A Solarium for Presidential Transition Teams

October 1, 2020
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In the next 100 days, America will go through a transition. Regardless of who wins the U.S. presidential election, thousands of political operatives, pundits, think tankers, and other court whisperers will start staffing the next administration. The transition teams that orchestrate the process would benefit from a strategic assessment exercise that helps them visualize, describe, and direct future policy in a changing world. As practitioners and academics, we see the 1953 and 2020 Solarium events as blueprint for such an exercise. While neither event was originally intended to support a transition team, they illustrate the utility of competitive strategy exercises. In particular, the 2020 Solarium event illustrates the benefits of using diverse, future-oriented scenarios to compare policy alternatives. Below, we outline the historical and analytical rationale.

The Problem: The Transition Blind Spot

Every four years, Washington goes through a transition that affects strategy as well as the continuity and consistency of foreign policy. Regardless of which candidate wins the presidential election, there will be a leadership transition. If a president is reelected, on average, 43 percent of senior officials leave during the beginning of a second term. If the opposition party wins the White House, 4,000 appointees will change over. The ranks will include a mix of presidential appointments that require Senate confirmation, non-career Senior Executive Service employees, and Schedule C appointments. The dirty secret is that Washington is run by rotating bands of exiles migrating between public office and think tanks, private sector positions, and perpetual campaigns.



Traditionally, the 100 days before and after an election constitute the transition window. During this time, pundits — the aforementioned bands of exiles — ply transition planning teams with white papers, opinion pieces, interviews, and meetings to advance new issues. Amplified by social media, this onslaught of analysis, regardless of its validity, creates a cacophony that adds to the challenge of leadership turnover.

Beyond the white noise of Washington and administrative churn that goes with changing leaders, these transitions can create a dangerous gap in strategic assessments. In military terms, transitions should include time for new teams to visualize, describe, and direct the policy process. Instead, the transition team is often pulled to the more granular, immediate task of filling positions rather than defining the broader strategic environment, to include major domestic policy concerns, which is likely to present challenges over the next four years.

The complexity of 21st-century threats compounds the problem. From cyber operations to trade disputes, migration, environmental disasters, and pandemics, national security challenges no longer just involve traditional diplomatic and military concerns. Foreign and domestic policy portfolios intersect. It is not enough to meet allies, analyze the correlation of military forces with rivals, and build a national security team. Nothing is “just as I left it four or eight years ago.” Transition teams need to create forums with scenarios to visualize and describe the interaction between their policy concerns and the broader trends shaping domestic politics and international security. These scenarios should include likely challenges such as terrorism, state failure, public health issues, and economic shocks, as well as low-probability, high-impact events like a protracted great-power conflict or nuclear exchange. Transition teams need to showcase a range of probable as well as possible alternate futures to leaders.

Seeing the Future Through the Solarium

We propose that the transition team adopt a Solarium model for conducting a comprehensive strategic assessment in November 2020. The blueprints for such an effort are the original 1953 Project Solarium and the more recent 2020 U.S. Cyberspace Solarium Commission.

During the original Solarium, President Dwight Eisenhower had three task forces explore alternative strategies for managing long-term competition with the Soviet Union. These strategies varied from rolling back Soviet power and territorial occupation to containing Soviet competition to Europe and minimizing the risk of a broader conflict. The process involved a structured dialogue assessing the relative strengths and weaknesses of each task force. This assessment shaped the strategy captured in NSC 162/2. The approach sought to contain the Soviet Union, a foreign policy objective balanced with concerns about long-term economic costs and overly militarizing U.S. society.

As a model for visualizing, describing, and directing the policy process, Project Solarium illustrates key features that serve as a guide for organizing strategic assessments. First, the process involved divergent approaches. Eisenhower and his team used top officers and staff to develop distinct alternative approaches, as outlined by a May 1953 memorandum drafted by Robert Cutler, the assistant to the president for national security — and an appointee. Second, the process was based on structured deliberation. Key staff members could evaluate and comment on the different approaches for the president. Third, the president ensured that domestic policy concerns and challenges were reflected in the deliberations.

The process, though, was not without its shortcuts. First, it relied on common intelligence estimates, as opposed to exploring a wider range of possible events. Each team used National Intelligence Estimate-65, a CIA estimate of Soviet capabilities used through 1957. Though domestic economic concerns and global alliance considerations were key features of Project Solarium, this focus tended to reinforce seeing strategy predominantly in terms of military competition and political warfare. Furthermore, as a consensus estimate, it did not extensively analyze shock events or how complex systems fail. There were no black swans, gray rhinos, or pink flamingos. This limitation was a function of time. In 1953, complex systems thinking, nonlinear notions about uncertainty, and stress-testing methods for analyzing fragility and tail risks were not concepts in circulation.

In 2019 and 2020, the U.S. Cyberspace Solarium Commission adapted the Solarium model with these limitations in mind. Like the original effort, captured in Cutler’s memorandum referenced above, the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act outlined the three strategic alternatives and principle objectives. These included active disruption, defend forward-based, denial-based, and norms-based approaches. Unlike in the original effort, the core research team strove to keep the effort unclassified, diverse, and divergent. The team solicited papers from academics on key issues associated with ideas like the strategic viability of the persistent engagement concept, defend forward, the vulnerability equities process, deterrence, and role of norms in cyberspace. These studies were balanced with unclassified intelligence reporting and interviews with a wide range of private sector actors linked to cyber security, critical infrastructure, and key industries. The team also integrated external research efforts using wargames and experimental surveys, as well as alternative futures exercises.

This research helped the team visualize possible futures. By looking across the intelligence estimates, numerous academic studies, and interviews with over 400 industry, governmental, and academic experts, the research team identified shock events that captured the global, connected character of future cyber crises. Based on this corpus, the research team developed two scenarios that captured possible threats on the horizon, friction points in public-private interaction in cyberspace, and a range of international and domestic concerns almost certain to complicate future policy. The scenarios forced the teams to address issues associated with continuity of the economy and building security into networks. They helped the teams clarify how to engage diplomacy, legal regimes, and norms to make it harder for actors to build illicit infrastructure for conducting criminal and espionage campaigns.

During the closed session Solarium event, each task force outlined how their strategic approach would do three things in relation to the crisis scenario. First, they explained how their strategic approach would help prevent the malicious use of cyber networks outlined in the scenario. Second, they briefed the types of response options that it generated for decision-makers in the crisis. Third, they outlined how their approach helped the government as well as the private sector mitigate the consequences of a series of cascading events linked to the scenario. This format, unlike the original Solarium, decomposed policy responses into preventive, responsive, and resilient dimensions and helped the commission analyze tradeoffs. To further assist the commissioners in evaluating each strategic approach, a red team of experts in cyber security, finance, energy, and national security cross-examined the task forces. After the cross-examination, commissioners scored the recommendations offered by each task force. This scoring then guided the research team in establishing policy priorities and developing an overarching strategic approach: layered cyber deterrence.

In the end, the process resulted in 22 legislative proposals in House Bill 6395 and 17 in Senate Bill 4049. Given that the legislation is tied to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021, one of the last bastions of bipartisan legislation, it is likely to pass. This output is unprecedented for a congressional commission and would not have been possible without the Solarium event.

Transition teams would benefit from a strategic assessment exercise similar to the Solarium model highlighted above. Four attributes will be critical. First, it should be neutral and objective. There should be a clear division of labor between policy priorities and the strategic scenarios used to stress-test them. The policy makers on the transition team should develop two to three different policy portfolios that rank-order their preferences. Creating these different portfolios will help identify priorities and key tradeoffs. Separately, there should be a separate, neutral group brought in to develop at least three different scenarios that reflect a range of cross-cutting issues that could emerge in the next four years.

These scenarios should be informed by likely national security, economic, and domestic policy challenges as well as a wide range of shock events. For example, one scenario could be the possibility of the pandemic lasting longer than originally forecast and taking a toll on global trade, job growth, and the value of the dollar. This scenario would include excursions that highlight how states like Russia and Iran could take advantage of this situation, as well as how the pandemic could create additional vectors for domestic unrest. A second scenario could look at the fragility of authoritarian regimes and what happens if there is a new wave of color revolutions, a second Arab Spring ripples through the Middle East, and Hong Kong protests spill over into the mainland. In contrast, a third scenario could look at a global Cold War, with a more aggressive coalition of authoritarian regimes led by China converting economic investments to military access and covert action designed to topple regimes aligned with the United States and its allies. This scenario would include increased competition not just over resource-rich and key geographic areas, but also an escalating diplomatic war over technology standards for 5G, the Internet of Things, and AI that will drive the 21st-century economy.

In other words, the scenario would help the transition team describe how the West confront the rising tide of digital authoritarianism? How will the administration address the ways in which prized technology companies inadvertently create an environment conducive to conspiracy theories, fake news, and flash mobs? Collectively, the scenarios used for the transition assessment should map different shock events that could alter international relations, domestic politics, and economic growth trends.

Second, the effort should use a red team combining former officials from both parties, as well as prominent thinkers from academia, the private sector, and nonprofits. Like the 2020 Solarium effort, the role of the red team should be to cross-examine the logic of each policy portfolio. The team could conduct cross-impact analysis and see how, in the previous example, shifting money from national defense to public health affects great-power competition. The red team could also conduct a pre-mortem for major policies, mapping out potential ways they fail in each scenario. For example, if a transition team moved to adopt a tougher line on China that included economic incentives to onshore, how could the host of policies associated with this posture backfire?

Third, the strategic assessment exercise should be unclassified, but closed, allowing the transition team to have frank conversations about how possible shock events could lead to new policy dilemmas. A democracy requires a vibrant marketplace of ideas. To the greatest extent possible, key members of Congress should be invited to select sessions to encourage a better working relationship. The nation cannot afford further polarization. Off-the-record forums where elected officials and transition teams discuss alternative futures create a common understanding that could encourage future dialogue and collaboration. Yes, the political divide will still be sharp, but having a shared experience discussing difficult issues increases the likelihood of finding common ground. In the ideal case, the transition team agrees to publish the scenarios at a future date for the historical record and to encourage debate.

Fourth, the effort needs leadership buy-in. Even if busy candidates cannot attend the event in person, they need to hear the results from trusted advisers who participated. Strategic assessment exercises, like war games, benefit from leadership involvement. That does not mean that leaders have to be there for the entire event, but it does mean that they help define the range of issues under consideration and hear the results.

The Risk of Waiting

The upcoming presidential transition has the potential to be unprecedented. In all likelihood, there will be delays and concerns over the validity, regardless of who wins, and lingering court cases. This uncertainty makes conducting a strategic assessment exercise all the more important. Transition teams from both parties should hold these exercises now and engage in cross-cutting dialogue based on the results to facilitate an orderly transition. Visualizing and describing how policy preferences interact with future scenarios will help the transition teams develop strategic approaches, establish priorities, and navigate a politically cold winter.

A Solarium event is a low-cost, low-risk way to support a difficult transition. Gaming out strategies before taking office is always more appealing than building a plan impromptu. This structured, strategic assessment needs to transcend the traditional approach to planning-by-briefing that tends to be predominant. Transition teams need to get the right people in the room, ask the difficult questions, and unearth challenges and opportunities early on. That also requires having facilitators with experience designing Solarium-like forums.



Benjamin Jensen holds a dual appointment as a professor at the School of Advanced Warfighting, Marine Corps University and scholar in residence at American University, School of International Service. He is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He served as the senior research director and lead author for the Cyberspace Solarium Commission. The views expressed are his own and not official policy.

Mark Montgomery is the executive director of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission. Prior to this assignment he was the policy director for the Senate Armed Services Committee. He served in the U.S. Navy for 32 years retiring as a rear admiral in 2017.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps (Photo by Staff Sgt. Mark Fayloga)