Rebuilding Strategic Thinking



This report was written by Greg Treverton and Bob Hutchings, and is a follow-on to their forthcoming book, Truth to Power: A History of the U.S. National Intelligence (Oxford University Press, 2019).

Churchill is said to have commented after a particularly undistinguished meal: “The pudding [that’s dessert for us Americans] lacked a theme.” This is also true of the world before us today. If that world is less existentially dangerous than the height of the Cold War, it is scary in its shapelessness. Threats seem to emanate from everywhere, unpredictably, even at a luncheon in San Bernardino or a nightclub in Orlando. It is a world that cries out for old-fashioned strategic analysis as an input to strategy: What is important, what is less so? How do issues connect or relate to each other, and where are the trends taking us? Where and how should we intervene, and where should we disengage? What are the important investments to make? What should we be aiming for a decade hence?

This report proceeds in six parts. The first portion frames the issues. The second examines some historic context, drawn from the authors’ recent book on the National Intelligence Council (NIC). That history drives home the point that the challenges facing strategic analysis and strategy are hardly new. In the third portion, the report looks specifically at the evolution of strategic analysis through the NIC’s Global Trends series. Strategic analysis is not prediction, but it is still instructive to look at where Global Trends have been prescient and where they have not. Fourth, the report takes up instances in which the United States has been successfully strategic, seeking lessons for the future. The fifth and central part of the report addresses a handful of “challenge problems,” a set of critical challenges as examples of how strategy might make a difference. They are the kinds of current and foreseeable challenges that are most in need of strategic analysis, for which we seek not to provide answers but to articulate the questions and provide a framework for addressing them. The sixth and final part offers a conclusion that asks how the nation might drive toward a system that, in the words of one of the authors, “makes policy in the shadow of the future.” Key questions are raised such as: how does the policy choice meet the immediate needs as well as advance longer-term strategic goals and anticipate second- and third-order effects down the road? How can the government improve the chances of embedding strategic analysis in these critical issue areas?

Robert L. Hutchings is the Walt and Elspeth Rostow Chair in National Security.

Gregory F. Treverton is a senior adviser (non-resident) with the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

This report is made possible by general support to CSIS.
Walt and Elspeth Rostow Chair in National Security and Professor of Public Affairs

Gregory F. Treverton