The Future of Strategic Studies

By Dennis Murphy

The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies is in a period of transition. The next few years will bring many changes, not the least of which will be the school’s move to 555 Pennsylvania Avenue. It is with an eye to the future that the SAIS Observer reached out to the leadership of the Strategic Studies Department to see where the program is heading.

Strategic Studies leadership saw a large amount of change over the past few years with the additions of Professors David Barno, Nora Bensahel, Mara Karlin, Thomas Rid, Paula Thornhill, and Adam Szubin within the department. Additionally, the number of students admitted to the concentration is substantially larger now than it has traditionally been. Even the very nature of the discipline appears to be changing. “How we think about the use of force issues has evolved and must continue to evolve,” noted Professor Karlin in an interview with The SAIS Observer. Prior to the additions of Professors Rid and Szubin, there had been no professor who specialized in the use of economic sanctions and there was little emphasis on information security and cyber-related issues.

Professor Karlin is beacon of change at SAIS, joining the Strategic Studies Department just two and a half years ago and becoming its director last year. “Strategic Studies has been a crown jewel at SAIS thanks to the tireless devotion of Eliot Cohen,” Professor Karlin remarked. “I am very excited, both to have been a product of it and now to be running it.”

In looking to the future global security landscape, Professor Karlin indicates that there is no vision she can foresee that is all “butterflies and unicorns.” Echoing Dean Cohen’s remarks at the SAIS 75th Anniversary event, Karlin notes that Strategic Studies will be engaging a new international threat landscape. While Strategic Studies has had an “obsession with terrorism” over the last two decades, there has been a shift in the consideration of “different kinds of competition.” The security landscape has expanded as global trends such as climate change or artificial intelligence begin to present issues that require a global response.

“We need to try to wrestle with those revolutions,” Karlin said. This will be difficult, she added, “if we are not so comfortable with understanding their parameters and considering their implications.” For Karlin, this is “one of the real dilemmas” when she thinks of how Strategic Studies may begin moving forward. “What are the key topics [students] need to be smart on?” Karlin asked. And how do these topics integrate with “all of the key tools that have made [previous Strategic Studies students] superlative and successful alums?”

Strategic Studies is very much a program in transition, and Professor Karlin takes pride in the change that has already come to the program. When it came to expanding the number of students in the concentration and bringing on new faculty, she remarked that “we have already had big change, and good change.” Karlin believes the department has “fomented a healthy, rigorous and inclusive command climate and should continue to do so.”

One of the tensions this change has introduced is how to encourage students to engage outside of their comfort zone, while maintaining a strong sense of community.

In its current form, SAIS’s own infrastructure and organization can impede collaboration. “We have three discrete buildings at SAIS, and it’s funny that when you go to Bologna this is not the case,” Karlin noted. Within two days at the Bologna campus, Professor Karlin noted that she “saw more people from other departments than [she does] during weeks and weeks in DC.” She looks forward to the kind of “organic interactions that will occur” when the school moves to the Newseum. Not just within SAIS, but with other parts of the university, and even “interesting institutes, such as the Agora institute.” Professor Karlin believes that having “real gathering areas” will be something we can look forward to in the near future.

 “One of the extraordinary elements of SAIS is the ability to bring different communities together,” Professor Karlin said. “There’s nothing more fun and enriching in the classroom than watching students with different backgrounds debate and learn from one another.” Noting that the experience can be “magical” when you “have a class where you have this whip smart BA/MA from Hopkins sitting next to a MIPP who has spent a decade or two in the Middle East.” To Karlin, “they are all learning from each other.”

Remembering her time as an MA student at SAIS, Professor Karlin said that the “Commandant of the Marine Corps is someone I sat next to in class 16 years ago. This helps for relationship building, and allowing people to see where other folks are coming from.” Both inside and outside of the classroom, one can expect to see many of these kinds of interactions moving into the future both within the department and across the university.

However, just as “it is good to run into each other and meet people who come from different places, it is crucial to have a community,” Karlin said. This is a dilemma that must be addressed with the move: “How do you maintain a sense of community?”

When referencing community building exercises, such as the staff rides, Professor Karlin remarked that such exercises are “a key to our success; staff rides enable us to foment a thoughtful, collaborative, and an empathetic albeit steely-eyed approach to thorny security dilemmas — while having a lot of fun.”

But for a department in transition and the future of the discipline it teaches, Professor Karlin noted that “I worry less about change.”

To Karlin, “‘Success’ is bright and enthusiastic students who are being taught by professors who care a lot, who are bursting with knowledge, and who are active in the crucial policy debates of our field.”