Power & Security, United States National Security and Team-Building: An Interview with Robert Scher

May 11, 2018
By Michael Horowitz | Perry World House

Q (Michael Horowitz):  What initially sparked your interest in national security?

A (Robert Scher):  I became interested in national security issues when I read Herman Wouk’s novels on World War II as a kid. I was fascinated by the impact that individuals in the stories had on the world’s course of events. Of course, in fiction, the impact of any one person is sometimes a bit fanciful, but I was hooked. And, as it so happens, in the course of my career, I’ve found that personalities and key decisions by individuals actually do matter—and often a lot more than most people would believe. That interest prompted my mom to tell me a little more about my dad’s involvement in World War II. He was commissioned as and Ensign through the V12 program after attending Princeton for two years and immediately shipped out to the Southern Pacific and the Admiralty Islands. 

I was also influenced by my sister and her husband, who met when they were both stationed in northern England. My sister with the Department of Defense and my brother-in-law was an exchange officer with the RAF. I visited them and was impressed by what they were doing and how they were interacting so closely with our ally. That probably did it for me; I then focused on history and political science in college.

Q: You served recently as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans, and Capabilities in the Obama Administration. What did that job entail, and what is one of your favorite moments from the experience?

A:  The Assistant Secretary for Strategy, Plans, and Capabilities has a number of responsibilities. I primarily oversaw the office within the policymaking part of the Pentagon, which helps the Secretary of Defense guide the military on how best to use present forces and how to build for future capability. After setting out the guidance, the office also provides the policy review and analysis of the relevant budgets and plans that come back from either the military services or the combatant commands as they make their way up to the Secretary for final approval.

In the end, this means that we have significant influence on developing the US’s overall strategic approach to defense, and then we figure out how we would implement the plans within the Department. To figure this out, we consider budgets, day-to-day operations, overseas posture, contingency planning, and force allocation. While there are many people and offices involved in this process, we provide a unique civilian perspective on these issues. I also was responsible for two specific policy aspects of the military—developing our policy on how to best use security cooperation activities as part of achieving our security objectives, and overall nuclear weapons and missile defense policy and programs.  Both of these are critical capabilities within the Department of Defense.

I have some vivid memories of my least favorite moments, including a time when I was essentially called a liar by a Member of Congress. But by far I have many more positive experiences from my job and it’s difficult to choose. My favorite moments were almost always almost always when I saw someone on my team “get it” on an issue that had been troubling him or her for a while. I loved it when I saw someone realize that they actually knew what they thought was best for the Department, and make that case in front of senior leadership. Especially when one of my folks was able to really show how incredibly thoughtful and intelligent they were, he or she could change the minds of some really senior people in the Office of the Secretary of Defense or the Military Services. Building an organization, mentoring people, and building them up to take on the tough issues will always be the accomplishments I treasure more than any specific policy “win,” although those are pretty fun too! 

Q: What do you think is the most important national security challenge facing the United States, and why?

A:  I am tempted to say North Korea, or ISIS, and while those are definitely challenges, I think we need to take a step back and understand the larger picture of their impact on global governance. The global system of governance is in jeopardy in unprecedented ways. None of us really knows what the world would look like without existing international institutions and norms in place, but I have no doubt that we will be worse off if they crumbled. In some cases, the challenges are coming from outside of that system. Great nations who don’t feel like a part of that system now want to change it, and smaller nations and entities can make internal politics harder to circumvent. There is no doubt in my mind that the United States, overall, has benefited, and benefited disproportionately, from the international system as it is currently conceived. But those of us who believe that clearly have to do a better job making that argument. 

In terms of more specific national security issues, my biggest concern is that the US has become myopic. We are so preoccupied with today’s challenges that we will be unable to adequately prepare for those in the future. The Department of Defense’s priority must always be the military and navy personnel in conflict. But Department of Defense must also look at the kinds of obstacles it may face in developing ways to deter conflict and defeat high-end adversaries. Other nations know how we like to fight, and can counter our operations. To prevail, we will need to incorporate new technologies and operational concepts that, in combination, will serve as lasting deterrents.