Faculty Interview Series: An Interview with Dr. Keir Lieber, Incoming CSS/SSP Director

Dr. Bruce Hoffman, who has served as the Director of CSS/SSP for seven years, announced in September that he would be stepping down. He will be succeeded Dr. Keir Lieber, whose appointment takes effect January 1, 2018.

Dr. Lieber is an Associate Professor in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and the Department of Government. His research and teaching interests include the causes of war; nuclear weapons, deterrence, and strategy; U.S. foreign policy; and international relations theory. Dr. Lieber has been awarded fellowships from the Brookings Institution, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Council on Foreign Relations, and the MacArthur Foundation.

The GSSR’s Stan Sundel recently sat down with Dr. Lieber to learn more about his professional background, and his vision for the future of CSS/SSP.

First, congratulations on your appointment as the next Director of the Center for Security Studies and Security Studies Program.

Thank you.

You’ve never held an administrative position at Georgetown before. What made you want to take this job?

The program is a well-oiled machine. It’s my home. I’m a core faculty member in the program. For people in my stage of the career, at some point you have to do a job like this if you’re going to contribute and become an integral member of the program and the university. And partly because it’s already running so well, it’s kind of an easy thing to slide into. [But] it’s going to be a lot of work too.

You said SSP is a “well-oiled machine.” SSP is considered the preeminent master’s program in the Security Studies field. However, even the best organizations always have room for improvement. As the incoming director, what changes do you hope to make at SSP?

I don’t plan to make any radical changes. We’ve got some hiring to do—some core faculty replacements, some retirements, etc. You have to kind of stay ahead of that, and make sure we have all the curriculum covered that we want to be able to cover with core faculty.

If there’s a big vision thing, it might be an emphasis on bolstering the research component of what the program does. And by that, I mean everything. I mean support and bolster faculty research on real world, security policy problems. Possibly set[ting] up a postdoctoral fellows program, where we bring in up to half a dozen people at junior stages of their career who are doing cutting edge research on security studies, who would be based here, who’d give workshop talks, interact with students, [and] possibly even do some teaching. Bring in undergraduate research, and of course bring in the MA students into research projects more directly with faculty, which you can incentivize and formalize in different kinds of programs. That’s what we do as an academic program aimed at producing policy relevant, top notch scholarship, and conveying that knowledge to students, and having them go on to be successful in their careers. I think there’s nothing radically new about that approach, but I think we can bolster that.

Unlike a number of other SSP faculty members, you’ve never served in government. You’ve spent your entire career in academia. What made you want to stay inside the ivory tower, and not take a turn in “the swamp?”

… I think maybe the most important professional reason is that the kind of work that I would want to do in government would be in my area of expertise, which is nuclear weapons and nuclear policy. And frankly, I think I would be frustrated a little bit by the way nuclear policy is made in recent …administrations. And I don’t know if it would be that fulfilling.

Secondly, I was a bit concerned about a security clearance, and the impact that would have on my future research and scholarship in the area of nuclear weapons. Again, my colleagues are great examples of people who continue to do good research even though they have had…a security clearance. I was especially concerned about the need to clear future scholarship through the security clearance process—it was enough to give me some pause right now, until I’m fully done with this phase of research I’m working on now.

Moreover, I think I can best do my part to improve public policy by training students to serve in government. I think it’s my comparative advantage to be able to help students learn how to think more critically, and clearly, and theoretically about real world problems. So that when they get inside, when they get in the swamp, or get in that funny shaped building across the river, they will already have that critical thinking approach in their heads, and already be well trained to do that. I think I could have a bigger impact that way than a direct attempt at shaping policy.

I’ve looked through the Georgetown Directory, and it turns out you’re not the only person with the last name “Lieber” on the faculty. Your Dad is a professor here, also in the Department of Government. Having a father and son in the same department at the same university is very unusual in academia. What’s it been like working at the same institution as your Dad?  

Well, it’s funny, there are plenty of couples, husbands and wives, often in the same department. So it’s not completely unprecedented. It’s both great, and it’s both strange too. I grew up in Washington, DC, so I remember walking across campus when I was a kid. And to be doing the same thing now, while my father is still in the Government Department, is fun. It’s nice to be able to see him at the top of his game, and to have him as a colleague. But again, every time I walk into a meeting—and there he is—and we start sitting down together and start talking, it’s strange. But a good kind of strange.

Recently, a number of legislators have introduced bills that would prohibit President Trump from ordering a nuclear first strike, without getting a declaration of war from congress. Do you believe this is a wise policy proposal? And if these bills become law, how would this reshape the United States’ nuclear strategy?

I’m torn. On the one hand, I think the bills are unlikely to go anywhere. I think it’s unlikely that the President of the United States is going to lose his or her ability to order the use of nuclear weapons anytime soon. But your question is about the wisdom of that. And of course, anyone who sits back and thinks that the ability to destroy an adversary with the push of a button, turn of the key, giving of an order, should be in any single person’s hands [needs] to think twice about that. On the other hand, the reason to give a sole individual, the national command authority, the ability to do so is related to nuclear deterrence concepts [and] the credibility of the threat to retaliate quickly if attacked by an adversary. And that needs to be taken into consideration too. But I’m watching this debate. I think both sides have good arguments about why the president should or should not be the sole person able to order that kind of attack. And I don’t have a strong policy position right now one way or the other.

What advice do you have for students who are going to be entering the security field?

My advice is to understand that the division between the theory world and the policy world is a false one. It’s a false dichotomy. You need good theory in your head to make good policy. And you need to know a lot about how the real world of policy works in order to develop and evaluate theories. They’re inextricably linked. And [I urge students] to understand and not be hostile to the ivory tower or be hostile to “the swamp;”—and understand that they both function best when they’re in close contact and close interaction with each other. And that’s why I think the Security Studies Program is the best of all worlds, from my perspective. We have scholars that can do rigorous, academic work aimed at addressing real world policy problems. And that would be the fundamental thing I would want students to walk out of the program with: an understanding and appreciation of that relationship.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.