As American children were being taught to “duck and cover” to protect themselves from nuclear blasts in the 1950s, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned that any future war would “astonish ... in the way it occurred and in the way it is carried out.”
Robert E. Osgood spent much of his career trying to ensure that America’s future conflicts didn’t hold too many surprises. He was among the founding generation of academics who studied how America should wield its enormous military and economic might after World War II.
The Harvard-trained Osgood served in World War II and then taught at the University of Chicago before coming to SAIS in 1961. He would spend the next 25 years here as the Christian A. Herter Professor of American Foreign Policy, helping define the “SAIS approach,” which held that national security analysis should be grounded in rigorous theoretical and historical concepts.
Osgood, who served as director of the Washington Center of Foreign Policy Research (1965–73) and dean of SAIS (1973–79), wrote more than a dozen books. Perhaps his best-known work is Ideals and Self-Interest in America’s Foreign Relations, about the classic dilemma at the center of U.S. foreign relations: the tension between the country’s principles and its goals.
Like SAIS scholars today, Osgood’s influence extended far beyond the classroom. He served on the White House National Security Council under Henry Kissinger in 1969–70 and advised Ronald Reagan during his presidential campaign in 1980. He was also one of five members of Secretary of State George Shultz’s Policy Planning Council from 1983–85, during a period of heightened nuclear tensions as the Soviet Union began its spiral toward collapse.
He is remembered as a quiet, gracious man who wrote with elegance and wit. When he died in 1986 at age 65, his funeral was held at the National Cathedral.
Picking up Osgood’s mantle to continue advancing the “SAIS approach” was Eliot Cohen, who in 1989 joined Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney’s policy and planning staff. Early on, Cohen was asked to write the first draft of a speech for President George H.W. Bush, pushing back against Sen. Sam Nunn, who had said that the new administration needed to come to grips with the fact that the Cold War was over.
“I said to myself, actually, I think Nunn’s right. And of course, I couldn’t say that,” Cohen recalls. He wrote the speech but says he began to wonder if he was cut out for government service.
When he was offered a chair in Strategic Studies at SAIS in 1990, he accepted the post. “I knew that was the one job that I really wanted,” he says.
Still, over the years, Cohen, who founded the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies in 2004, kept being lured back into government: He has taken leaves of absence to work for both the Pentagon and the State Department.
After the first Iraq war, he directed the Air Force’s Gulf War Air Power Survey, which produced a five-volume report in 1993 concluding that the war’s combination of stealth, precision weaponry, and advanced communications technologies would change the nature of combat.
Cohen served from 2007–09 as counselor of the Department of State—senior foreign policy adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. During a trip to several Afghan regions, he found few grounds for the Bush administration’s belief that America and its allies were winning, and helped draft plans for a military surge to halt or reverse the Taliban’s gains. He played a key role in top-secret deliberations over an American response to the discovery that North Korea had built a suspected reactor in eastern Syria. In the end, Israel bombed the site in September 2007.
Cohen has written half a dozen books but says the one he expects to have the most enduring impact is Supreme Command, about how four civilian leaders—Lincoln, Clemenceau, Churchill, and Ben-Gurion—directed their militaries in wartime. He is now writing a book about Shakespeare, who also had a few things to say about how leaders wage war.
In the meantime, Cohen has become one of the most visible and vocal critics of President Trump, drawing 54,000 Twitter followers and tens of millions of readers to his column in The Atlantic magazine.
While he has worked for Republican administrations and advised Mitt Romney during his 2012 presidential bid, Cohen rejects political labels. He is, he says, “first and foremost a teacher.”
His former SAIS students, he says, have served both in both Democratic and Republican administrations, and today form networks of specialists throughout the government. “We produce people who go out into the world and do the work of the world,” he says. “As they will tell you, there is an incredible SAIS ‘mafia’ in strategic studies. That’s a very gratifying thing.”
Mara Karlin, associate professor of the practice of Strategic Studies and acting director of the Strategic Studies Program at SAIS, says her first boss in Washington told her that if she wanted to pursue a career in the field of strategic studies, she should study under Cohen.
“And he was right,” she says. Cohen “made us question our assumptions and question our beliefs, made us argue for and against one another. And that pushed all of us into a rigorous learning experience in which you could just not be intellectually lazy.”
While still working on her master’s degree at SAIS, Karlin landed a policy job at the Pentagon’s Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy in 2004 and eventually became head of policy for the Levant. In that position, she worked on aid programs for Lebanon “and tried to figure out how to push back on places like Syria and Iran that were destabilizing the region, particularly regarding Iraq at the time.”
After three years off to earn her PhD at SAIS and do some teaching, she returned to the Pentagon from 2012–17 to direct the work of the Office of Strategy and Force Development. There she wrestled with some of the same questions that occupied Osgood. “What does the future security environment look like?” she asks. “What are the future wars the U.S. military might have to fight and win? And given that, how do you make sure you spend $600-plus billion in a way to ensure that it can do so?”
The threats are many and varied, and the hardest part of her job, she says, was picking winners and losers in the inevitable budget skirmishes.
In her first book, Building Militaries in Fragile States: Challenges for the United States, Karlin studies the decades-old problem of preparing foreign militaries to fight insurgencies before they become regional or global threats.
The book describes four efforts to bolster foreign forces—in Greece, Vietnam, and twice in Lebanon—and concludes that the most effective approach is to completely overhaul the partner’s fighting force. Without these drastic measures, she says, “we need to accept that we’re really just going to have a limited impact.”
Today, with the White House criticizing longtime allies and questioning old alliances, America’s partners are concerned about where the United States is heading, Karlin says, adding, “There are profound questions that U.S. allies, partners, adversaries, and competitors are asking around the world about what the United States is willing to do and not do.”
As a graduate student at Stanford in the late 1960s and early 1970s, David “Mike” Lampton was deeply influenced by the work of Arthur Doak Barnett.
“Doak was a cultural interpreter who built the intellectual infrastructure for the study of Chinese politics and foreign policy in the United States,” says Lampton, the George and Sadie Hyman Professor of Chinese Studies emeritus and, until recently, the director of China Studies at SAIS. “Even if you weren’t one of his students, you read all of his books. I took his role to be my model, something I aspired to be.”
Barnett, who taught at Columbia and conducted research at the Brookings Institution before arriving at SAIS in 1982, had been born in China to a missionary family. He grew up in Shanghai and—after time off to serve as a Marine in World War II and earn his academic degrees at Yale— returned to China as a reporter for a Chicago newspaper. His reporting took him by oxcart through warlord-controlled stretches of western China and to Peiping when the People’s Liberation Army arrived in 1949.
When the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held hearings in 1966 about fears China would topple noncommunist governments across Asia, the chair invited Barnett to testify. During the historic hearings, Barnett urged skeptical lawmakers to engage rather than isolate China. Six years later, in 1972, his view prevailed over Cold War hard-liners when Richard Nixon arrived in Beijing.
It was around this time that Lampton moved to the British colony of Hong Kong for his research on China’s public health and medical care system. Since American scholars were not allowed to visit the mainland, Lampton interviewed refugees to get their firsthand accounts.
At the time, Western experts saw China as tightly controlled by officials in Beijing. Based on his research, Lampton concluded that the power of the central leaderships was more limited than commonly thought. Like top officials everywhere, he says, China’s leaders had to cope with recalcitrant subordinates, poor communications, and inadequate budgets.
China was initially constrained, Lampton says, by Mao Zedong’s belief that his country would be strong only when it was self-sufficient. Evidence of the limits of this strategy was on conspicuous display when Lampton first arrived in China in 1976, a month after Mao’s death. “At the time, the country was poorer per capita than Cambodia,” he says. “There were few cars. The main department store sold three colors of Mao suits, thermos bottles, and enamel wash basins, and that was about it.”
Lampton, the author of a dozen monographs and books on China, joined SAIS in 1997 after serving as president of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations in New York (1988–97) and as founding director of the China programs at the American Enterprise Institute and what is now the Center for National Interest.
Today, China has grown “spectacularly,” Lampton says, by integrating itself into the global economy and capitalizing on its comparative economic advantages, including the scale of its huge domestic market, high savings rate, and emphasis on education.
Before President Xi Jinping took office, China’s government had been loosening state control for four decades, ceding power to individuals, corporations, and markets. Now, Lampton says, the Chinese Communist Party is “clawing back” that power. The United States, meanwhile, has imposed tariffs and accused Beijing of backpedaling from reforms and interfering in U.S. politics.
He fears today’s tensions could create what he calls a “facsimile” of the Cold War, one marked by reduced economic cooperation, heightened strategic suspicion, growing military budgets, and greater risk of conflict. What’s required now, he says, is something akin to Barnett’s quiet advocacy and objective analysis.
“While governments have their problems, let’s try to keep our productive society-to-society relationships active,” he advises.
Andrew Mertha, who joined the SAIS faculty in September 2018 as director of China Studies, has written three books on China; speaks five languages, including Chinese and Khmer; and says he, too, was inspired by the work of Barnett. “Doak’s intellectual DNA runs deep through my own work,” says Mertha, who is currently the George and Sadie Hyman Professor of China Studies.
After graduating from college in 1987, Mertha lived and worked in China for seven years before returning to the U.S. to earn his PhD from the University of Michigan in 2001.
Mertha’s most recent book, Brothers in Arms: Chinese Aid to the Khmer Rouge, 1975–1979, describes China’s efforts to support and moderate the radical Marxist movement that ruled Cambodia for four violent years. He concludes that China’s infusion of aid bought little influence—Cambodia was so poorly run because of a reluctance by Chinese officials to pressure their hosts, and because higher-ranking Chinese officials and institutions didn’t always coordinate their work.
Mertha says Chinese officials implementing China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative—which aims to extend the country’s influence through major investments and infrastructure projects in Asia, Europe, and beyond—could face similar obstacles in dealing with foreign governments.
He also says reports of China’s mass incarceration of members of its Uighur ethnic minority suspected of religious extremism could affect China’s relations with Muslim countries and contribute to homegrown terrorism.
“In the past, China has emulated some important American successes, but it might now be positioning itself to repeat some of our biggest failures, such as contributing to the radicalization within the Muslim world, this time aimed at China,” he says. “The image of China as an inexorably rising power with very little drag on its ambitions really needs to be rethought.”
Mertha says his work has been heavily influenced by Barnett’s 1967 book, Cadres, Bureaucracy, and Political Power in Communist China, which describes how the national government, a generic government ministry, and a village commune work—down to the titles, duties, and bureaucratic jargon used.
“Wide swaths of that book are still relevant to understanding the workings of Chinese institutions today,” Mertha says. “Doak’s work provided a window into this black box of authority relations in China, which scholars like my colleague Mike Lampton have built extensively on.”
Today, says Mertha, at a critical time in the U.S-China relationship, Chinese officials are having a hard time finding officials who can tell them “accurately and credibly what’s going on” in the White House. As a result, they are coming to talk with American academic and policy experts, including those at SAIS, for what they like to call “frank discussions” about U.S.-China relations.
For Mertha, his position at SAIS gives him the opportunity to play the role of U.S.-China cultural interpreter pioneered by Barnett—and to help bridge the growing gap between the two cultures. “This is the place where I feel like I can do my best work,” he says.