Faculty Interview Series: An Interview with Professor Adam Lovinger, SSP Adjunct Professor

By: Olga Novitsky, Reporter

Adam S. Lovinger is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, McCourt School of Public Policy, and McDonough School of Business. He is a strategist in the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment (ONA) providing direct support on long-term strategy to the Secretary of Defense. Before assuming his current position, Mr. Lovinger served as general counsel within OSD’s lead office focused upon the operational reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan and as associate deputy general counsel for DoD. Prior to his government service, Mr. Lovinger was an international project finance lawyer in London-based firms Clifford Chance and Freshfields. Mr. Lovinger grew up in Oregon, completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania, and his postgraduate degrees at Columbia University and Georgetown Law School.

In this installment of the Faculty Interview Series, Professor Lovinger sits down with the GSSR to share his insights on net assessment, the long-term strategic competition with China, and teaching at Georgetown.

Could you give a brief description of what net assessment is and what your work at the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment is like? How does net assessment apply to business?

While the essence of net assessment as a discipline is diagnostic, its application is strategic.  A net assessment employs a range of multidisciplinary methodologies (such as alternative futures and wargaming) to identify the strategic character of long-term, multi-phased competitions unfolding in opaque and realistically complex conditions.

Net assessment considers not only all the strategically significant competitors, including their strengths and weaknesses, but also their interactions at various levels such as strategic motivations, economic growth, doctrine, operational experience, organizational and strategic culture, technological sophistication, and the capability and capacity of key forces.  The importance of net assessment lies in its multi-disciplinary, compensatory approach to strategic analysis, which requires the integration of classic strategic thinking with reference to economic methods, historical exploration, organizational behavior, business literature, cultural anthropology, and technological forecasting.

My interest in teaching net assessment to MBA students (at Georgetown and Yale) arises out of a realization that the practice and sensibility of this approach to informing military strategy is equally applicable to other fields.  Seeing if I can apply this to business was a chance to learn, and it was the challenge of making this cross-disciplinary leap that I found irresistible.

You went to Georgetown Law and worked at a few law firms. What prompted you to switch from law to the security field?

I chose Georgetown Law because it has more courses in international law than any other school in the world, and I wanted to live and work in Washington. I ended up working at a law firm representing the World Bank Group, where I focused upon the financing of infrastructure projects around the world. Though this public-private element was attractive in principle, the day-to-day work was unfortunately rather boring since the creativity of the deals themselves had largely been worked out by the financiers ahead of time.

In 2004, through a connection made by chance at a university alumni event, I was appointed to the Pentagon as a subject-matter expert. Focused upon the public international law of the operational reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan, I found this work much more interesting than what I was doing in the private sector. But then after a couple years I realized that, compared to other things going on in the Pentagon, the practice of law was rather constraining. Around that time I learned there was this office called Net Assessment (that I didn’t even know about when I started working at DoD), and people kept sending me to meet with its director, Andy Marshall. After about the fourth or fifth time someone had sent me to him, he decided to hire me. In leaving law for net assessment I never looked back, and I’ve been there for ten years now.

What made you want to teach at the Security Studies Program in Georgetown, and why did you decide to teach a thesis course next semester? 

I’m a Hoya, so naturally my first inclination would be to teach at my alma mater.  Additionally, Georgetown is especially strong in the field of my day job, military strategy. Bruce Hoffman has kindly invited me to teach a class on net assessment in the Security Studies Program, but I’ve resisted for now because I enjoy the challenge of teaching net assessment to MBA students and CEOs (at the Yale CEO College). Since joining SSP in 2014, I have been teaching the International Security core class at SSP. While there is a lot of overlap, this course forces me to focus upon a range of international security elements that I don’t normally encounter in my day-to-day job.

Teaching thesis students will be a welcome challenge. I do a lot of writing myself, and engaging students to think holistically about their thesis topics is complementary to the approach I am used to at my day job at the Pentagon. In so many respects, the essence of net assessment is getting the questions right, and that then forms the basis for the analytical framework. And to get the questions right, you need to start with a holistic understanding of context. I’m excited to work with students to get to the most essential core questions that will then structure their theses. Unfortunately I have found so much writing in the security field is designed around reaching preconceived answers, meaning they’re asking questions that are rather easily answered – and those are often not the most useful ones. It’s the really hard questions that reflect the thorny reality, and those are the ones we should be asking and struggling with. It’s a pleasure for me to teach SSP students, so I’m very much looking forward to the opportunity.

If you had to bet on it, what do you think is going to be ‘the next big thing’ in the field of security studies, say, over the next 10 years? Could you give an example of an ‘alternate universe’?

I would say the anti-access/area denial threat, coupled with the democratization – that is, the spread– of precision-guided weaponry, will pose a significant challenge to the liberal global order. This phenomenon, combined with the current US disinterest in the costs of American internationalism, I fear has the potential to result in growing security vacuums, upset power balances, security dilemmas, and even wars.

In the field of net assessment, we live in alternate universes. We’re constantly looking at scenarios set into the future. What is extraordinary to me is that while we are living through a new revolution in military affairs, represented perhaps foremost by the ‘third offset strategy,’ so few people are aware of this. The third offset is happening right now and it’s in response to a realization of capabilities that emerged from the second offset, which we implemented in the 1970s to compete with the Soviets, and that was really focused on moving away from mass to precision. We took the competition to this precision-guided alternative universe where an American advantage was placed up against a Soviet disadvantage. The reason why we are undertaking the third offset strategy is that America no longer has a monopoly on precision-guidance as other great powers have caught up and have now entered that universe for themselves.

One of my concerns with the anti-access/area denial challenge is that it risks bringing into question the capacity of America to defend its allies as robustly as it had in the past. Let’s use for example Japan and China, or China and India. China now has anti-access capabilities, like precision-guided missiles that have tremendous accuracy and range. It is conceivable in the future that such missiles paired with other capabilities will enable China to compel US forces to pull back for defensive reasons. But if we do this, and you’re a country like Japan, this has the potential to create a security dilemma for Tokyo, which may be inclined to build up its forces, in turn threatening China, which then may itself become more threatened and aggressive, and it goes back and forth. I work on the Indian Ocean region, and from talking to a lot of key players in the region, America’s capacity to protect the sea lines of communication across the Indian Ocean is absolutely vital. India is a great power, and one of our most important strategic partners in the world. India was invaded by the British from the ocean, so when China deploys nuclear submarines in the Indian Ocean, or seeks to build military bases in the region, this development has historical resonance, particularly when combined with China’s growing ties to Pakistan and its interest to port facilities providing access to the Persian Gulf. Understandably, as India comes to see itself increasingly encircled by China, we are all concerned about security dilemma dynamics and the threat to the regional balance of power.

Lastly, do you have any “words of wisdom” for SSP students, either entering or graduating from the program?

I would encourage students to take advantage of those things that you only have access to while you’re a student, such as the Presidential Management Fellowship. The other thing is that, one of the problems in American higher education is that we don’t really train strategic thinkers, and the problem gets worse as you advance in your education and you become more and more specialized. Strategy by definition is inherently multidisciplinary, so I would encourage SSP students to take a very broad curriculum, and to bridge disciplines in order to see how everything fits together. It’s a shame this is not done more because this skill is essential for national security professionals.

In terms of looking for jobs after graduation, I would say that proximity matters a lot, so if you’re intent on working in London or Beijing, I would encourage you to just get up and go. And if you have to wait tables, fine, but if you want to work somewhere, it’s so much harder to get a job from afar. And then of course keep in touch with your professors and classmates, and don’t feel bashful about reaching out and asking for help, because part of the attraction of the program at Georgetown is that you have access to a tremendously rich network with a fabulous student body and a very plugged-in professorial community. I can’t overemphasize how valuable it is to go out for lunches, coffee, or informational interviews. Even if the person you meet can’t directly offer you a job, they may know of a job, and the more people you meet and make connections with the better your chances. And don’t feel uncomfortable asking for help. People want to help you. Georgetown is a family; everyone who teaches at Georgetown wants to help students, so take advantage of that. I love mentoring students; not only is it very enriching for me, but I myself have benefited tremendously from professors and mentors helping me so I have experienced firsthand and believe in deeply the virtuous cycle of investing in future generations.


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