A Parting Interview with Dr. Robert Egnell

Introduction by Jamie Geller, Associate Editor for the Middle East 

Dr. Robert C. Egnell (PhD London) worked as a Visiting Professor and Director of Teaching at Georgetown’s Security Studies Program (SSP), as well as senior advisor for the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security. Dr. Egnell’s research and expertise focuses on state-building and security sector reform, counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, gender in military operations, civil-military coordination with peace operations, and security and human development.

Dr. Egnell’s contributions to SSP both academically and personally cannot be understated. Dr. Egnell taught a required course on the theory and practice of security, developing personal relationships with his students and helping to create a pivotal framework for students as they progress in their academic and professional careers. Dr. Egnell also applied his background and expertise to teach a course focused on human security, offering students a chance to take a more unique course focused on the softer aspects of security and conflict across the globe. Dr. Egnell’s role as professor, role model, and mentor was greatly appreciated by students and faculty in SSP, and he will be a great loss upon his departure. 


What brought you to Georgetown, how long were you here, why are you leaving?

My wife, who is a Swedish diplomat, and I were both drawn to DC for professional reasons. We were lucky in that we were notified of her posting to the Swedish Embassy quite early so that I could go on a job hunt with plenty of time. Georgetown and SSP was my number one choice, partly because it is simply the best, and partly because coming from the War Studies Department at King’s College London, it felt like a great fit intellectually. I was very lucky to be introduced to Professor Hoffman by Adam Grissom, a mutual friend and colleague who was teaching for SSP at the time. We have stayed in DC for four years, but the Swedish Foreign Ministry is now unfortunately pulling my wife back to Stockholm.

What will you take with you from SSP?

Plenty! To have work for the top-ranked program in the world means that every aspect of its culture, structure and approach is a valuable lesson. There are many things I could talk about, but let me mention four things that have struck me as particularly remarkable about SSP. First, the tremendous quality and collegiality of the core faculty who all of them care deeply about the program and its students. Second, the enormous professionalism with which the program is run. The program leadership and the staff downstairs are doing an amazing job that has a quiet but profound impact on the quality of the program and the experience of its students. Their work, and the smooth running of the program allows faculty to focus on teaching and doing relevant research. It also allows students to focus on their studies rather than worry about administrative challenges and questions. Third, the tremendous added value of senior adjunct faculty with relevant professional experience that together with program adaptability ensures that the program is always relevant far beyond the classroom. Fourth, the students in SSP are a luxury for any professor to work with. They approach the program with great maturity and competence, with professional experience, and an enormous level of ambition. This means that teaching is challenging in a very positive way (the students can smell a half-baked lecture a mile away). It is also very rewarding and always a learning experience since they are both willing and able to contribute in a way that is quite unique.

What do you hope to leave with SSP?

The need for a broader security perspective, both in terms of the wide array of threats we are facing today, and the correspondingly large toolbox in terms of the instruments of power required to deal with these threats is something I have emphasized during my years in SSP. Another aspect of security studies that I have emphasized is the importance of international perspectives and an understanding of “the other”. I would argue that the only weakness of SSP is that the number of international students is a bit too low. Increasing that number would provide all students with richer perspectives on international security, as well as US national security. I will surely work as an ambassador for Georgetown and SSP my entire life, and if that can help build further international cooperation and increase international student applications – I would be delighted.

You introduced many SSP students to the concept of human security. How does human security differ from traditional security studies?  What is its importance to our discipline?

Traditional security policy deals with the security of the state from external most often military threats. The concept of human security changes the perspective by focusing on the individual and the group as the more appropriate referent object of security. There has been an assumption that the two almost correlate. If the state is secure the citizens are secure. This is, however, simply not the case. In many countries the worst threat comes from the state and its institutions. Even in democratic and economically advances societies there are severe security problems in terms of sexual and gender based violence, economic hardship etc. When you allow individuals to define their security fears it expands the concept of security in all directions and also highlights the fact that the feeling of security is not based on objective threat, but rather subjective feelings. The question then is to what extent policy makers should focus on providing “real” security, or a sense of security. The consequences for national security policy when applying human security perspectives could be profound. The challenge that I have been working on is nevertheless to make the concept more practically useful and operational. To take this almost philosophical idea and make it into a strategic concept that could be used to improve our understanding of conflicts, to plan and also to conduct operations in different settings is a tough but perfectly doable task.

You served as an advisor for the Institute for Women, Peace, and Security. Briefly explain your work there.

It is still a small institute, which means that one must pitch in most everywhere. My main role has nevertheless been to provide academic and research expertise to the institute, as well as to work on issues related to gender and women in the military. I had the pleasure of joining the institute during its very inception under our former Dean of SFS Carol Lancaster. I was thereby able to influence its focus by adding the Human Security perspective and a focus on military issues. An important role of the institute is to build a bridge between theory and practice – and I have been very honored to play in role in that endeavor through meeting with policy makers and practitioners, and by facilitating dialogue through regular symposiums and workshops that bring of all these people together. Finally, the research capability and funding is ever increasing and we are currently working on a list of highly interesting projects The topics are ranging from peacebuilding in Mindanao, via gender in the US military, to impact of women’s participation in the peace negotiations in places like Colombia, Kenya and Bangladesh.

What is the role of gender studies in security? Why is it something security professionals should pay attention to?

There is both a profound and more limited role of gender studies in security. The more limited and practical benefit is that by understanding gender perspectives you see the power structures and the roles of men and women in a society a bit more clearly. This is very helpful in all aspects security studies and operations. Applying it as a tool in conflict analysis and intelligence gathering means getting a better picture of the true nature of things on the ground. With that understanding, it should then be applied in operational planning and execution, by providing the appropriate tactical approaches and resources necessary to tackle the challenges. The creation of Female Engagement Teams as a result of operational needs is an excellent example that highlights the importance of gender in war. The sometimes poor execution of this idea should not detract from the utility of the idea. The more profound impact of gender studies is that is just like the concept of human security, constructivism, and critical theory challenges many of the traditional assumptions about national and international security. It provides a normative vision for a world beyond what Mearsheimer refers to as the “tragedy of great power politics”.

Much of your research has focused on stability operations. With regards to general stability operations doctrine, what are we doing right? What do we need to change?

The US military is by far the best fighting force in the world and the challenge is to understand how to use this mighty instrument for political purposes beyond simplistic notions of “victory”. The campaigns in the War on Terror has obviously highlighted tremendous challenges in terms of strategic thinking, while at the same time displaying a capability to adapt and change at the tactical level of war. Discussing what needs to change is quite a thesis in itself, but my greatest fear is that the failure of the last decade will lead to international disengagement. The problems of failing or ungoverned spaces, terrorism and increasing radicalization and global migration are going nowhere, and the brutal consequences of non-engagement in the contemporary context are obvious in Syria. The US will have to remain engaged and should work hard to learn the appropriate lessons from the War on Terror. In broad brush strokes, there is a need to understand the limitations of the military instrument when it comes to trying to achieve broader societal change abroad. Increased patience and trust in slow and tedious political negotiations in combination with engagement and economic instrument as sticks and carrots is another need. At the tactical level, I believe that parts of the US military learned important lessons in Iraq and Afghanistan and that the traditional over-focus on conventional approaches to warfare – applying massive use of force – has been tempered substantially. Not only should that learning process continue, but also evolve and be further institutionalized by adapting the military culture to a more flexible mindset that better handles a hybrid forms of warfare that we are likely to face today and in the future.

What’s next for you?

We are heading back to Stockholm where a position as associate professor of war studies at the Swedish Defense University is waiting for me. Same type of work, but a rather different environment. I have also recently founded a Swedish web-based magazine with the title Human Security. The purpose is to move away from an unconstructive and ever narrowing security policy debate in Sweden that focuses solely on Russia as the threat and the Swedish Armed Forces as the solution. With the broadening security agenda of the magazine, it is obvious that I am also leaving the academic comfort zone and actively throwing myself into the policy arena. I will also keep a formal link to Georgetown in one capacity or the other, and I very much look forward to staying in touch with both faculty and students.

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