Editor’s Note: Michèle A. Flournoy is managing partner of WestExec Advisors, a strategic advisory firm, and former Undersecretary of Defense in the Obama administration. Camille Stewart is a Political Reform Fellow at New America, the cofounder of Diversity in National Security Network and the former senior policy advisor for Cyber, Infrastructure and Resilience Policy at the Department of Homeland Security in the Obama administration. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the authors; view more opinion on CNN.
Joe Biden’s selection of Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate is a powerful statement of his commitment to ensuring that all Americans feel part of our democracy – that government of the people, by the people and for the people applies to all Americans, be they men or women, White or Black, Asian or Latino, gay or straight, recent immigrants or descendants of families who have been here for generations. The Biden-Harris ticket is the first in US history to truly reflect the American people they aspire to serve.
Biden has already signaled that he intends to draw on the strengths of our nation’s diversity in assembling his administration. He has pledged to strive for gender parity in his senior national security appointments. Contrast this with President Donald Trump, who appointed more white men to his first cabinet (18) than any President since Ronald Reagan (17). Biden has assembled a diversity and inclusion working group to gather diverse slates of qualified candidates for every appointed position. And he has already articulated an agenda of policy initiatives to address systemic racism, inequality and discrimination.
Nowhere will a qualified team of advisers with a diversity of lived experience and expertise be more important at every level than in the national security realm. As commander in chief, a President Biden would recognize racism as the national security issue it is. He would also have to make a number of high-stakes decisions ranging from reinvigorating US leadership, to combatting the existential threat of climate change, to dealing with cybersecurity threats, to rebuilding our alliances, to potentially sending Americans into harm’s way to protect US interests. And he will have to do so amidst the triple crises he will inherit at home: a still out-of-control Covid-19 pandemic, a deep economic recession and a societal crisis over systemic racism and inequality. In this incredibly daunting context, leveraging Americans’ diversity can make all the difference.
From the board room to the Situation Room, bringing more diverse views to the table is proven to enhance the quality of decision-making and organizational performance. Organizations with more diverse boards of directors and leadership teams tend to outperform those with less diverse leaders. For example, a 2015 McKinsey report on 366 public companies found that those in the top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity in management were 35% more likely to have financial returns above their industry mean, and those in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15% more likely to have returns above the industry mean. Diversity allows for greater innovation, improved outcomes and an enhanced understanding of threats and vulnerabilities. We must bring our biggest asset to bear on the tough challenges ahead in an ever-evolving threat landscape by harnessing the diversity of the American people.
We witnessed a comparable dynamic firsthand in former President Barack Obama’s Situation Room. The advantageous diversity of people and views around the table that resulted from Obama’s dogged emphasis on cultivating a national security workforce that looked more like the American people it served ensured that the President had the benefit of a variety of perspectives and dissenting voices before he made tough decisions. This reduced the risk of group think when making consequential decisions like whether and how to launch the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Diversity begat a more fulsome examination of assumptions and options, a richer debate, more innovative response options and ultimately produced better presidential decision making.
Then-Vice President Biden was at that table, too. His commitment to diversity and inclusion stems both from the fact that it is a moral imperative to ensure the doors of our Constitutional democracy are open to every American and from his years witnessing the tremendous value that more diverse teams bring to government and the citizens it serves.
The challenge, if he and Harris win in November, will be fully implementing that commitment given the still too-slow pace of change and, in many cases, the backsliding of the past four years. Some facts to consider:
1. In 2018, 93% of the people running the federal government were white, and 80% of them were men, according to an analysis by Inclusive America.
2. In the State Department, while Black Americans represent 15% of the total workforce, they represent only 7% of the more elite Foreign Service, according to a study by the US Government Accountability Office
3. Similarly, as noted in the Senate bill National Security Diversity and Inclusion Workforce Act of 2019, in the intelligence community, Black Americans, Latinos or Hispanics, Native Americans and Asians, along with other minority groups, represent 25% of employees, but only 13% of the senior positions.
4. Of the 22 people selected for the most senior civilian political positions in the Department of Defense since Secretary of Defense Mark Esper took office, none have been Black and only three have been women
5. Only two of the 41 most senior commanders in the US military are Black. In 1989, Colin Powell became the first black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; it took another 31 years for General Charles Q. Brown to become the first Black service chief in 2020. Thirty-one years!
Enhancing the diversity and thereby enriching the quality of our national security talent pool is clearly an area where a President Biden could dramatically improve the situation by taking a number of critical steps from the outset:
1. Implement his key campaign pledges on diversity and inclusion, including in building his national security team.
2. Ensure that the slate for every national security position has a diverse set of qualified candidates. This will require sourcing talent from a broader array of sources and reaching beyond traditional networks to find candidates.
3. Provide more formal professional development and mentoring opportunities for diverse appointees, and break out of the “mini me” approach that tends to pair mentors predominantly with mentees with similar backgrounds or profiles.
4. Incentivize and streamline diverse hiring and build programs to identify new talent and bring them on board efficiently. For example, in July 2016 the Department of Homeland Security cyber career fair allowed applicants the opportunity to interview for a job, receive a tentative offer and begin the initial security clearance process all in one day. This program enabled new talent to converse with recruiters and demonstrate their aptitude and knowledge in person rather than be limited by traditional methods.
5. Evaluate and reimagine old structures, such as the clearance process, that were not built to consider the more international backgrounds and family ties of a more diverse set of potential candidates.
6. Undertake an assessment of the systemic barriers to diversity and inclusion in every agency that touches on national security and make implementing plans to address these a top priority in the first term of a Biden administration.
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There is much work to be done to build an executive branch and a national security apparatus that harnesses the rich diversity of this nation as a unique source of strength. Every leader in a Biden-Harris administration will need to rise to the challenge of building a staff that reflects the many lived experiences of the American people. The selection of Senator Harris as a vice-presidential candidate offers hope that we as a people can rise to meet this moment, when demands of racial justice echo loudly, to truly start to live up to this country’s greatest ideals – freedom and equality for all. If we succeed, we will be safer and more secure as a nation