Hey there, it’s Stephen Dubner. Hope you’ve been having a great summer. Today I’d like to update you on what we’ve been doing this summer — and to give you a preview of the fall. As you may know, Freakonomics Radio was our one and only podcast for a long time. But last year, right in the teeth of the pandemic, we decided to create the Freakonomics Radio Network. Our first spinoff show was called No Stupid Questions, which I co-host with Angela Duckworth, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who’s incredibly dynamic and insightful. If you have not heard it yet, here’s what No Stupid Questions sounds like:
Angela DUCKWORTH: We’ve talked actually, Stephen, about the spotlight effect, right? Tom Gilovich.
Stephen DUBNER: “Everybody’s paying attention to what I’m doing.”
DUCKWORTH: Yes. And what I’m wearing and my hairstyle. I just think we so often overestimate. We get self-conscious, and we get insecure.
DUBNER: Now with you, we actually do pay attention to all those things. But, with most people, we don’t.
So that’s No Stupid Questions. The next show we launched was People I (Mostly) Admire. The host of that show is my Freakonomics friend and co-author Steve Levitt, who’s an economist at the University of Chicago. But, as you may know, Levitt is not your typical economist. He’s not your typical anything! This fact is reflected in the amazing conversations that Levitt’s been having on People I (Mostly) Admire, with guests like Danny Kahneman and Mayim Bialik, Sam Harris and Susan Wojcicki, talking everything from metaphysics to autonomous vehicles and even economics, including the economics of women’s professional basketball. Here’s Levitt with Sue Bird, who just won her fifth Olympic gold medal:
Steve LEVITT: So the average player in the N.B.A. made $8.3 million in 2019. And in the W.N.B.A., the average was $80,000. Is that frustrating?
Sue BIRD: At times. But I live in reality. I understand business and economics. We’re looked at in one of two ways. Some people look at us as like charity. And if they do look at us as an investment, immediately it’s talked about how we don’t make money. I think people look at men’s sports and immediately see potential, even if it doesn’t exist. Whereas we are never — we haven’t been invested in our potential. “You guys don’t make money.” And it’s like, 50 years ago, I don’t think the N.B.A. did either. That’s where my issues lie.
Just a few weeks ago, we launched another weekly show. This one is called Freakonomics, M.D. The host is Bapu Jena, who’s both a physician and a research economist. He does very clever empirical work that’s right at the intersection of health care and the real world. Like this:
Bapu JENA: Today, we’re tackling flu shots, a seemingly straightforward, easy-to-come-by, run-of-the-mill vaccine — unless you’re a baby or a toddler. As an adult, if I want to get my flu vaccine, I can get it at my doctor’s office. I can get it at a walk-in flu clinic. I can get it from my employer. But little kids can usually only get a flu vaccine at a doctor’s office. And kids who are healthy tend to only go to see a doctor once a year, usually around their birthday. So do kids with summer birthdays miss getting flu shots more often? And if so, what are the ripple effects?
Freakonomics, M.D. brings us up to four weekly shows in the Freakonomics Radio Network. You can follow all of them, for free, in any podcast app. But we are not stopping at four! Our motto, you may recall, is that Freakonomics explores the hidden side of everything — so we’ve got a variety of projects in development. Shows about math, about dogs, about the economics of everyday things that you probably never give much thought to. And today, we want to give you a sample from another new show we’re working on. (This one doesn’t even have a title yet — so after you hear the episode, if you have a good idea, let us know. We’re at email@example.com.) But we do have an idea for this show — the idea being: with everything going on in places like Afghanistan and Russia and China, wouldn’t it be useful to have a smart podcast on foreign policy and national security? To hear from someone who can reveal the hidden side of that world? So we reached out to one of the smartest people in this realm — Michèle Flournoy, a former Pentagon official and one of the highest-ranking women in the history of the Defense Department.
DUBNER: Michèle, are you there?
Michèle FLOURNOY: Hi, Stephen. Good to talk to you.
DUBNER: Nice to talk to you. So as I just mentioned, one of the new projects we’re working on is a podcast with you about foreign policy and national security. Hey, can I ask you while we’re at it: what is the relationship between those two, foreign policy and national security? Which is the chicken and which is the egg?
FLOURNOY: Oh, good question. We could have a lot of debates about that. But I like to think that foreign policy is dealing with all of our relationships in the world, our international engagement. And national security is really a subset, if you will, of the things that really touch on the security of the United States and of Americans here and abroad.
DUBNER: I was hoping you would say that, that security was a subset of foreign policy. But then I thought you could say, well, without security, policy becomes a totally different animal.
FLOURNOY: That’s probably true too. That’s why we could have an hour-long debate about this.
DUBNER: As I understand it, the idea behind this new show is that you will be having conversations with policy makers and decision makers who have been in the room “where it happened,” as Lin-Manuel Miranda put it in the musical Hamilton. I’ve heard you are yourself a big Hamilton fan. Are you somehow tricking us into making a foreign-policy musical?
FLOURNOY: I wish. But I don’t think any of our guests is likely to burst into song. But they all have really fascinating stories to tell, and they can bring you inside a key decision or a major event, as if you too were in the room.
DUBNER: I don’t mean to be cynical — at least not too cynical — but for the average podcast listener, why does it matter? What’s the value in knowing more about this kind of decision-making? Because we don’t have any influence.
FLOURNOY: Well, every day, there are policies being made and executed in our name. And I think in a democracy, it’s so important for citizens to understand what’s happening. And to also understand this is a very human endeavor. This is human beings coming together, grappling with really tough situations, and making the best decisions they can. But often decisions that are flawed or imperfect, or don’t work out like they were intended.
DUBNER: Yeah. Can we talk about Afghanistan for a moment? Mitch McConnell recently criticized President Biden for pulling out of Afghanistan the way he did, even though that pullout was begun under the previous Trump administration. When I see politics and foreign policy collide as they are now with Afghanistan, I’m really curious to know what that relationship is like between elected officials and foreign-policy civil servants.
FLOURNOY: There’s always politics in terms of how people respond to decisions that a president makes. My guess is that if the Biden team had it to do over again, they probably would have focused on teeing up a number of things before that decision was announced — really pressing the negotiations to try to get a cease-fire in place. I know they were trying that, but that got cut short. Having a plan to take care of all of the Afghans who helped the U.S. and their families, getting them out of harm’s way. Having a plan for supporting the Afghan national security forces from over the horizon. Having more of a plan for how we were going to deal with counterterrorism threats from over the horizon. And instead, the decision was made up front and then all of this has been rolling out in a way that’s much more chaotic than it probably needed to be.
DUBNER: Tell us in general about the kind of person that you want to talk to on this show. Which sectors or realms will they come from?
FLOURNOY: I’d like to talk to people who’ve been on the front lines of national security. They could be policy makers from the White House. They could be diplomats. They could be humanitarians — people who’ve done development work in crises on the ground, military leaders — so they’ve either been at the decision-making table or they’ve been participants on the ground in the most consequential events in recent history.
DUBNER: We will hear from one such person in a few minutes. He’s a former four-star admiral in the Navy who held tremendous responsibility in U.S. nuclear strategy. But before we get to that conversation you had with him, let’s learn a little bit more about you. Because you, too, have been in the room where it happened, during the Obama administration and to some degree in the Clinton administration as well. Let’s take your most senior government role in the Obama administration, in the Pentagon. Is there a thumbnail job description that you might find on ZipRecruiter, if this job were posted on ZipRecruiter, which I assume it’s not?
FLOURNOY: Not sure it’d be posted on ZipRecruiter. The job was Undersecretary of Defense for Policy. And the role is to support the Secretary of Defense in all of his or her international engagements, to support him or her in all of their engagements in the National Security Council, which is the primary decision-making body or advising body for the president, and then also to help the secretary — because we’re in a democracy — provide civilian oversight of military strategy plans and operations.
DUBNER: And which secretaries did you serve under?
FLOURNOY: In the Clinton administration, I served under Les Aspin, and then Bill Perry, and then William Cohen. And then in the Obama administration: under Bob Gates, and then Leon Panetta.
DUBNER: Talk about your day-to-day work in the Obama administration. What was that like?
FLOURNOY: I oversaw a staff of about 1,000 people, and I had oversight over three defense agencies that focused on different topics. A typical day would start with an intelligence briefing. Then moving to, often, a National Security Council meeting — either at the deputies’ level or the principals’ level — over in the White House. Then, coming back, maybe — so helping the secretary prepare for a foreign counterpart coming to visit in the Pentagon. And then maybe we’d be reviewing a war plan, or a contingency plan, or a proposed operation in the afternoon.
DUBNER: When you look around the world at this moment, what do you see as the, let’s say, three major foreign-policy hot spots? Maybe they’re obvious, maybe they’re not.
FLOURNOY: I think one is Taiwan. I don’t think either Beijing or Washington wants to go to war over Taiwan, but we are very bad at understanding each other’s resolve, calculus, capabilities, and the risk of miscalculation is higher than it should be. So that’s the first thing. I think in the wake of all these cyberattacks that we’ve seen recently — from Solar Winds to the ransomware attacks — the thing that worries me is that at some point one of these attacks is going to inadvertently kill some Americans. Like, if you had an attack that took down an electricity grid and suddenly the hospitals lose electricity, you’re actually going to have Americans die. Then what does a president do? And the risk of that escalating into something that was never intended is one of those things that keeps me up at night. And then, I guess for a third, I’d say the real sleeper that nobody thinks about day-to-day, but we could wake up tomorrow in a crisis: India-Pakistan. They have had three wars since the creation of the two states. They both have nuclear weapons that they’ve deployed near their borders. If they got into another conflict, we could be in a nuclear situation overnight with almost zero warning.
DUBNER: So, Michèle, this new podcast is not your first foray into journalism. I know that during college you worked as a stringer for Time magazine, but then you abandoned the glorious heights of journalism for the muck and shadows of foreign policy. What made you interested in stepping back into the light now?
FLOURNOY: The honest truth is I couldn’t decide which side of the interview I wanted to be on for 10 years. Even when I was working in foreign policy, I was moonlighting for a public television station. So what forced my hand was my first job in government, which decidedly put me into the foreign policy/defense policy practitioner camp, and one side of the interview.
DUBNER: We are going to hear now your conversation with retired Admiral Cecil Haney. A lot of us have an image — a stereotype — of what a four-star Navy admiral is like. How well or poorly would you say Admiral Haney fits that stereotype?
FLOURNOY: He is definitely not the stereotype. He is a very humble servant-leader who is a wonderful storyteller, and just a very down-to-earth person.
DUBNER: Michèle Flournoy, thank you so much. It is a joy to welcome you to this little Freakonomics Radio Network that we’re building. So thanks for coming to play in our sandbox. And let’s now hear your conversation with retired Navy Admiral Cecil Haney.
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As I told Stephen a moment ago, I want this show to grapple with some of the most important national security issues of the day, and we’ll get to those issues through the stories of people who’ve shaped the decisions; the people who’ve been at the table, the people who’ve been on the front lines executing the policy.
Cecil Haney is one of those people.
During his four decades in the United States Navy, Haney rose through the ranks as a submarine commander, then a rear admiral and vice admiral. When he took command of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, he became one of the country’s first Black four-star admirals. And then, ultimately, he became the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, which is responsible for all nuclear forces and global-strike capabilities for the United States. He was the person on point to provide nuclear options to the president and the secretary of defense in a crisis. That experience gave him some pretty unique insight into nuclear developments around the world.
Cecil HANEY: When we look at the investments that both Russia and a rising China have today, we have to look at that with eyes wide open, as we look at the challenges that will come ahead. If we don’t get this right, we will be perhaps be boxed in a corner. And if nuclear deterrence fails, that will not be a good day for the United States of America — and for the world.
We’re definitely going to talk about nuclear deterrence. I started my career as a nuclear arms control analyst. That was during the Cold War. More than 30 years later, the challenges facing our aging nuclear arsenal are very different. He’ll also talk about what the U.S. military needs to do to address racism and extremism, and what it will take to get more people of color into leadership roles.
HANEY: You can’t just pay attention to it for five years and then stop paying attention to it, thinking “Okay, we’re successful, we’re done.”
I didn’t get a chance, unfortunately, to actually serve alongside Admiral Haney in the Pentagon, but we have gotten to know each other serving on a nonprofit board together. And I just think the world of him. As someone who was often the only woman in the room, I wondered what his experience was like as a Black man coming up the ranks of the Navy. So in this episode, what we’re going to do is talk about his experience, from his time at the Naval Academy all the way through to becoming an admiral.
Forty years ago, when Cecil Haney first thought about joining the military, he had his eyes not on the Navy, but on the Army. His father was not very excited about this. Jesse Diggs had experienced racism while serving in the Army during World War II.
HANEY: He grew up in the military at a time frame where we were a segregated organization of sort. And, as a result, you could sense there were some disappointments from him in terms of just the overall treatment. But also, coming back to a nation that was clearly divided in terms of how African-Americans should be in society, and equality and equity and those things we talk about today.
Jesse was a ticket salesman at the Greyhound bus terminal in Washington, D.C., and some of his customers were midshipmen from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. Jesse got to know some of them and he liked them. Maybe a similar path would be right for Cecil.
FLOURNOY: So, Admiral Haney, in 1974, you were admitted to the U.S. Naval Academy, a huge achievement unto itself. What was it like when you were actually there?
HANEY: Well, as a guy growing up here in the concrete city of Washington, D.C., the one thing I wasn’t as prepared for as many other midshipmen were — I didn’t know how to swim. So, one of my biggest challenges coming in was going through swimming in what we called swimming sub squad. I can tell you, I got to learn how to swim as part of that education. But it was also a very busy place. You were never bored there. I’ll put it that way. You were always challenged: challenged intellectually, challenged physically. And as a result, it was an environment that, quite frankly, I thrived in.
FLOURNOY: The military likes to think of itself as a colorblind meritocracy. What was your experience in the Naval Academy? Did it feel like that to you? Or did you encounter some challenges just because people weren’t used to seeing a person of color, in the ranks?
HANEY: I was not as alone as one would think, in that we had a larger number of African-Americans coming into the academy. So, that was one. Two, I didn’t run into what I call a lot of blatant racism, or I didn’t slow down enough to look for it — one of the two. I did have one incident where I was coming up the stairs in Bancroft Hall and one white midshipman turned around to me and said, “The only reason you’re here is because of a quota system.” And he was surrounded with some other white midshipmen and nobody said anything, and I just kept going. But I tell you, that, too, may have been a blessing in disguise, because I was so motivated to make sure that I was going to graduate, regardless of how people thought of why I came into that school. And I was going to study hard to make sure my grades were where they needed to be, and leave that behind and stay focused forward toward the goal.
FLOURNOY: Yeah. It’s amazing how a comment like that can become a source of positive motivation. My own experience — my first time in the Pentagon, relatively young female, I was a Democratic political appointee. And my first counterpart meeting with a one-star general officer who happened to be from the South. He said, “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a job like this?” And the assumption was, “The only reason you’re here is because some Democratic president thinks that there’s a quota and women should fill these jobs.” But I walked away from that meeting being very determined to show him why I was there. Because I’m competent, and I’m going to add value, and so forth. And he eventually turned around. But it’s amazing how those comments can actually motivate you to excel.
HANEY: It does, but it also puts in the back of your head in every interaction, particularly when you are the one and only in classrooms and laboratories: what are they really thinking about you that they’re not saying?
FLOURNOY: So, you graduate in 1978. You’re commissioned as an officer in the United States Navy that very day. Very happy day, I am sure. And you’re assigned to your first submarine, which happens to be named after the former vice president, John C. Calhoun, a man who was an infamous defender of slavery in the 19th century. What was it like to serve aboard a submarine called the John C. Calhoun?
HANEY: Well, it was interesting because I had to wear a ball cap with that name on it all the time, being that that was the namesake you were serving on. When I reported aboard — I’ll give you two flavors of this — I was given the opportunity to lead the Electrical Division in the Interior Communications Division. When I got assigned there, I had Master Chief Hubbard as my leading chief petty officer. Now, Master Chief Hubbard was not from Washington, D.C. He was from the great state of Alabama. We were probably in such different camps, but this individual was a very professional master chief. And I credit a lot of my start and success to this individual who, from a diversity standpoint, from a growing up standpoint, we were on opposite ends of the planet. But he would pull me in and we would be able to talk candidly about what needed to be done, associated with making the division successful. He would say, “Hey, sir, you need to go up there and tell the captain about this. You need to come back here and look in this equipment. And he was just God’s gift to the planet in terms of teaching young Ensign Cecil Haney how to really do his job as a division officer in a very candid, polite way. Here, I got an individual from the South that really showed me what good looked like. So it was a great start on that submarine, even though its namesake was John C. Calhoun. The other part was, of course, coming back home and my dad, who would do his homework — even though he had no college education, he was an avid reader — and he’d say, “Well, why is that submarine named after John C. Calhoun?” And I had no good answer for him, to be honest with you.
FLOURNOY: Now that the military is actually in the process of changing names of bases and ships and so forth, will that be important? Does it make a difference in terms of communicating the kind of inclusive environment we want to create for people in the military?
HANEY: Oh, absolutely. I think it’s so important today. When every individual of color goes through a gate or walks across a brow and knows that the person that this ship or this base was named on was really on the wrong side of history, that to me, today, I think really can twist that commitment — that go get ’em, that drive that we need our military to have. It can detract from it in a bad way. It is something that we needed to correct then, and we definitely need to correct now.
FLOURNOY: You’ve already mentioned your master chief from Alabama who became a mentor of sorts. How did you find mentors going forward in your career? I don’t think there were too many African-American senior officers at that point in the Navy. So, who were your mentors? What was their counsel to you as someone who was rising in the ranks?
HANEY: It started off for me when I was in my first school before reporting to that submarine, the John C. Calhoun. Myself and another individual — Mel Williams, who became a vice admiral before he retired — we were both classmates and we were going through the pipeline training at the same time. A guy by the name of Pete Tzomes, who became the first African-American commanding officer of a submarine of the United States Navy, he called us over to his lodging room and wanted to talk to us. We didn’t know this individual, but we got a note to go over and see him. And this individual was instrumental in telling us, “Hey, there aren’t that many of us in this submarine business. I count on you to work hard and to perform. Don’t expect any favors and keep your nose to the grindstone.” It wasn’t one of these pleasantry kinds of meetings whatsoever. But I tell you, when I look back at any success you say I might have had, it goes back to that conversation. We ended up establishing this thing we call the Centennial Seven: the first seven African-Americans that got to command submarines in the first 100 years of our Navy submarine service. And as such, we became mentors for many.
FLOURNOY: One of my best mentors was someone who gave me very tough feedback, who basically sat me down and said, “Look, as the only woman in the room, as someone who’s going to be trying to break into this very male environment, you can’t just be as good as. You have to be better. And you have to go after your weaknesses and fix them.” So, my weakness, at the time, was I was terrified of public speaking. And he put me through this program because he thought it would hold me back. And he also said, “You have to toughen up.” I remember him saying, “Never let them make you cry.” So, that tough-love mentorship was really important.
HANEY: No, it sure is. And as I rose through the ranks and particularly became a flag officer, it was like, “Okay, now who will I get mentoring from?”
Flag officers are the most senior officers in the fleet: the Navy’s version of generals, the people with the stars on their shoulders. Cecil Haney became a flag officer in 2005 when he was promoted to rear admiral and pinned on his first star. He retired as a full, four-star admiral, having served as the commander of the Navy’s Pacific fleet, and then U.S. Strategic Command.
FLOURNOY: As you rise in the ranks, what is your experience like? Do people become more colorblind because you’ve proven yourself clearly? Because you’ve been promoted several times, you’re performing, you’re a leader. Does it get better as you get more senior?
HANEY: Well, it depends. So, the more senior you get, obviously, the more people salute and say, “Three bags full.” But the real key is, “What are they really thinking?” And you still would enter rooms where you’re the only person of color, and you might reflect a little bit back on that midshipmen day — does somebody there think you’re there because of a quota system?
FLOURNOY: How did your experiences shape you as a leader? How did you go about creating a more equitable and inclusive environment under your command?
HANEY: The piece, I think, for me, really got back to my roots of being in the submarine force. A small crew demanding a lot, intricate operations where you really had to depend on each and every individual. The other thing it afforded you is really knowing each and every individual. So, the scary part as I got into bigger and bigger organizations was: boy, I can’t possibly know each and every individual that works for you, their weaknesses, etc. So, I need to farm that out and make sure others are paying close attention to it. But even as a leader, that whole business of walking around, talking to your people even up to the last job — U.S. Strategic Command, over 150,000 people working for you — if I’d go down and get my own coffee at the cafeteria, then I could stop in line and talk to people.
And, well, “How is it really going?” The more senior you are, they aren’t going to want to share that with you. You had to really have tactics and techniques to really get into their head So, I found when people realized that you are interested in what they think — what they are doing, and you have that genuine concern — they will do all kinds of push-ups for the organization, because they want to be part of the team. But if they don’t feel that their voice is heard for whatever reason — whether it’s because of the lack of diversity or what have you — that becomes an impediment to success.
FLOURNOY: They say that listening is the highest form of respect, right? And when people feel listened to, they feel like their voice is heard, as you say — they feel like they can contribute to the organization and the success of the team. That does wonders for the climate and the environment and making people feel like they’re a part of it.
HANEY: We would be doing a planning strategy brief and the room would be filled with a bunch of people, and you’d have the primary talker. And so, the other thing I loved to do was I’d say, “Well, you’re in the room here. We’ve been talking about this for about half an hour. What do you think?” And that individual would first squirm a little bit. But then sometimes you would get reinforcing information. Or you could tell from the body language that person wasn’t sold, and you needed to drill back into something a little bit more.
FLOURNOY: You know who used to do that all the time was President Obama in The Situation Room. So, my boss, either Secretary Gates or Secretary Panetta, would be at the table. I would be the plus-one sitting behind. And before he would close out a meeting or make a decision, President Obama would always go around the back wall — not just at the table, but the back wall. And I have this bad habit of scowling when I’m concentrating. And so, I’d be sitting there scowling. And so, President Obama would say, “Michèle, it looks like you disagree. What do you think?” And Secretary Gates would turn around and look over his shoulder like, “What are you doing?” But it was a wonderful way to really, first of all, ensure that he got the full perspective of everybody in the room, heard any dissent that he needed to hear before he made a tough decision, and created that sense of — we’re all trying to help him make the best decision possible. And that’s what matters. No one’s going to shoot the messenger if you want to speak up and raise a different point. So, a really important element of creating a great leadership climate, a command climate.
HANEY: And I think it’s very important in the military because we grow up everybody marching in formation: turn left here, turn right here. And getting people out of that syndrome of when do you have to be uniform? Then, when you need to really plan and really extract from everybody — what do you think? And what may I be missing with this particular picture?
According to a Department of Defense report from 2020, just under half of active duty, enlisted personnel in the U.S. military are people of color — about 47 percent. But when you look at officers — the people in leadership roles — that figure drops down to 27 percent. I asked Admiral Haney, why there aren’t more people of color leading in the U.S. military?
HANEY: Well, I think it’s complicated. It’s a very intricate piece that goes back to not just policy, but the implementation of policy, and understanding and valuing the business of diversity throughout the ranks. And this requires a steady attention. You can’t just pay attention to it for five years and then stop paying attention to it, thinking “Okay. We’re successful. We’re done. Let’s move on to the next problems.” And meanwhile, not understanding the sustainability efforts that have to occur there. In order to get anybody up to the captain — the rear admiral, to vice admiral, to full four-star admiral — it takes a concerted effort of mentorship, paying attention to who’s available, who’s on the bench. And, are you giving them the right experiences that you would want that individual to have at an admiral level of any number of stars?
FLOURNOY: I had the opportunity to serve on an external task force for the Central Intelligence Agency on diversity. What they were finding is they were very, very good at recruiting a representative class of entry-level officers, very close to mirroring the demographics of the United States. But if you fast forward 12, 13 years in, when people were finally being considered to their equivalent of promotion to general officer, senior intelligence service, a lot of the women had disappeared. A lot of the people of color had disappeared. And so, the study was really a systematic look at: where are the barriers? What is the experience that is causing people to leave? Whether it’s lack of mentorship or sponsorship, whether it’s implicit bias, whether it’s requirements that basically make it impossible for women to have any children and stay competitive for promotion as operations officers, for example. And that, it seems, is what you’re talking about. We need to really look at it at every step along the way.
HANEY: Oh, very much so. And that retention piece is, in my mind, just so critical in terms of retaining enough of whatever category you’re looking at there, so that they can, in fact, compete and be available for the upward mobility you would hope that they would have. Because they are sought after by other companies and corporations. And when I talk about just the relentless pace we sometimes have in the military, in our assignments — moving periodically to different areas, uprooting your kids from different school systems, and what have you — that can become a negative if you don’t have the other part of the positive, in terms of that person feeling valued, feeling that someone cares enough to sit down and tell me what I’m doing good, but what I’m doing that I need to go work on so that I can be promotable in the future.
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FLOURNOY: Cecil, I want to ask you about your final leadership position in the U.S. military, when you were head of U.S. Strategic Command, which is basically in charge of all U.S. nuclear forces. That is a very daunting set of responsibilities. Tell us a little bit about that experience.
HANEY: That really, in some regards, got my training wheels going, in terms of bringing to the department plans associated with how do we do deterrence better. Every war-fighting plan that we had, the foundation of that plan is based on nuclear deterrence working. And you can’t short-sheet that piece. As I came aboard as commander of U.S. Strategic Command, it was at a time frame where I could sense in a lot of the military and as a country as a whole, nuclear deterrence was something that wasn’t being talked enough about.
FLOURNOY: Didn’t that end with the Cold War, that sort of view?
HANEY: That was the preponderance of the argument. And don’t we need to just cut more of it as we reduce the role of nuclear weapons, which was a presidential goal? But with this goal still was that we would have a credible nuclear deterrence capability. And some would have looked at the first part and said, “Well, now, let’s just cut the forces. Well, that in itself has a problem of deflating the energy of those working in that business, whether they’re in missile silos, or whether they’re operating from ballistic missile submarines, or whether they’re flying training missions with the B-2 stealth bomber, or the B-52 bomber, which has been flying for a while. And that support was being deflated at the time frame that I really felt we needed to pump up the volume in terms of how important this mission is for our nation. Because it has existential consequences if we get it wrong. And now, we’re at the brink, that if we aren’t successful in modernization now, now, now, we will lose that capability. And the ability to resurrect it once you lose it is way too hard and may not be done in time, particularly as we confront competitors like China and Russia that have growing capability in these areas.
FLOURNOY: As you said, the arsenal has aged. The submarine-launched missiles, the intercontinental ballistic missiles, the land-based leg of the triad, the bombers — all of these are aging. You now have a modernization bill that Congressional Budget Office estimates is something like half a trillion dollars. So the Biden administration will be conducting a nuclear posture review, which is a policy review of all things related to nuclear weapons; what our strategy should be, what our posture should be, what the force should look like. What do you want to see come out of that review? How do we square the circle of fundamental importance as a foundation, but huge price tag if we were to modernize everything equally?
HANEY: Sometimes we look at a bill and say, “Oh, it’s going to cost X amount.” And we’ve unfortunately been in that pickle of passing that bill downstream to such an extent that now it looks tremendous to us. And I would hope as we go into the Nuclear Posture Review, we don’t come in with some perceived notion that, “Okay, we need this Nuclear Posture Review in order to kill this program.” We need to understand: what does it really take to have a credible nuclear deterrence capability that’s foundational to every war plan that we would have if, God forbid, we had to take on a China, take on a Russia. And that’s not just the platforms, it’s also the nuclear industrial base that supports those nuclear weapons — the industrial base of shipbuilding or aircraft building or missile building, as well as the command and control capability to direct forces under duress in your worst day of communications capability.
FLOURNOY: When you were STRATCOM commander — and I have to ask this, because I started my career as a nuclear arms control analyst — you were actually very supportive of strategic arms control. And the Biden administration came in. They’ve extended for five years the new START treaty, which limits the number of strategic nuclear weapons in both the U.S. and Russia. Why, as STRATCOM commander, were you so supportive of arms control? What role does arms control play in this equation?
HANEY: Well, arms control is hard work. And to me, it is part of that strategic deterrence capability a country has. When you look, historically, at some of our successes on strategic weapons — you look at how much we had in the Cold War to how much we have now — you can look at that report card and say, “We’ve done wonderfully in reducing the number of nuclear weapons.” The other piece that is important in my mind is having that ability to have some transparency into each other’s capability, even just the thing of every time you test launch something that’s intercontinental, that we tell the other side before doing so. And just the conversations that have to occur to get to an agreement are the kind of conversations you would want these major powers to have. And those actually bring more stability, I think, going forward.
FLOURNOY: As you listen to the national security conversation today, is there an issue that you feel we should be paying more attention to that’s just not getting enough focus or bandwidth or energy?
HANEY: Today, as I look at the stage of competition technologically between us and, for example, China, we have to be careful that we can make those crisp decisions in enough time so that we can get the capability we need, whether we’re talking about military capability, or if we’re talking about that technology that we need to sustain our economic advantages going forward. So, this is an area that I think we, as a nation, need to invest more. So, it’s not just all technical, but we have to have the education system, so that we can be armed, as best we can, with the right brains to be able to get at those problems we don’t even understand today, that will be out there tomorrow.
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DUBNER: Okay, Michèle, thanks for bringing us that conversation with Admiral Haney. You’ve had a little time to process it by now. I’m curious what stuck with you: what have you continued to think about?
FLOURNOY: One of the things that’s really stuck with me is how thoughtful Admiral Haney has been about his experiences and what it means to be a good leader. He could have become a little hard or bitter, given some of what he went through. But instead, he just turned it around and said, “Okay, how do I become a better mentor? How do I help improve the Navy? How do I be a better leader where diversity and inclusion is welcomed?” I admire that. He has an almost unshakable sense of optimism.
DUBNER: Yeah, that really struck me, too — that whether he was talking about issues of identity or issues of national security, that his perspective on just about everything was remarkably considered. And I guess what struck me about the conversation is how rare it is to hear that kind of tone and consideration in the public sphere, because if you watch a little bit of cable news, for instance, you get pretty close to zero of that.
FLOURNOY: We are hearing from the noisy few on most of the cable channels and social media. But, in my experience, one of the things I loved about working in the Defense Department — and in national security more broadly — is you have so many altruistic people who just want to serve, who just want to make a difference, be part of something on behalf of the country, do good where they can. And the motivation of this podcast is to bring you their stories. Who are these people behind the scenes who are actually doing this work? And I think people will come away feeling better about the people who serve them in government. I hope that’s the case.
DUBNER: You and I have talked about having your guests revisit a specific decision or outcome — bring us back to the room where something happened and reflect on that with hindsight and with wisdom. I’m curious how good you think your colleagues or former colleagues in the Defense Department and State Department will be at doing that.
FLOURNOY: Well, I think it’s much easier with former than with current officials. So they’re just speaking for themselves. I think coming at these issues through their personal stories hopefully will help them to just relax into telling their stories. And obviously one of the criteria for choosing guests will be people that we think are willing to open up, and be candid, and do that reflection with us in conversation.
DUBNER: Well, to that end, let me say to our listeners: if you have ideas for people you’d like to hear from, for people you’d like to hear unpack a decision from the foreign policy or national security realm, we would love to hear from you. Our address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Also: the fact is that naming a podcast can be even harder than making a podcast, so we’d love to hear your ideas on that too. Again: email@example.com. Michèle Flournoy, thank you so much. I look forward to working with you on this, and I think the world will really benefit from it. So thanks.
FLOURNOY: Thank you, Stephen. I’m really excited about the project and look forward to hearing feedback from our listeners.
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Alexandra Salomon. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Joel Meyer, Tricia Bobeda, Mary Diduch, Brent Katz, Zack Lapinski, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, Jasmin Klinger, Ryan Kelley, and Jacob Clemente. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; the rest of the music this week was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
- Michèle Flournoy, former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy for the United States.
- Cecil Haney, retired U.S. Navy four-star Admiral and head of U.S. Strategic Command.
- “Lawmakers Urge Biden to Make ‘Bold Decisions’ in Nuclear Review,” by Rebecca Kheel (The Hill, 2021).
- “Department of Defense Board on Diversity and Inclusion Report: Recommendations to Improve Racial and Ethnic Diversity and Inclusion in the U.S. Military,” by the United States Department of Defense (2020).
- “Chancellor Alphonso “Pete” Tzomes 30 December 1944−13 June 2019,” by Regina T. Akers (Naval History and Heritage Command, 2019).
- “Why Are Kids With Summer Birthdays More Likely to Get the Flu? (Freakonomics, M.D. Ep. 3),” by Freakonomics, M.D. (2021).
- “Sue Bird: “You Have to Pay the Superstars.” (People I (Mostly) Admire, Ep. 12),” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “How Do You Know if People Don’t Like You? (NSQ Ep. 37),” by No Stupid Questions (2021).