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SIS welcomes Joshua Rovner to faculty

By Kaitie Catania

Joshua Rovner speaks into a microphone.

Professor Joshua Rovner, an expert on intelligence, strategy and military affairs, joins the School of International Service (SIS) this fall after serving as the John Goodwin Tower Distinguished Chair in International Politics and National Security Policy at Southern Methodist University (SMU). Professor Rovner is the author of Fixing the Facts: National Security and the Politics of Intelligence (Cornell University Press, 2011), which won the International Studies Association Best Book Award for security studies and the Edgar S. Furniss Book Award, presented by the Mershon Center at Ohio State University. He recently began a new column at War on the Rocks entitled " The Brush Pass."

We talked with Rovner about his path to SIS, his current research, and what he's looking forward to as he joins the SIS faculty.

How did you become interested in international security, intelligence, and military affairs as a career and research field?

I was always interested in international politics as a kid. When I was an undergraduate, I took a wonderful course on US national security policy and was hooked. I had always thought about international politics as being about diplomatic negotiations and such, but I had never really thought about the security side.

My path to studying intelligence was almost accidental. I had a summer job as a research associate at the Rand Corporation and my boss was an expert on intelligence. He told me, "I need you to help me on this project." I said, "I don't know anything about intelligence." He said, "Well, you'll start learning when you're on the plane to California," where Rand was located. I spent the summer absorbing everything I could about intelligence. It was fascinating.

Everything I read that summer was about intelligence, but I didn't stop there. If you think about it, just about every major security controversy in the last two decades has been about intelligence in one way or another. 9/11 was about a supposed intelligence failure; the war in Iraq was about intelligence and weapons of mass destruction. The debate about Iran's nuclear program is about intelligence. The debates about rising great powers like China and Russia are about intelligence estimates. And today, cybersecurity controversies are largely about intelligence.

Are you currently pursuing any academic or scholaraly research?

I just published an article on cybersecurity, which was co-authored with a computer scientist. I'm also working on a big research project on US-China relations. I recently published a piece on the military dynamics of what a conflict would look like between the US and China. I'm going deeper into that, thinking about some of the unexpected ways in which a war would not only occur, but how it would be conducted if a crisis were to happen. I'm also writing a book about the relationship between strategy and grand strategy.

What is the difference between grand strategy and strategy?

Strategy is a theory of victory in war. It's a story about how to logically connect military violence with political goals. In one sense, strategy is profoundly weird. Here's the problem for strategists: you're using something that is inherently destructive-violence-in order to create something that's politically constructive. You want to have a better, more stable peace afterward, but by using violence you might create hatred, fear, and a lingering desire for revenge. How you manage that paradox is the essence of strategy.

A grand strategy is bigger. It's not just a theory of victory in war, it's a theory of security in peacetime. There are many different grand strategies you can choose. The book I'm working on is about how you can do one thing really well and inadvertently screw up the other thing. You can have a really great strategy in wartime and it can be totally counter-productive in terms of grand strategy. Or you can have a really great grand strategy, but you can ruin it with really bad wartime decisions. I think the tension between strategy and grand strategy says a lot about international politics in general, and about recent frustrations in US foreign policy.

In your opinion, why are issues of international security, intelligence, and military affairs important to study right now?

I think that they've never been more important to study. One reason is the sheer human and material cost of war since 9/11. The amount of lives that have been lost, the amount of money that has been spent-it's just incredibly important to have serious, rigorous analyses of these issues before anyone should think about making a decision about using force.

Intelligence is also particularly controversial these days, especially given the allegations of torture in the last decade, and more recent allegations from Edward Snowden about government surveillance. We need a serious and continuing public conversation about the purposes, uses, and limits of intelligence.

What courses will you be teaching at SIS?

I'm currently teaching a course on strategy this fall, which includeds everything from classical strategic theory to very modern cases. In the spring, I will teach a course on cybersecurity and national security, along with a course on the theory and practices of intelligence. I've also taught courses on international relations theory, nuclear weapons, and American foreign policy, and I look forward to teaching them here at SIS.

What are you looking forward to as you begin here at SIS?

I'm so energized about learning more about what the students are doing. I think the most exciting part of being here is interacting with students who are really interested in influencing policy, whether in government, academia, NGOs, or the private sector. SIS students aren't here by accident.

I'm also excited about getting to know my new colleagues. The SIS faculty has grown a lot over the last several years, and it's terrific that the school has actively sought out historians and economists, not just political scientists and international relations theorists. It's becoming a powerhouse, not in terms of just the number of people, but the quality of the work they're doing. Fighting the traffic to get here in the morning will be well worth it, given the people that will be next door to me and down the hall.