Investing in the Next Generation of National Security Leaders

December 4, 2015

This past Monday, Michèle Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense for policy and CEO of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), spoke on a panel co-sponsored by the Aspen Institute and the Franklin Project about the importance of getting young people involved in national service. Gen. Stan McChrystal, who also spoke on the panel, co-founded the Franklin Project with the goal of giving every American young person the opportunity to do a service year — that is, a year of (barely) paid service to communities in need in organizations such as AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps, Teach for America, or the more traditional service option of enlisting. Also on the panel was Congressmen Seth Moulton, a two-tour Iraq vet who happens to be one of the youngest members of Congress, and another staunch proponent of national service.

Why are national security leaders like Flournoy, McChrystal, and Moulton so passionate about young people and community service?

“There is a certain hunger to do something differently,” Flournoy said. She was speaking of millennials’ views on national service, as well as the importance of engaging young people and channeling their desire to be more deeply involved in leading and serving their communities. These and other national security leaders believe that volunteerism — and the heightened sense of citizenship it instills — contributes to resilience, the characteristic societies need to be competitive, and more importantly, to bounce back from a crisis. In addition to supporting the Franklin Project’s efforts with students, Flournoy and CNAS are doing their part to help develop that next generation by investing in young professionals and their leadership development.

Over the past year we had the privilege of benefiting directly from that commitment by being given the opportunity to serve as fellows in CNAS Next Generation National Security Leaders Program. We were joined by young leaders from across the political spectrum and a broad cross-section of fields important to national security, including government agencies, the military, academia, media, and the private sector, to serve in a year-long non-residential fellowship with the think tank.

Small monthly dinners provided an unparalleled opportunity for candid dialogue with luminaries such as Gen. McChrystal, along with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Adm. Mike Mullen and many others. We all seek to learn from the experiences, achievements, and missteps of those who came before — most of which play out very publicly on the world stage — but the intimate setting of the CNAS NextGen dinners allowed us to look deeper into the “behind-the-scenes” maneuvering that’s really necessary to turn the gears of official Washington. Our group asked these leaders provocative questions about moral obligations to dissent to the president; tough questions about the challenges of leading teams; technical questions about obscure legislative and budgetary processes; and perhaps most insightful, deeply personal questions about issues such as raising a family while trying to accelerate a foreign policy career, or about coping with the emotional toll of these high-stress security positions.

These discussions develop a different kind of resilience in the next generation that is no less critical: In the past, many leaders found themselves grappling with these questions once they step into a role, or if they’re lucky, with the help or a good mentor or two. CNAS has — for five years now — been operating this program to offer a loosely structured series of such opportunities that afford fellows an overview of the key people and institutions that shape Washington decision-making and the lives of the women and men who occupy those roles.

For us, however, what has been even more valuable than the opportunities to engage the household names has been the chance for fellows to get to know and learn from each other. Two weeks ago we returned from a weeklong delegation to Taiwan, where we met with the country’s president and over a dozen senior officials and experts. Apart from the incomparable access and immersive educational experience the trip afforded, spending 15 hours per day for a week with the other fellows gave us the chance to bond with them in a way we never could inside the Beltway. As we continue our own careers of service, these relationships and insights will prove invaluable, both professionally and personally.

Leadership development programs like the one at CNAS provide an invaluable service to our generation as we work to serve our nation. It facilitates lasting connections between us, provides a forum to not only talk about national security issues of the day, but the tough issues of how to be an effective leader. Thanks to the program, as we each pursue our desire to serve, we are armed with the lessons, advice, and approaches of those who have been there before us, and with a powerful panoply of supporters we can call upon when we need to jumpstart an interagency negotiation.


CNAS is accepting applications for the 2016 Fellowship through December 10, 2015. For more information about the program, please see


Scott Cheney-Peters is the founder of the Center for International Maritime Security and a Reservist in the U.S. Navy. Joshua Marcuse is the chairman of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and is on the Leadership Council of the Franklin Project.


Photo credit: Conal Gallagher