FROM THE FOUNDERS Session Overview

September 2010 - Seminar XXI 25th Anniversary
Suzanne Berger
Raphael Dorman — Helen Starbuck Professor of Political Science, MIT.
Mitzi Wertheim
Navy Postgraduate School
Captain Jake W. Stewart
US Navy (Ret.)
 

From the beginning, this endeavor has been a labor of love for the three founders. The two Washington-based founders, Jake W. Stewart and Mitzi Wertheim, met by chance at a 1984 conference at the US Naval War College and found they shared a deep dissatisfaction with the mainstream worldview of the national security community of the 1970s and early 1980s. Jake was then working for the Chief of Naval Operations. Mitzi had sat through four years of Navy intelligence briefs, and found them lacking. Suzanne Berger was teaching social science paradigms for understanding politics and societal change. So the question was, How about setting up a seminar like this for bright, up-and-coming military officers?

Suzanne was inspired by the idea of bringing these ideas into the world of decision-makers. Together, we dreamed about transforming the mindset of the national security policy community by introducing new ways of understanding the world. We wanted to open the aperture of the bright but narrowly focused military. Two years later, after much hard work, the first session of Seminar XXI opened on Friday night, September 12, 1986, at Wye Plantation near Queenstown, Maryland.

The dissatisfaction of the two Washington founders grew out of quite different professional trajectories and experiences: Mitzi, who had started with the Peace Corps, came to “the War Corps” (the Pentagon) to serve as a Deputy Under Secretary of the Navy; Jake, from service as a career surface warfare naval officer, and from the National Security Council staff in the White House. For Jake, one terrible event had great significance: the October 23, 1983, bombing of the Marine barracks at the Beirut Airport. Not since the third day of the battle for Iwo Jima in February 1945 had the Corps suffered such a single-day loss. As former Speaker of the US House of Representatives Newt Gingrich expressed it, one of the key problems of the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit commander at the Beirut Airport was that he “lacked a cultural scout,” and was blind to the threat his Battalion Landing Team (1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment) faced. It seemed to the three of us that much of the US policymaking apparatus was steering blind when operating on the terrain of our country’s new challenges abroad.

In 1983, Washington, D.C., was a place where the Secretary of State always seemed to be advocating military actions, while the Secretary of Defense was promoting political solutions. This was the pre-Goldwater–Nichols world with no Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the service chiefs rotated as “acting chairmen.” The need for better preparation of our most senior officers to evaluate and promote nonmilitary options was clear — especially when non–Defense Department civilians were strongly promoting only military actions. Culture, international politics, economics, trade, and diplomacy had been squeezed out of the crowded syllabus of study in the senior professional schools of the armed forces. Into this environment, to supplement the established courses of professional military education at the various war colleges, Seminar XXI was launched as an experiment.

Suzanne suggested that we organize a course that would teach its participants how to identify alternative analyses of politics and society as a basis for developing alternative scenarios of policy and action. Underlying every argument about the international economy, foreign politics, or claims about religion, culture, ethnicity, and politics are foundational assumptions. She proposed that we teach Seminar XXI participants how to discover these underlying assumptions and how to challenge them from alternative perspectives. We decided to organize the course around four powerful explanatory frameworks or “paradigms” that serve as the explicit or implicit assumptions of the analyses that guide our thinking as policymakers. These are the Liberal, Marxist, Cultural, and Realist paradigms. Suzanne said, “Facts do not speak for themselves. They have meaning only within a context or paradigm” — and so, depending on their assumptions, or paradigms, people draw very different conclusions about the very same fact. This approach fitted our needs, for we intended not to promote a particular worldview, but to “open the aperture” of the students to other ways of thinking about the environment they daily faced.

Though designed originally for military officers, Seminar XXI has had interagency participation from the very beginning. Fellows have come to us from the Departments of State, Commerce, Justice, Energy, and Homeland Security, as well as from the Congressional Budget Office, Governmental Accountability Office, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, the intelligence community, the US Coast Guard, and industry. This informal interagency forum provided by the Seminar has always been highly valued by Fellows and faculty.

From the beginning, we wanted Seminar XXI to remain an “experimental educational program,” i.e., that it be flexible and respond to the changing international and security environment; that it seek out the best faculty, wherever they were located and whatever the dissent among them on the issues.

We could not foresee the magnitude of change that we in fact faced. During the kickoff weekend of September 12–14, 1986, the news was dominated by the collapse of the Reagan–Gorbachev Summit. Seminar XXI’s program has shifted over time to respond to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet Union’s dissolution, and communism’s demise in eastern Europe. In 1986, globalization (the term was not in use then) was well under way, but the real deregulation of capital markets, and the rise of China, India, and Eastern Europe, still lay ahead. The Internet was still a matter of connecting a few scientists in a DARPA project. That the United States would be allied with, and have bases in, an independent Uzbekistan in a war against the terrorists of 9/11, and have Marines in Mongolia on training missions, was simply beyond imagination.

In our 20 years, we have had three faculty transitions. Suzanne Berger was the program director from 1986 to 1993. Barry Posen, Myron Weiner, and Ken Oye, MIT political science professors, took over and jointly managed the Seminar until Myron’s illness in 1998 forced his retirement. Ken Oye became the principal director for 1998–2000. The leadership role in 2000 passed to our current director, Robert Art, research associate at MIT’s Center for International Studies and professor at Brandeis University. Bob Art’s skill, wit, devotion, diligence, and creativity have been critical to the Seminar’s continuing success. As founders of the Seminar, we realize the major role that our outstanding professional staff, currently led by Tisha Gomes, has played in making the program work well. Finally, over the years graduate students from MIT’s Political Science department have proved invaluable in helping to prepare the readings, reading notes, and summaries for each session.

Faculty and Fellows are the key elements in the strength of the program. The Seminar works hard to bring the very best thinking to our Fellows. The track record has been impressive. At the final weekend session in May 1987 of the first class, we had a young woman academic as a guest and commentator. She was twice invited back to deliver reunion presentations when she was serving on the National Security Council staff. While Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is likely our best-known faculty member, other names will also be familiar: Caspar Weinberger, when serving as the Secretary of Defense; Professor Samuel Huntington, before he published The Clash of Civilizations; and Bernard Lewis, Dean of Islamic culture, before he became a key advisor to the Bush White House, post 9/11. We sought out excellent analysts with diverse views: an outstanding Soviet scholar before the Soviet Union collapsed; a leading member of the African National Congress before South Africa’s transition; and Israeli and Palestinian professors (here, we’re still waiting for the good news).

The Fellows of Seminar XXI, the raison d’être for the entire endeavor, have been superlative. If the founders have continued to participate, if faculty are willing to come year after year, it is in large measure because of all we learn from the Fellows. Their enthusiasm and interests have informed the program. Their advice, whether through the formal alumni advisory board or informally, has been critical to the program’s evolution. For example, it was a retired naval officer on the alumni board who urged us to bring in nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

It gives us great pleasure that after 20 years, with more than 1,200 Fellows, we are seeing our alumni in important roles with far-reaching responsibilities. Interestingly, in the last two years, in two separate changes of commands in the field (see photos above), Seminar XXI Fellows have relieved one another. Jim Conway (1992–1993) relieved Chuck Swannack (1998–1999) in Iraq, and Bruce Wright (1999–2000) relieved Tom Waskow (1988–1989) in Japan.

After 20 years, we should ask if the Seminar has met its stated goals. While recruiting Fellows for the first class, both Washington founders met with the Vice Chiefs of the Army and Air Force and the Chief of Naval Operations to solicit their recommendations for Seminar Fellows. We told each chief that our goal was to provide to the “best and brightest” of each service a sophisticated, graduate-level course, unlike anything then taught at the war colleges. We would present the Fellows with the opportunity to develop tools to help understand and know their opponents, as Sun Tzu commanded, and to understand themselves so that they could identify their own blind spots. The Army Vice Chief of Staff, General Max Thurman, asked us how we would know if we had succeeded in our task. We replied: Our measure of success would be that in 10 to 15 years, our graduates could tell us that they had developed options, strategies, or alternative courses of action, because a “wider aperture” allowed them to see a way forward denied to others. In this anniversary book, you can read the comments of former Fellows. No one has put it in exactly the terms we used to General Thurman, but it seems that we are heading in the right direction.

To General Thurman, we also said that how the services and agencies judged the Seminar’s worth would be critically important. For our first year, the money raised through foundation grants by Rockefeller, Carnegie, Sloan, and MacArthur paid for each selected Fellow to attend, sort of a “free lunch” for participants. But in year two, if the sponsoring organizations found the Seminar to be of value, then they would pay. We should acknowledge here, too, the very generous support for the Seminar from an MIT alumnus, Harry Kalker — who also believed that changing the mindset was essential for improving American policy and capabilities. Twenty years after our conversation with General Thurman, the Seminar has doubled in size and doubled the number of participating agencies, and is still unable to meet the demand for spaces. We look forward to the next 20 years.

Suzanne Berger, Raphael Dorman — Helen Starbuck Professor of Political Science, MIT
Captain Jake W. Stewart, US Navy (Ret.)
Mitzi Wertheim, Center for Naval Analysis

Return to the Messages and Remarks page

message_image: 

2018-19 ADMISSIONS WILL START FEBRUARY 2018

Download Admission Brochure PDF >
Email brochure to a friend >

2017–2018 SESSIONS

This year's sessions begin with an introduction from Dr. Kathleen Hicks and move into a range of topics that include Religion, Identity Politics and Civil Wars; Iran, Turkey, and Israel; Realism, Liberalism, and U.S.-China Relations; National Economies in a Globalized World; and more.

View full session schedule >

MIT DC CLUB MEMBERSHIP

Become a member >