On a warm spring morning when sunshine by the bucketful is
spilling across the Homewood campus and anyone who can has gone
outside, a group of senior military leaders is hunkered down in
the darkened recesses of Arellano Theater, considering the fate
At the front of the room, Eliot Cohen paces before the podium as he throws out ideas that are projected on a giant screen behind him. It bathes the room in bluish light, casting the speaker and his audience in a cool ethereal glow.
A professor of strategic studies in the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Cohen wants his audience to consider how various past world empires have thought about their military strategies. Today he discusses three examples: democratic Athens in the fifth century B.C., Rome in the second century A.D., and 19th-century Britain.
"What I want to ask today is whether there are lessons to be learned for how to configure the American military world presence," Cohen says. "All of these models have concrete implications we should consider."
It's a plausible-sounding argument made believable by a scattering of facts and figures, but not everyone in the room is buying it. Is America an empire? Some sit back with arms folded across their chests in apparent disagreement.
First up on Cohen's screen is Rome in the second century A.D., the military master of all the Mediterranean and most of Europe. "The Romans had a land-based military presence that relied on the disproportionate use of force to make a point," Cohen says. "Some of you have been to Massada in Israel"--to which several in the audience nod their heads--"and you know that it's a mountaintop stuck way out in the middle of nowhere, with absolutely no strategic relevance or value."
Yet, according to Cohen, the Romans were willing to commit a substantial fraction of their army for several years to ensure that a first-century Jewish rebellion there was extinguished. "They wanted to make the point, and they generally did so with great brutality," Cohen says.
The British empire in the 19th century took a different tack entirely, he continues. "The English relied on naval supremacy and maintained an imperial army with only a limited continental reach," Cohen says. "Theirs was not a military configured for large scale warfare. Instead, they pursued a policy of selective dominance."
The Athenians of the fifth century B.C. tried to have it both ways. "They created a force structure that relied on a power projection army and naval superiority, backed by a system of tight alliances with neighboring states," Cohen says. "They tried to create a democratic empire." Unfortunately, it did not last, and the golden age of Pericles was also the end of Athenian hegemony.
Cohen concludes by suggesting the lessons of history have meaning in the present and a message for the future. Thinking about American strategy, he says, means thinking about American society.
"Do we want a military that is somewhat smaller than in the past but similar and aging? Or should we opt for one much smaller, different and modern? Do we depend upon aggressive alliance building or multilateral affiliation? Is it a world of friends and enemies, or a world of various interests? Do we aim for proportionality of response, or do we take an eye for a tooth? Are we to be world-beaters, facing one or more peer competitors, or bandit-bashers, confronting lesser opponents in remote areas?"
The remainder of the hour is spent in lively debate. The lights go up on the 50 or so participants arrayed behind risers of desks packed into the theater. It is a diverse group of men and women who have come to the Homewood campus from postings around the world. They are military officers at the rank of brigadier general/rear admiral, and their civilian equivalents in the Department of Defense's Senior Executive Service. Scattered through the group are a handful of civilian executives from defense-related industries, congressional staffers and senior executives from other federal agencies and departments.
It's a bright and articulate group of individuals who are used to having their opinions and making them known. The dress is casual. No uniforms are in evidence, and none of the men are wearing ties.
But the easy candor of the discussion indicates this is a group of strangers who are among their own. Largely unknown to one another, they are there because they have demonstrated potential for positions of increasing responsibility and authority within the defense establishment. They have come to the Homewood campus as part of a two-week program known as the National Security Leadership Course.
It is, says course director Eliot Cohen, an opportunity to let them think. "The idea is to prod people, to get them going," he says. "It's a different type of teaching than you might do at the undergraduate or graduate level. Frankly, there is only a limited amount you can tell this group that is new to them. They are among the senior leaders in the defense establishment, and some of them are headed to the top. This is a chance for them to play with ideas, which is something that terribly busy people don't typically get the chance to do."
The National Security Leadership Course is one of three educational programs offered through the National Securities Studies, a unique partnership between SAIS and the Syracuse University Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. It was created about two years ago and is funded through a five-year, $8.2 million Defense Department contract awarded to develop leadership competencies among senior military and civilian personnel. Courses are held at both campuses.
During their two-week stay at the Homewood campus, the group will attend daily lectures and discussions, hear even-ing guest speakers of national importance to defense and public policy, take a "staff ride" to Gettysburg where Cohen will review the strategic military lessons of that battle and conclude with a two-day crisis simulation based upon a hypothetical regional conflict.
"Our intent in these programs is to bring in various viewpoints--many of them outside what they might typically hear within the defense establishment--and get our participants not just to listen, but to engage with these ideas," says National Security Studies Director Sean O'Keefe.
Formerly the secretary of the Navy during the Bush administration and now the Louis A. Bantle Professor of Business and Government Policy at the Maxwell School, O'Keefe worked closely with SAIS Dean Paul Wolfowitz to create the National Security Studies program in response to a Defense Department open invitation for bids. Originally established in the 1970s, the training effort for many years was run through the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Har-vard University.
"My view was that by combining our two universities we could put together an impressive package that draws on the strength of each university," O'Keefe says. "SAIS offers a world-class program in international relations, and the Maxwell School is the top ranked in the nation in public administration. Two schools working together like this is virtually unheard-of, but I believe we've put together a winning package."
O'Keefe is an apt judge. He is an alumnus of the program when it was offered at Harvard. "You begin to realize how seriously the defense establishment looks at this kind of training when you take a class like mine and look at it several years down the road," he says. "A couple of my classmates went on to become 4-star generals. One became the head of NASA."
O'Keefe himself became secretary of the Navy, and his roommate for the program was later to be known to millions of Americans: "Stormin' Norman" Schwarzkopf, the field commander of the Persian Gulf war.
Course instructors say that it is the emphasis on engagement and debate which defines much of the programmatic materials presented in course. "We try to avoid talking heads behind podiums and to engage participants in the educational process," says Andrew Bacevich, executive director of the Foreign Policy Institute at SAIS. Bacevich teaches several sections in the program, including "The American Way of War."
"The world is changing rapidly as is the business of national security, and these people are senior professionals consumed with the day-to-day requirements of their jobs," Bacevich says. "For anyone in such positions, it becomes difficult to set aside time for reflection. This course is an opportunity to step back and gain an appreciation of the larger framework and to consider the strategic choices facing the United States."
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