The quiet mastermind: how Brent Scowcroft redefined the art of Grand Strategy

The late US national security adviser possessed a philosophy of government from which we could learn. 

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Brent Scowcroft, who died on 6 August aged 95, was the only person to be national security adviser to two American presidents: Gerald Ford (1975-77) and George HW Bush (1989-93).

Most people in Britain will have never heard of Scowcroft, and he would have liked it that way.  He was never a “big beast”, a dominant – and dominating – figure such as Henry Kissinger; it just wasn’t his style. He was a humble man better known for falling asleep at summit meetings than for cultivating a public profile.

But through his role in fashioning the US-led world order from the 1970s, Scowcroft had an outsized influence on all of our lives, even if we’re not aware of it, or indeed of him.

Scowcroft was a personal friend and I have a happy memory of him from the 1990s, when he joined my husband, the diplomat and foreign policy adviser Charles Powell, and I for lunch at our home in London. We wanted to watch the Clinton impeachment on television as did our other guest Paul Johnson, editor of the New Statesman in the 1960s.

Unfortunately, the main television set stopped working; we adjourned to my bedroom and the four of us lay spread-eagled on the bed to watch. Scowcroft remarked that it gave a whole new meaning to the “special relationship”.

Scowcroft had many talents and achievements: air force pilot, fluent Serbo-Croat speaker, organiser of Richard Nixon’s and Kissinger’s visit to Beijing in 1972, and of the American withdrawal from Vietnam a year later. He also helped manage the peaceful end of the Cold War, and the ejection of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in the first Gulf War in 1991.

Less visible to the public, Scowcroft also possessed a philosophy of government from which we could learn. The core of this emerged in a remarkable interview Scowcroft gave for the Miller Center at the University of Virginia in 2000, which he insisted should only be published after his death.

His approach was partly a matter of conduct. He believed the two most important qualities anyone could bring to office were integrity and competence. The public interest, not partisan political advantage, should guide policy.

Decisions should be reached after the right questions had been asked and rigorously debated. Advisers should not worry about their reputation or career prospects in tendering their advice. They should tell politicians what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. 

But Scowcroft’s thinking went beyond notions of style, and encompassed wider ideas of institutional reform. 

Bringing outsiders into government is normal practice in the US, and is increasingly favoured in the UK. But in Britain we seem to have a different definition of what makes the right sort of outsider. Scowcroft hired people for their outstanding expertise, such as Robert Gates (US secretary of defence between 2006 and 2011) and Condoleezza Rice (national security adviser and secretary of state between 2001 and 2009). In Whitehall, ideology and party loyalty count for more than integrity and expertise.

Scowcroft sought out candidates with people skills who could work with cabinet officials to prevent them from operating in silos, and instead share information across government departments. Judging by what we read about today’s Downing Street, bullying skills seem more in demand than gentler, more artful forms of persuasion.

Another of Scowcroft’s maxims was that the central team of officials and advisers could be made more effective by reducing its size rather than increasing the number of people involved in strategic affairs. He thought you got more impact by working with the grain of the wider government rather than trying to override it from the centre. 

Scowcroft tried hard to keep out of the media headlights. If you want to be credited with being the hidden hand of government then it’s best to remain… hidden. He regarded leaking as treachery. It was one of the few things which made him really angry. 

I am not sure how Scowcroft would have handled introducing modern techniques such as big data analysis and science into government affairs, though he would surely have shared the objective of better and faster analysis underpinning policymaking. He was notoriously bad with technology and struggled with modern devices. My husband recalls Scowcroft waxing lyrical to him in the 1980s about a (then) new JSTARS military reconnaissance and surveillance system. When Charles asked him to explain what it actually was, Scowcroft had no idea. 

In his posthumously published interview, Scowcroft regrets not having pushed harder for the integration of the National Security Council with the Office of Management and Budget, bringing together diplomatic and economic strategy-making in a single organisation. Whitehall is moving in the same direction by creating a Cabinet Office that has essentially become the prime minister’s own department.

If Scowcroft were managing such a project, it would be done behind the scenes, and presented as someone else’s idea – probably the cabinet secretary’s. And he would ensure that the numbers of staff would be small, so it wouldn’t look like political centralisation. 

For Scowcroft, to be radical you don’t have to break things and shout from the rooftop. Being nice and avoiding credit gets you a lot further. 

This article appears in the 28 August 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Covid

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