National Security Education: The View from Newport


Last week saw graduation day at the Naval War College here in Newport, and that makes it a fitting time to reflect on the state of professional military education, or PME. George Mason professor Audrey Kurth Cronin opened the debate earlier in the week with a thoughtful column weighing the relative merits of PME and civilian national-security education before coming down on the side of the latter. Which, she asks, “better prepares future leaders of the United States”?

Let me add a few words from a former naval officer (if there are former naval officers) who has graduated from and taught at both PME and civilian institutions.

To start with, Professor Cronin oversimplifies the make-up of the civilian and PME communities a tad. That’s no big deal for the initiated, but a couple of points are worth teasing out for prospective students weighing which path to pursue. For starters, all civilian institutions aren’t created equal. Indeed, there is a deep cultural divide within the international relations (IR) field, of which national and international security programs constitute a subset.

Broadly speaking, there are professional schools of international relations and there are traditional university IR (or sometimes political science) departments. The former are practical-minded schools such as my alma mater, the Fletcher School at Tufts, or the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, or the Sam Nunn School at Georgia Tech. They’re the closest counterparts to PME institutions. These policy-oriented institutions aim to help practitioners execute their duties in professional life.

And then there are university IR departments, where scholars concentrate overwhelmingly on IR theory, try to use (mostly) quantitative methods to determine laws governing international politics, and so forth. Here’s a rough-and-ready way to differentiate between the professional schools and university departments. Professional schools see theory as an implement for future decision-making, university departments as an implement for analyzing what already happened. The one method is prescriptive, the other descriptive.

Theory for professional schools is prescriptive. It’s a toolkit the practitioner uses to analyze tough problems he encounters in the bare-knuckles world of politics and strategy. Theory for university departments is largely descriptive. It’s a tool to appraise the nature of nation states, the structure and dynamics of the international system, and the like. It supplies context.

If we wanted to put a face on professional school IR theory, it might be that of martial sage Carl von Clausewitz. The face of IR departments might be that of Ken Waltz, the grand master of realism. Clausewitz helps statesmen and soldiers wage power politics and war better, while Waltz gazes back across history, posits rules governing how states interact, and attempts to glimpse the future.

This may sound like a trivial difference, but it represents a major disparity between worldviews. As you can imagine, large contingents of military fellows are found at the Kennedy Schools of the academic world, whereas your standard university department mainly rears future scholars and teachers of international relations. Bottom line, it’s fair to compare PME schools with professional IR schools, but not so much with, say, the University of Michigan Department of Political Science.

Next, while she does admit there’s variety within PME, Cronin goes on to conflate PME as a whole with the National Defense University. It misleads to conclude that the travails NDU is suffering through with U.S. Army leadership—curriculum, hiring and firing, and so forth—span our community. In fact, the PME community is stovepiped. Each schoolhouse has its own culture. I wouldn’t presume, for example, to speak for those fine young cannibals down at the Army War College or Air War College, let alone for NDU.

Fragmentation is a good thing from my selfish standpoint. Cronin claims that the U.S. military keeps central control of curriculum because it assumes that “the higher your rank, the greater your wisdom.” Yet neither Big Navy nor the Naval War College leadership sees much need to micromanage our curriculum, from what I have seen. While a two-star admiral heads up the Naval War College, civilian academics such as yours truly develop and refine two of the three core courses within the broad mandates set forth by our accrediting bodies, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. These mandates aren’t straitjackets, I can assure you.

Nor is the college leadership meddlesome in curricular matters. If anything, it’s deferential. Why the difference between Newport and what Cronin relates? Part of it is geographic. Because it lies so far outside the Beltway, the Naval War College is a beneficiary of benign neglect from the Pentagon and Big Navy. I’m begging you, folks: keep neglecting us!

And part of it, again, is cultural. The Naval War College is the oldest institution of its type on God’s green earth. The likes of Stephen B. Luce, Alfred Thayer Mahan, W. S. Sims, and Raymond A. Spruance have walked its halls and classrooms. It’s the place where, according to Admiral Chester Nimitz, the entire course of the Pacific War was mapped out (except for the kamikaze). That’s a legacy worth preserving. Outsiders, and officers assigned to NWC, think twice before trifling with the traditional agenda-setter for professional military education. And so they should.

So bear in mind the variety within each realm when bouncing “civilian academe” against “PME.” I suppose my user’s manual for national-security education would be longer and more cumbersome than Professor Cronin’s (which would make it far longer than the WOTR word limit). But having quibbled with her for 800-odd words, I find myself arriving at the same destination. After starting out asking which sector of the academy does a better job educating “America’s leaders,” Cronin tacitly narrows the question to which sector does a better job educating civilian national-security professionals. As she says, professional IR schools do.

Part of that is sheer bulk. More coursework opens up new vistas. The one-year master’s at the Naval War College is a fire hose of strategic theory, military history, IR concepts, and joint military planning. By contrast, the standard MA—the degree, say, an entry-level foreign-service officer would take at a Johns Hopkins’ SAIS or similar professional IR school—is a two-year degree.

Admittedly, many mid-career professionals take abbreviated one-year master degrees. It’s hard for movers and shakers to take off more than a year for study. Taken as a group, nevertheless, civilian officials get more classroom time on professional school campuses than they would in PME. My experience is typical. I had time to study arcane topics like historical jurisprudence and political geography, simply because I had four semesters at Fletcher (plus a fifth in the Ph.D. program). Double the time, double the fun.

The other obvious advantage for civilian academe is demographics. There’s a critical mass of aspiring civilian officials on a professional school campus that you would never find at Newport, Carlisle, or Maxwell. Roughly speaking, one U.S. government civilian is assigned to each 12-person Naval War College seminar. That State Department or Homeland Security perspective enriches classroom debates immensely. Those folks make great colleagues as well.

One non-military voice is far better than nothing, but it’s still only one voice among many military voices. The martial viewpoint predominates if every student holds forth in class in equal measure. The proportions of a professional school class, by contrast, are far more balanced, classroom discussions less armed force-centric. Current or would-be civilian officials are less apt to come off feeling like the poor relations to their military brethren. Everyone benefits from the interplay of perspectives.

How do we improve the graduate-school experience for all of our students, military and civilian? Well, a confederation of PME institutions and nearby professional IR schools would foster more balanced interactions than take place under the current stovepiped system. Some informal relationships exist already, for instance between the Naval War College and the Fletcher School or the Naval War College and Yale University. Rather than informal and sporadic, why not make such arrangements formal, regular, and robust?


James Holmes is Professor of Strategy at the Naval War College, a 1994 graduate of NWC, and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific, just out in Mandarin through the China Academy of Social Sciences. The views voiced here are his alone.


Photo credit: Naval War College