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Op-ed: Bringing the national security debate beyond Washington

People listen as President Donald Trump speaks on national security Monday, Dec. 18, 2017, in Washington. Trump says his new national security strategy puts "America First." (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
People listen as President Donald Trump speaks on national security Monday, Dec. 18, 2017, in Washington. Trump says his new national security strategy puts "America First." (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Evan Vucci, Associated Press

Washingtonians who work on national security often pride themselves on how much they know about the world. Many of the nation’s top security experts speak foreign languages and have spent years studying and working overseas. They read international journals, maintain networks of other experts around the world and travel frequently to international conferences. But the one thing those same national security professionals aren’t particularly good at doing is connecting with Americans outside of Washington. While they occasionally travel to their home states to visit family or friends and attend conferences in places like Ohio or Texas, the Washington national security community spends a lot of time talking to itself. This needs to change.

The reasons for Washington’s insularity are multifold. First, not everyone outside of Washington wants to join a discussion on the future of NAFTA or Nagorno-Karabakh. Second, many Washingtonians grew up outside of Washington, which leads them to sometimes falsely conclude that they understand how the rest of the country (or at least one corner of it) thinks. Third, national security jobs often require you to know more about the domestic politics of Germany or China than the United States. The end result has been a growing cadre of national security professionals who are out of touch with how their fellow citizens think about foreign policy.

Never was that more apparent than during the 2016 election. Sure, many in Washington were surprised that the country elected Donald Trump as its 45th president. But what many members of the national security community found more shocking was the way that detractors from both sides of the aisle attacked the bipartisan consensus on the importance of American engagement in the world. National security professionals — myself included — had failed to notice the growing disaffection among our fellow citizens with globalization. We also failed to notice (or refused to acknowledge) the shift in public views towards things like democracy promotion, global trade deals, the NATO alliance and nation building. After joking about the “Washington bubble” for years, Washingtonians have come to appreciate how much truth lies in that analogy.

The question now is what to do about it. Washingtonians on both sides of the aisle continue to debate that very question. Will today’s public sentiments and hesitation about U.S. engagement in the world eventually change course as they have done over countless decades and numerous presidencies? Should Washington try to make a better case for U.S. engagement in the world? Or should Washington keep quiet?

My small bipartisan organization, the Center for a New American Security, has settled on one approach and it starts with getting outside of Washington. Over the course of the next three years, we are going to take small groups of Americans and Europeans to 12 cities across the United States. (None of those cities will be on the East or West coasts.) The project is called “Across the Pond, In the Field.” The goal is simple: to hold discussions and debates on various aspects of U.S. foreign policy and the transatlantic relationship with diverse audiences across America with the hope that we can help close the gap between Washington and the rest of the country. We aren’t coming to town to lecture folks, though. Instead, we want to foster a genuine exchange of ideas that will allow the residents and leaders of those 12 cities to ask the hard questions and challenge some of our longstanding, core assumptions. We’re coming to listen.

Our first stop was Pittsburgh last October. On Jan. 10 and 11, we’ll be traveling to Salt Lake City. We’re hosting a series of public engagements and meetings with business leaders, political and religious leaders, college and high school students, journalists and the general public. We look forward to starting a new conversation and getting outside the Washington bubble. For more information on our program, the Europeans guest we will be bringing along and details on where to find us, visit We look forward to seeing you in Salt Lake City.

Julianne Smith is director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. She previously served as acting national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden.