Best Defense

Diversity: Our national-security advantage

By Joe Funderburke Best Defense guest columnist It is a matter of fact that Caucasian-American males have always dominated the national-security profession. It is also a matter of fact that our country has done relatively well under those conditions, so why would anyone advocate for more diversity in the profession? Recently, in a discussion forum ...

By Joe Funderburke

Best Defense guest columnist

It is a matter of fact that Caucasian-American males have always dominated the national-security profession. It is also a matter of fact that our country has done relatively well under those conditions, so why would anyone advocate for more diversity in the profession?

Recently, in a discussion forum consisting of roughly 500 relevant thought-leaders on national-security topics, someone asked, “Why are there so few African-Americans in the national-security profession?” The responses were as plentiful as they were varied.

Although I am one of the few African-American members of this forum, I deliberated how to respond for a couple of reasons. First, there was likely some truth in each of their responses. Second, and most importantly, I am not sure the focus ought to be on the lack of African-Americans. The national-security profession lacks diversity of all kinds. Despite the modest collection of African-Americans, women, and people of different racial, cultural and ethnic backgrounds currently in the profession, their numbers are not the representative sample found in other professional fields.

The military continues to be one of the greatest sources of diversity, specifically for African-Americans. However, African-American officers are not choosing to pursue careers in national security beyond their military service. Moreover, as some of the most experienced and bona fide national-security experts while in uniform, they are not participating in open or closed forums focused on national-security issues despite having the credentials to do so. It is my experience that some senior active-duty African-American officers are skeptical of joining such groups without first being convinced by someone they absolutely trusted that it is a risk worth taking. Many of them may feel that there are unspoken rules at their professional level that are not applied equally, therefore they are hesitant to do anything that maybe construed as questionable or draw unnecessary attention to themselves or the Army, thus calling into question their judgment.

As a default, African-American officers are overly cautious about the decisions they make to do something different from the African-Americans officers that successfully preceded them and circumspect of anyone that may propose such an idea. Some have conveyed to me that they have worked too hard to get to where they are to do something different that may jeopardize their livelihood. For them, it is just not worth the risk. If this sounds irrational, it may be, but I presume experiences early in life and throughout their careers may have generated some irrational thought. If this is how some African-American officers feel, it is likely that some women and people in other minority groups feel them same way too, which makes achieving diversity more difficult, but not impossible.

Another possible reason the national-security profession has not diversified on its own is because there is no incentive to do so. Our national-security apparatus remains on solid ground despite the lack of diversity. Perhaps it gives us a false sense of security and a Pollyanna view that there is little to improve in our foreign and defense policies. If this is true, all Americans should be concerned. Those that wish to do harm to the United States and its citizens do not care if you are a man, woman, black, white, gay, straight, ethnic, or of cultural and religious heritage. They want to do harm to you because you are an American. If our enemies find our diversity insignificant, let’s use that to our advantage.

Diversity creates a synergy of different perspectives. This is particularly useful when trying to find solutions to perplexing and wicked problems such as the ones the national-security profession encounters daily. To get more diversity in the profession, everyone in the field, regardless of their backgrounds, should go out and recruit qualified candidates. It can be done as long as those doing the seeking and recruiting are able to suppress the sociological tendency to recruit someone of similar gender, race, background, culture, and ethnicity. When they find a qualified candidate, gain their trust. Demonstrate through action that the organization values them as a professional first and foremost. Show them that they will have an equal opportunity to succeed in the organization. When their performance warrants it, reward them in the same way others are rewarded for the same level of contribution.

Diversity can give us an asymmetric advantage if we leverage it. This is not a call for quotas or other discriminatory personnel practices. This is a call for trailblazers, the kind that help the profession, their respective communities, and the United States of America. Trailblazers have to trust that they will receive fair treatment. After that, at least three things are guaranteed to happen. First, trailblazers will inspire others like them enter the profession. Second, the organizational culture will change to one that is more tolerant of diversity of all kinds. Lastly, leaders in the organization will become more inclined to recruit and mentor diversity. These are the first steps in setting the conditions where the only things that matter are the ideas, and in a profession that routinely grapples with complex national-security and foreign-policy issues, we want the best ideas.

Joe Funderburke is pursuing a Ph.D. in security studies at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, FL. He is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army and member of the Advanced Strategic Planning and Policy Program within the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the Department of the Army, the Combined Arms Center, the School of Advanced Military Studies, or the University of Central Florida.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1

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