March 29, 2016

National Security Studies at a Christian University

This essay approaches two interrelated topics. First, what does it mean to be part of the security studies field? Second, are there unique considerations for how faith-based institutions approach the field? Addressing these topics will help articulate some of the reasoning behind the coming expansion of our university’s curriculum with a new national security program.

Our new program entails two interdisciplinary majors, one in national security studies and the other in information security. The national security studies major takes an interdisciplinary approach to the study of security, meaning graduates will have to grapple with the historical, political, and normative issues related to defense and intelligence policy, likely in preparation for public service or graduate education. The information security major is designed to combine the technical expertise needed in the cybersecurity field with a working knowledge of policy so graduates will be able to continuously adapt to the rapidly changing threat environment. Based on feedback received in planning from both the public sector and corporate entities, we expect the graduates of both programs to be of value to government agencies and the private sector.

Even if one doesn’t major in security studies or information security, we believe it is incredibly beneficial to take courses that expose one to the reality of how interconnected the world is. Geopolitical divides contribute directly to the problems of private corporations. Understanding how the pieces fit together, literally and metaphorically, is a specialty of liberal arts education. Several things that make security-related fields great academic areas also allow students from any background to take something away of value. So what are these takeaways from security studies coursework?

From a theoretical to a practical focus

While the scientific approach to the study of security is important in and of itself, there is tremendous demand for applied knowledge in security studies. The need to translate the most up to date research into practical application for leaders is a valuable skill that can assist in making quality decisions (assuming they are wise enough to listen). The mindset of translating ideas into concrete, feasible actions matters in most academic fields, but can have life and death consequences in foreign policy and military affairs.

Read daily, write often

The security studies discipline values ideas, research, interdisciplinary perspectives, and high levels of engagement and debate. Every few years a new wave of writing comes out with so many talented thinkers, it is difficult to even get to a modest percentage of quality articles, books, or blogs. The barriers to entry into debate on national security have never been lower. If your ideas are good, there are readers out there looking to interact and refine them. Supplementing peer-reviewed research that can take years to develop, students can read legitimate experts on a variety of sites exploring important policy questions. This engagement is excellent preparation for the future.

A service ethic

We rarely talk about developing one’s mind as coming from a service-oriented perspective. But, it is true that having as many people as possible educated on foreign policy, military affairs, and information security threats is a public service. A more informed democratic citizenry is better able to promote wiser decision making, and hold leaders accountable for disastrous policies. It is especially critical that there are civilians knowledgeable on military affairs and national security in order to ensure proper civilian oversight of defense, as well as provide support to the military on the full array of strategic, intelligence, and logistical questions.

The bottom line is that well informed civilians are necessary to hold politicians and the military accountable for their actions, and also to maximize the chances of military success on both tangible and virtual battlefields.  

National security from a faith-centered perspective

Being at a Christian institution, in what ways does a security studies course potentially differ from that of a public university? Isn’t there a spiritual conflict at play when trying to influence policy from one’s faith perspective? We believe that there are a lot of advantages in recognizing how faith perspectives intersect with national security policy questions. 

First, consider some rhetorical questions. Can having a spiritual life improve empathy to better understand those who might turn to violence as a way to advance interests? If so, can it help us to recognize the policies that might discourage violent means and ultimately prevent unnecessary conflict? We expect that this would be the case.

Christ’s title of “Prince of Peace” should be paramount when a Christian begins to approach security issues, continuously looking for ways to advance peaceful resolutions to conflict wherever possible. This is a common theme that binds Christians from both the pacifist theologies and the “just war” approaches. A truly Christ-inspired foreign policy should be one that increases the level of peace in the world, pursues justice, avoids initiating aggression, and conducts action in ways that distinguish oneself (and one’s society) from others in a morally and ethically positive way. In other words, it is supportive of those institutions and norms that put constraints on state behavior in terms of going to war, and behavior during wartime.

Christian military officers are accustomed to this ends/means interplay. Officers Christian Fellowship articulates the lessons of the soldiers mentioned in the New Testament, and their role as both agents of empire, but also people of faith. This is in addition to the countless examples in the Old Testament of community defense undertaken by violent means, both in the name of God, as well as in opposition to His commands.

On a personal note, one of my favorite texts is the late Ron Kirkemo’s Embraced and Engaged, in which he goes into detail on the variety of ethical conflicts Christians are likely to face when working in international relations, defense, electoral politics, or intelligence. In rejecting these difficult choices and avoiding public service, Christians may maintain a semblance of moral clarity, but they then necessarily abandon these career fields to people without Christ-centered views on government action.

One need not be Christian to have an ethical code, or to believe in legal and moral constraints on state behavior. However, the Christ-centered individual in national security should expect to consciously and continuously live his or her life in the messy gray areas where immorality in defense of some end is a real temptation. This is one reason I suggest all my students in international relations take courses that approach the field from the pacifistic perspective in addition to my more “just war” or mainstream political science approaches. I want my leaders to care about morality. 

The value of leadership

A final takeaway of the value of security studies as an academic field is related to everything mentioned above. Few career fields are more concerned with leadership development and the role of individual morality. The individual level decision making process, as well as the effects of group dynamics and institutions on decision making, are incredibly important for understanding why some policies are chosen, as opposed to others. The desire to make wiser choices is one of the main things that steers young military professionals and civilian security experts to read and write about the situations they face.

Despite the difficulty in really defining what leadership is, the ability of the individual to overcome obstacles in order to make wiser choices is critical both inside and outside the security field. For this reason, any student can benefit from studying those moments when an individual’s character and decisions altered an outcome in the face of adversity. More than an academic lesson, there are life lessons revealed in the study of leadership.

Concluding thoughts

Security studies in a Christian, liberal arts institution includes several elements worth considering as part of any academic field. These include understanding the messy transition from theory to actual policy, growth in engagement with an informed audience, enhancing the quality of one's personal political involvement, challenging simplistic worldviews regarding the role of the state and the application of power around the world, and the importance of individual morality and leadership. If we can help develop graduates who take these things seriously, and prepare them with a rigorous curriculum, then many types of organizations, both in the public and private sector, will benefit from their being part of the team.

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