Faculty Interview Series: An Interview with Dr. Thomas McNaugher, SSP’s Director of Studies

By: Cillian Muldoon, Reporter

Dr. Thomas McNaugher, Visiting Professor and SSP’s Director of Studies, joined the Georgetown faculty in 2011 after a career mainly in think tanks. From 1981 to 1995 Dr. McNaugher was a scholar at the Brookings Institution, where he authored books and articles on military strategy in the Persian Gulf and on the US weapons acquisition process. In 1995, he left Brookings for RAND, where he held a series of management positions, including Vice President for Army Research and Director of the Army’s RAND-based research institute, the Arroyo Center. On several occasions he has testified before Congress on Middle East security issues or weapons procurement. After graduating from the US Military Academy at West Point, Dr. McNaugher served as an active duty Army officer from 1968-75. His service record includes a tour as an advisor in the Republic of Vietnam (1970-71). As an Army Reservist after 1975, he was mobilized and served in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm (1990-91). He retired from the Army Reserves in January 2000 with the rank of Colonel. In addition to a B.S. from the US Military Academy, McNaugher earned an M.P.A. and Ph.D. (in Political Science) from Harvard University. In this inaugural installment of the Faculty Interview Series, Dr. McNaugher sits down with the GSSR to share insights into his past experiences and current role at SSP.

You are currently the Director of Studies. What does that entail?

Well, there are two sides to it. For students, my main job is approving (or not) courses that students want to take that aren’t already on our approved list. Typically I review a student’s transcript to ensure that a particular course makes sense for them and fits into SSP’s degree requirements. For faculty, my main role, which I share with Professor Dubik (the Director of Teaching), lies in helping new adjunct faculty perfect their syllabi before the start of the semester.

What course(s) are you currently teaching at SSP, or have you taught in the past?

I have always taught three courses. Each semester I teach 501 (SEST-501, Strategy, Policy, and Military Operations). I was actually initially hired to teach 501, and I love teaching it. In the fall, I teach a course on the defense budget and managing the Department of Defense (SEST-596, US Defense Budgeting and Strategic Planning). And in the Spring I teach a course on East Asian security issues (SEST-571, Security Issues in East Asia).

What attracted you to SSP?

When Professor Byman took over as Director of the Security Studies Program several years ago, he invited me, Professor Dick Betts, up at Columbia, and Professor Deborah Avant, then at GWU, to review SSP’s curriculum. We were delighted to take that on, and concluded, among other things, that SSP needed to have a couple of core courses that everybody would take – one on theory and conflict, and one on strategy and policy. Of course, that’s 500 and 501. A couple of years later, Professor Byman asked me if I wanted to come on as a Visiting Professor to teach 501. At the time, I had just stepped into the role of Director of RAND’s Asia Policy Center, so the timing didn’t really work out. But a few years later the faculty job was open again, and the timing was perfect. I jumped at the chance to come over to SSP.

Having done the curriculum review, I knew it was a great program. What I didn’t know was how great the students would be! I also think this program is unique in the flexibility it allows students – they can be full-time students, or they can work part time, or even take a leave of absence if it’s needed. I really enjoy teaching working students. I have a great deal of respect and admiration for those who can find time to study even while working full time. That’s one of the reasons I always teach in the 6:30 to 9pm slot – that’s when many working students are most available.

What is the one thing you hope students take away from this degree?

As the professor in charge of strategy and policy, I feel I am teaching an approach to thinking about strategy that wasn’t taught to me at West Point or in graduate school. It’s a way of thinking about using force to achieve political goals that I want to plant in students’ minds very early. They may not use it for a while, but I want that thinking to be there as they enter into their respective careers. It’s interesting; when you think about Clausewitz it’s not really exclusively about the use of force. The idea of having a clear goal in mind, and a vision of getting there before you set off on a path…that strategic mindset is immensely helpful in the military, in diplomacy, and across many disciplines.

Can you discuss your role(s) at RAND, and how working at a company like that compared to your time at Brookings?

At Brookings I was a scholar, first as a Research Associate and then as a Fellow. During my time there I wrote a lot of books and articles, and got a lot of media exposure. RAND brought me on as a manager to run a strategy program, and I ultimately became head of the Army’s think tank: the Arroyo Center. So I did a lot less research and writing, and a lot more organizing of other peoples’ research. The major challenge was how to get our ideas into an organization like the Army, which is pretty busy and not always open to new ideas. There was a certain element of bureaucratic politics involved, which I enjoyed… but I probably lost at least as many battles as I won.

How have your research interests developed over your career, and what is one topic currently in the news that you find yourself wanting to read more and more about?

I am fascinated by the substance of all my courses, but if you force me to choose I’d say that I am drawn to – and worry about – China’s ability to reform its economy. Chinese leaders have understood the need for reform since at least 2004, but they’ve not been able to do much about it – there are just too many interests congealed around the way business has been done since the 80s. Xi Jinping tells a good story, and he’s certainly consolidating power. But it’s still not clear he can pull this off. And if he can’t, the consequences, not just for China but also for the global (and US) economy, could be pretty grim.

If you could walk over to the Tombs right now, sit at the bar, and have a drink next to any person from history – who would it be and why?

Oh – that’s a tough one. The more I think about it, the less I think of sitting down next to a great intellectual figure, or a strategist like Clausewitz or Sun Tzu.  I try not to discuss work outside of work, certainly not at a bar or social occasion.  Rather, I think I’d pick Dave Brubeck, whose work over many decades strongly shaped my appreciation of music generally, jazz in particular; Marian McPartland, for the same reason; or perhaps Bill Evans.  All three were extremely intellectual and articulate exponents of music and jazz.  It would be a delightful conversation, without the faintest hint of gunfire in the background!


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