Mixing Theory and Practice on Defense Policy

A relative newcomer on the Beltway scene, Missouri State's defense and strategic studies program attracts aspiring policy wonks (and hawks).
August 8, 2007

In a class about United Nations regulations on the laws of war, the discussion turned inevitably to Star Trek.

When the U.N. authorizes sanctions against a particular nation, said Ilan Berman, the professor, the institution acts much like the Borg -- in the show's universe, a mechanized force of cyborg mercenaries bent on assimilating all of mankind. The analogy was lost on most of the class, but Berman drove the point home for those who didn't regularly tune in to syndicated science fiction programs in the early 1990s: Each member nation must act as part of the collective.

The lecture, peppered as it was with the occasional pop culture reference, covered a lot of ground, from the U.S. national security strategy to the justifications for nations' use of force. The students in the class -- five were present on a Monday night in July for the elective -- come from a range of backgrounds, several of them working full-time, but all in the program with an eye toward defense policy, whether in the government, consulting or think tanks.

In Washington, those are hardly unorthodox goals. Programs in defense or security studies churn out students every year in the nation's capital, from well-known and respected institutions such as Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, and also outside the Beltway at places like Harvard (Kennedy) and Princeton (Wilson). The students in Berman's class, tucked in a conference room on the seventh floor of a corporate office building in Fairfax, Va., are part of a relatively new experiment: What if a state school in Springfield, Mo., operated a satellite campus alongside the established players in defense studies?

So far, enrollments have been growing each year since the unit opened shop in 2005 within commuting distance from the city, sandwiched between a rapidly developing apartment complex and an office park. The Department of Defense and Strategic Studies, a part of Missouri State University, caters to students who want to break into Beltway defense circles with a public university price tag and the advantages of a more practical approach. In doing so, it offers a two-year M.S. degree that requires both coursework and internships.

Having access to actual practitioners in the classroom means, in this case, connections to defense and foreign policy officials in the government. As with others like it, the program has had a long revolving-doors tradition, starting from its original incarnation in the early 1970s at the University of Southern California, where it was founded by a former defense official who served on the SALT I delegation, William R. Van Cleave, and partially funded by the free-market Earhart Foundation. But unlike at similar departments elsewhere, Missouri State's full-time faculty of three and its nine affiliated lecturers tend to come mainly from positions in Republican administrations and conservative-leaning institutions.

"Particularly after service in the Defense Department, and having experienced the highly abstract and theoretical pedagogical approaches that prevailed academically at the time, I was determined to make DSS a policy oriented field," Van Cleave said via e-mail, focusing on the "real world and not models of what the world should be, real threat analysis; the realities of arms control as distinct from the wishful thinking of arms control."

Van Cleave, now an emeritus professor, was part of a contingent of Cold War-era thinkers who opposed détente with the Soviet Union through scholarship, positions in the government and activism in groups such as the Committee on the Present Danger. "Without being political, one can see ... that fellow academics would regard both the very topic and the way I taught it [at USC] as politically 'conservative' and 'hard line'," he said. "But it was not a partisan political program. When research and analysis led to criticism, even severe, of national security policies and actions, there was no distinction between [the political parties]."

The program's hawkish reputation on campus and others' reactions to it eventually led Van Cleave to move it to Missouri, where he grew up, he said. The international relations faculty at USC "steadily became homogeneous politically and pedagogically, and nearly uniformly hostile [to the program]. A faculty of some 18 could not tolerate a single 'conservative' national security program," according to Van Cleave, who subsequently set up shop at what was then Southwest Missouri State University.

Professors at USC who were in the School of International Relations at the time say the situation was more complex. Steven Lamy, a vice dean in charge of the Office of Undergraduate Programs at the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences who was an assistant professor of international relations as Van Cleave moved to take his program elsewhere, said the dispute likely had more to do with curricular changes and a desire for independence than any ideological clashes. "I think it had more to do with autonomy and the constraints that were being imposed by the department and also by the university" on Van Cleave, he said.

As the school was moving toward regularizing its curriculum, he said, Van Cleave was pushing instead for his own department to pursue his field and his approach to it. "I think it was an issue of how the university looked at things, and I don’t think it had to do with ideology or politics from my perspective," Lamy said, noting that USC's board of trustees was hardly a bastion of liberalism at the time. Others who observed the growing tensions between Van Cleave and the school suggested that while the faculty's orientation was indeed moving away from its more conservative roots, he was not forced to leave but was instead frustrated with obstacles to gaining more free rein in hiring and determining his program's approach.

In any case, as the swashbuckling interplanetary interventionism of the early Star Trek gave way to a New Age internationalism in its late-1980s incarnation, Van Cleave took the program back home.

It continued on in Springfield, a defense policy program in middle America, but administrators eventually found that students were limited in the internship opportunities available to them. That was one factor in moving to the D.C. area, said Lorene Stone, dean of Missouri State's College of Humanities and Public Affairs, to "move closer to where the action is, so to speak."

The strategy seems to have worked: Stone said the enrollment has reached its pre-D.C. level of around 50, and the intent is to keep it "small and selective." The program's rich network of alumni, spanning the USC and Missouri years, has also helped graduates find jobs in the defense industry, policy circles and the government (and for some, even the dreaded academe). And price-wise, it remains competitive, with students from Missouri paying in-state tuition. Partially for that reason, the program isn't a moneymaker for the university; it supports itself autonomously.

(For full-time students, the price difference is stark: around $20,150, or $13,250 for Missouri residents, for the entire two-year program, as compared with at least $32,900 per year at SAIS, and more than that at Georgetown.)

Van Cleave remains in Missouri and has left the operation of the department to its current dean. Keith Payne, who for a time served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for forces policy in the Bush administration, also co-founded the National Institute for Public Policy, a hawkish think tank located in the adjacent suite to the Missouri State program in Virginia. Still, he said, he is aware of the fact that his students need to be prepared to work under any administration -- Republican or Democratic. "No one should want to train students just from one particular perspective," he said. "The intention is to provide a range of approaches and consciously to do so, because the students need to know that and have that as they go into positions."

Brian Miller, a lobbyist who is just starting work on his graduate degree this summer, said there were a variety of viewpoints among the students themselves. "At this point, people have chosen a graduate field that they’d like to go into, so I would presume [most students are] coming in with their own views that aren’t necessarily going to be changed drastically by a professor or even other minds in the class. ... They’re pretty capable of defending their own views," he said. "You couldn’t have a better situation in terms of debate in the class, because there are certainly people ... who are vehemently against what the president is doing," he added, "which lends itself to some pretty good discussion in the class."

Miller, who graduated from Hamilton College as an undergraduate, said he was looking for a program that provided a pragmatic approach to defense studies. "In my personal view, academia can feed you a lot of the principles and frame the issues for you, but it’s the practical application that you want to use the education for, ultimately." He said both cost -- not having to take out additional loans -- and the flexibility and size of the classes ultimately attracted him to the department.

Berman, who taught the International Law and Global Security seminar that Monday night, is the kind of professor Miller was looking for: someone at the intersection of policy studies and its application. He holds a law degree and a master's in international politics; he has taught at American University and the National Defense University, consulted on counterterrorism and currently works at the American Foreign Policy Council, a small think tank that emphasizes threats from Iran and other nations.

"As a professor, one of the things I really look for is the 'aha' moment. Here, it happens much more often. That tends to happen much more with motivated people and people who are very career-driven than people who are taking it to fulfill a requirement," Berman said. "I think the strengh of smaller schools is they’re more agile, they can be really responsive. Students interested in counterintelligence didn’t get a lot of guidance at other institutions -- they picked here for a reason."

The element of self-selection -- thanks to a combination of price, approach and flexibility -- was suggested by both students and Payne, and one side effect has been the department's relative isolation from the other major programs in the D.C. area. Thomas A. Keaney, the acting director of the Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at SAIS, for example, said he knew nothing about the Missouri State program's rigor or faculty.

That Monday night, one of those "aha" moments was gestating as Berman synthesized the threads of his lecture and applied it to the past three presidencies: the restrictionism of George H.W. Bush, the "higher calling" interventionism of Bill Clinton and the foreign-policy maximalism of George W. Bush. A student asked which was the preferred approach.

Berman replied with a quick grin: "My job’s not to tell you which one is right or wrong."


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top