors on the N.S.C.-- who head the different regional and functional directorates worked and provided inputs to us as well. On the functional side, too, the counter-terrorism people -- so there was a whole range of people. And again, it was quite collaborative.

              SANDY WINNEFELD:

Can you give us a sense for the president's participation in this process? Did you have a lot of personal face time with him? Or was it more of a, you know, pushing it up the chain and he was given generic briefings on it? You know, how much of an imprint did he actually have on the guidance you received?

              NADIA SCHADLOW:

Yeah. He had a huge imprint on it. I mean, essentially, if you look at the document, which is structured around four-- we called them the four pillars, but four core American national interests: protecting the homeland, promoting prosperity, preserving peace through strength, and advancing American influence.

And if you look at the president's speeches, both before he took office and in the early part of his administration, from January through the spring, you'll see very much the integration of the ideas in the speeches-- the philosophy in the speeches and the document.

Those four interests and the structuring of the document around those interests were determined early on between him and General McMaster, on some of the early trips that the president took. We prepared briefings for the plane. For those who have served in the White House, I think-- plane time is always a good time to get things done. Sometimes you can be a little bit more flexible with the principal's schedule.

So those moments were used by General McMaster and others to get things in front of the president in terms of the strategy document and decisions that we needed. I personally briefed the president on the structure of the document and on some of the key ideas to ensure that they were aligned with-- what he wanted.

He referred to the document [when] he made the speech in December of 2017 a couple of days-- or the day of its launch or a couple of days after. So, there was a lot of interaction, a lot of interaction also with his speech writers as well.

              SANDY WINNEFELD:

So the organization of an NSS-- a lot of different ways to approach that problem. You settled on the four pillars, as you mentioned. And you mentioned that that happened early on. But was that something that actually came in at the very beginning of the process? Or did you have to spend time looking at various different options for how to organize it and then quickly settled on those four pillars?

              NADIA SCHADLOW:

I think it's more the latter. I mean, I think you can spend a lot of time-- there are all different ways to organize the document, as you said. And I think you can spend a lot of time. And this is where bureaucracy can sometimes become all-consuming, weighing every option.

There's no right way. I think focusing specifically on America's core national interests and how we would set out in protecting and ensuring the advancement of those interests -- that was a decision we made early on. And that also, I think, helped in getting it done relatively quickly because we went in with a strong sense for how we would organize it. And then the challenge became the content.

              SANDY WINNEFELD:

So, it's sometimes hard to see history when you're actually living through it. Many people out there, including me, believe there is an ongoing struggle between the defenders of what some would call the international order, what I like to call the global operating system, and what one might call counter-globalists, populists, or nationalists.

Both sides are very passionate about their arguments. One side says the global system has kept us prosperous and secure for seven decades, and that when America leads like-minded nations, the world's a safer place. The other side says we've sort of been deeply taken advantage of by other countries and that global institutions really only limit our freedom of action.

From the outside, this debate seems to have been represented by a couple of different factions potentially inside the White House, with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Chief of Staff John Kelly, H.R., and the latter by perhaps Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller. Without getting into personalities and politics, how do you feel about that question? And how did you manage through those different views to produce a document the president would actually sign?

              NADIA SCHADLOW:

I think that the big dichotomy in the document is between free-and-open societies and repressive and authoritarian regimes. And essentially the document talks about what we need to do to ensure that free-and-open societies prevail.

I think it identifies how some of those post-World War II institutions have actually been changed. The character of those institutions have been changed by societies which do not value openness and freedom. So, I think it wasn't a rejection of those institutions, but it was saying that in order to strengthen the qualities in those institutions and the features of those institutions that actually advantage a free-and-open society, we need to shift the way that we're approaching them and the way that we're pursuing our foreign policy interests.

So, I think it actually struck a practical balance between those two. I think it was a little bit more of a sense that we need to strengthen the elements of those institutions that actually protect open-and-free societies and advance open-and-free societies, which means in some cases we have to call out the bad actors that have been manipulating and changing those institutions.

And I think that's something that Ambassador Nikki Haley did very well at the U.N. It's hard to say that the U.N. Human Rights Commission hasn't been corrupted by countries like Iran on the council.

              SANDY WINNEFELD:

So, would it be fair to recapture what you're saying in terms of it wasn't the international order itself that was bad; it's what it has evolved into over time that has not been as valuable as when it was first crafted by our forbearers after World War II.

              NADIA SCHADLOW:

Well, it's how you advance-- I think you made an important point when you were asking the question. It's like-minded states. It's a community of like-minded democratic states. You know, whose international order?

Russia's international order? China's international order? There are different definitions depending upon where you stand. So, I think the debate that we've been having over the past year and a half in Washington and elsewhere has actually been a healthy one-- to force people to kind of look at those questions in a hard-headed way.

What institutions have not changed or reformed or been updated since 1945? It's hard to think of American businesses, they don't look the same. The U.S. military doesn't look the same. Many institutions have changed and evolved over time. So, it's a fresh look at the nature of that order.

              SANDY WINNEFELD:

So, one of the hot-button buzz words or phrases that's come out throughout this process is America first. And on the one hand, anyone working a strategy in any country would say, "Of course one's own national interests will always come first." Any country would say that.

But the phrase sort of took on a more pointed context during the election campaign and the inauguration speech and all that. How did you work through that? Did you have to concern yourself with whether that phrase would find itself in the document and to get the context the way you wanted to see it expressed? Or how did that go through your mind as you went through this?

              NADIA SCHADLOW:

I think essentially by looking at what I always saw that it meant, which was that-- how do you advance America's interests and values? And how do you keep that front and center? And because those interests and values are actually consistent with the interests and values of our democratic friends and allies-- I saw it as consistent.

And I think we treated it in a very straightforward way-- which is how do you ensure that the United States is not disadvantaged? And how do you ensure that our interests and values are advanced -- sometimes through the institutions, but looking at actual set of outcomes as well?

So, I think we were more skeptical of process for the sake of process. I think there was more pressure, I think a necessary pressure, to look at outcomes. Are we getting the outcomes that we're seeking? Are there reasons why working through these institutions or in the old ways of doing business are necessary? Are they achieving the outcomes that we want to see? So, it was a completely fresh look, I think, in terms of looking at outcomes, as opposed to an emphasis on process for the sake of process, which sometimes I think institutions can default to.

              SANDY WINNEFELD:

Now, Nadia, you grew up at the beginning of your career, in Soviet studies. So, you probably have as good an understanding of certainly the Soviet Union, and probably the evolution of Russia and the Russian Federation since then. It looks to outside observers as though perhaps the president's views on Russia have evolved over time since he's been in office.

Beginning perhaps a little bit more collegial or friendly towards President Putin and the like, and maybe as time has passed, with poisonings in the U.K. and some of the other behaviors. How did you reconcile how the national security strategy worked out in its approach to Russia and what you were hearing at the very beginning of the administration as exercising, let's say, caution towards being too hard on Russia.

              NADIA SCHADLOW:

Right. Well, I never had a problem with speak-- I mean, the idea of speaking to leaders, whether or not you like them or don't like them-- and keeping lines and channels of communication open, I think is perfectly fine.

I think actually there's always been kind of a debate in America, both on the right and the left, and whatever party you're from, about the value of that communication, right. Does communicating signal a softness? Sometimes the right-- Republicans in this country, or the center-right, is skeptical of communication, while center-left tends to be more pro-communication.

But I think overall-- I'm someone who believes you should always keep lines of communication open, especially with two nuclear powers. This administration has been incredibly tough on Russia so I've looked at always actions, and those actions and the strategy are very, very consistent. I mean, the Global Magnitsky Act has targeted more Russian oligarchs than in the past.

The incident of the poisoning in the U.K., and the orchestrated effort after that, in which the U.S. played a very big role, the White House played a very big role in working to ensure that -- I don't know how many countries in the end all made the announcement on that Monday, but it was well over 20 countries in tandem with our U.K. allies. I mean, the Syria problem with Russia is very, very tough, but we've been tough on the Russians, calling them out for supporting an Assad regime that has used chemical weapons against its own people.

So, I think this problem, again, has been incredibly politicized, but if you look over time -- what the Russians have been doing for the past ten years -- some of what we're seeing now over the past year and a half in terms of disinformation, in terms of the sophisticated use of the media and the Internet, these are not things that just arose out of the blue. The Russians have been honing this skill set for a long time in Europe, as you know from when you were in the Pentagon.

              SANDY WINNEFELD:

So the NSS that you finally rolled out in December of last year has gotten pretty good marks, I would say. It's also-- I would argue -- had a pretty good thread through the administration, just from my own knowledge of how the Defense Department has used it to develop its own national defense strategy. Can you give us a sense for what is actually common and different between this administration's national security strategy and its predecessors? And I use that plural.

              NADIA SCHADLOW:

Yeah, I think, you know, this NSS identifies a great power competition as being a key feature of the geopolitical environment. And it says it clearly and explicitly. So this NSS is written in a way for the American people, not necessarily for the bureaucracy as a whole, the government infrastructure as whole, or our allies and partners and friends.

We wrote it in a straightforward, understandable way so that the American people could understand what's at stake, what the geopolitical landscape looks like, and how America needs to shift its approach in key ways. It has essentially five themes that I think differentiate it from past strategies.

The first is sovereignty and relooking essentially at what the nation-state is best suited to solve in terms of problem sets versus international institutions. The idea of sovereignty is also closely linked to democracy, which I think sometimes, again, in this politicized debate, we're not talking about. Democracy begins with sovereign states, right. You can't really have democracy through big global institutions where you don't have a vote for them.

And this is what we're seeing in Europe and we're seeing some of the problems and debates. Second, it's, I would say, an unabashedly confident document. It's doesn't apologize for America. It says, you know, "We're not a perfect nation, but we're probably the best nation in the world. We're among the most generous nation in the world in terms of the giving we give, both government and individuals."

So, it's a confident document. That confidence allows us to compete. A key theme throughout the document is competition. Competition is taking place along the economic, political, and military spheres, all accelerated by technology. Some competitors are better than others across all four planes, so it identifies China as one being pretty good at all four planes. Russia's competing as well, more in the political and military domains.

And it also seeks to catalyze, right. So, part of -- America not being able to do everything in the world. We can't pay for everything in the world, but we can catalyze change. So, I think those are some key themes that run through the document that do differentiate it from past documents.

              SANDY WINNEFELD:

So, it's understandable that a nation in the wake of a 9/11-like event would be deeply wounded and that that, you know, counter-terrorism piece could actually consume the country for almost two decades. And it-- equally it would seem natural that a new national security strategy, a new team would come in and take a broader look and see that great power competition, as you did.

And by the way, I would maybe compliment H.R. because here's a person who was steeped in counter-insurgency, lived that for most of his career, and was able to sort of pull out of that and get into the great power competition thing. So, I want to ask you a question. The document says that we're going to have to rethink the policies of the past two decades, policies based on the assumption that engagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners.

That's a really important conclusion. So, as you think about that and replay the tape from not only two decades ago, but even further back, are there things that you would have seen us do differently, for example, in how we welcomed China into the world and the World Trade Organization and opened them up to the west? Should we have done that? Or should we have done it differently, in a way that would not have led to the kind of competition that we're having right now? Or was it inevitable?

              NADIA SCHADLOW:

I'm not sure about the initial negotiations that went back and forth on the W.T.O. with China, but I think it's Americans' natural tendency to say countries, people, are likely over time to become more like us, right. This is just -- we're optimists and we're a successful society. We know what makes a successful society in terms of openness-- support for entrepreneurs, freedom, everything that we have in this country.

I think we should have looked with more hard-headed realism at what was unfolding over time. I think essentially we've seen that countries haven't necessarily moderated their behavior, but have often taken advantage of the openness of our institutions and our approach. I think this document at least sets out a warning to say, "Hey, we don't want to be disadvantaged anymore. We don't want to be taken advantage of." And so, we want to step back a little bit and just be more hard-headed about how countries change and evolve, and don't change.

              SANDY WINNEFELD:

Okay, so sort of as a wrap-up here, let's take a look back and a look forward. The look back-- national security strategy was unveiled almost a year ago. You left the White House in April of 2018. I'm sure you must keep in touch with H.R. And even though you wouldn't want to speak for him, as you look back over the last year, how do you think it's played out?

Has it done its job? Has the world corresponded with what you were talking about on the strategy? Is there anything you would do differently in the strategy now that you've had a chance to sort of step back and look at it?

              NADIA SCHADLOW:

I think it's unfolding across the four pillars, in various ways. I think because we had a collaborative process, departments and agencies are actually working-- the Department of Energy is working hard on the energy dominance parts of the portfolio.

The Department of Defense is a key player in obviously looking at our military-- what our four structures should look like, where the increased spending should go. We're looking at the pillar that involved advancing American influence, giving a hard-headed look at some of the international institutions and whether or not they're achieving the outcomes that we hope they achieve, right, looking at outcome-based metrics.

The Homeland Security pillar-- there is obviously a lot going on right now on immigration, on missile defense, which we also consider there. So, I think across the four pillars, if you look at the priority actions, I think a lot actually is underway. I actually don't think I would change the document.

I think the important part now is implementation. So if given the opportunity, I think the key now is to work with departments and agencies on implementation, to recognize that the White House doesn't really control implementation.

Anyone who has worked in Washington knows, it's a small group of people there and the departments are much bigger. They have the resources, the money, the people. And so, implementation is really important now if you actually want to see sustainable change. I should also mention that, in addition to the national security strategy we developed several-- what we called integrated strategies, regionally. So, a strategy on Iran, strategy on Russia, specific strategy on China, as well as functional areas, too. And those are underway to varying degrees as well.

              SANDY WINNEFELD:

So, as you look forward and the nation sort of steps into aan uncertain future-- what is it that, in a macro sense, that worries you the most? I'm not talking about conflict with Yemen or North Korea or something, but more of a structural sense of what is it that keeps you awake at night as we move forward further into the 21st century, Nadia?

              NADIA SCHADLOW:

I mean, in a macro sense, I think, you know, this evolving relationship with China is obviously a huge issue and has implications for all sectors of our economy. But I think overall our inability) as a nation to get things done quickly, the institutional kind of rigidity, the bureaucratic sclerosis makes it very, very hard for the United States to compete, to adapt, to change, to update.

So, we have incredibly smart people in our government, in our private sector, all around this country, with incredibly good ideas. Everyone recognizes that the pace of change is accelerating. And it's very hard for us to get things done as a nation.

And that actually worries me. And that seems maybe like a process-oriented answer, but I do think it's critical to achieve the outcomes we need, whether it's quickly training people so that they can adapt to how technology has changed the nature of their jobs, to updating our curriculums in schools quickly, to deploying people quickly to places and fragile states to maybe offset a potential conflict or an incident.

I mean, anyone who's worked for the government knows how hard it is to get things done. Public-private partnership continues-- the private sector gets frustrated if they need the government for some reason to be supportive of them, it's very hard for them as well.

              SANDY WINNEFELD:

Okay. Well, it'll be interesting to see if it's a shock or if it's a gradual evolution that enables us to potentially offset that sort of sclerosis that you're talking about. Well, Nadia, thank you so much for your time and insight. We really appreciate you coming in to talk to our audience. You really gave us a good inside glimpse on what it's like to write an incredibly important and often under-appreciated document. So, thank you so much for your service, and we wish you the best in the future.

              NADIA SCHADLOW:

Thank you so much. I've enjoyed the show very much. Thanks so much, Sandy.

              * * *END OF TRANSCRIPT* * *

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