Photo Credit: Professor Johnston’s Faculty Profile
Professor Seth A. Johnston is one of SSP’s newest faculty members. After several years of service in the U.S. Army and academic appointments at the United States Military Academy and Harvard University, he joined the SSP community this past summer and currently teaches a 500 course. GSSR caught up with him to discuss his career, his thoughts on the future of transatlantic relations, his diploma from the Ritz Escoffier School of French Gastronomy, and more.
The transcript of this interview, conducted by Freddy Ludtke, has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
You are starting out at Georgetown during a very unorthodox time. How have Zoom classes been so far?
Georgetown has done a great job under the circumstances, especially with classroom resources like the instructional technology assistants. In our class, we try to have as “normal” a discussion as possible. Students are hardworking and smart, and their enthusiasm really comes through even on Zoom. I look forward to class. Also, I have lived in a lot of countries since I joined the Army, and the last couple of years at Harvard were very rewarding, but it’s great to be back in my hometown of Washington D.C.—I’m delighted to be at Georgetown!
Could you give us a 30,000-foot view of your career path to date? How did you get into the academic side of security studies?
Transatlantic relations: that’s the unifying theme in my career as a soldier and scholar. I’ve spent most of my military career in Europe or fighting alongside our NATO allies somewhere else, like in Afghanistan. That practitioner focus is the direct result of academic research on European politics since my very first days as a graduate student at Oxford, but also later at West Point and Harvard. The British Marshall Scholarships and the Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellowships were pivotal opportunities for me. I’m grateful to them and to the Army for helping bridge the academic and practitioner worlds.
You attended West Point and then went to graduate school right away. Can you run through what the first couple years of your career were like?
West Point graduates, as you know, become active-duty Army officers. Unusually, my first Army duty was full-time graduate study at Oxford as a Marshall Scholar. This was the first step into this career in transatlantic relations because my studies there on NATO led me almost immediately to the U.S. Army in Europe and the combat zone with allied forces.
You mentioned you served in Afghanistan, primarily working with other countries’ forces. Could you reflect a little about what that experience was like?
After 9/11, NATO invoked Article 5 of its founding treaty—an attack on one allied country is an attack on all—for the first and only time in its seventy-year history. So NATO ultimately became involved in the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan. But those were times of big change in the Alliance, especially after seven countries from central and eastern Europe joined in 2004—NATO’s biggest-ever enlargement. One of these new NATO countries, Romania, decided to step up to a pretty big role in the NATO operation in Afghanistan. My job became to go embed with that Romanian army unit in Afghanistan. Other countries piled on, so we had this totally unprecedented multinational team—based around a Romanian infantry unit with all of its Soviet-designed, Cold War-era equipment—but with soldiers from other Western countries as well—the Netherlands, Denmark, Canada, and a few of us Americans. It was completely experimental. We were making it work as we went along. The experience inspired me to write the book How NATO Adapts, which is dedicated to my fellow soldiers from that time.
You did a stint doing arms control work at the State Department. Could you speak about what that was like and, in particular, any culture differences between working for the Department of Defense versus at the State Department?
I’m so glad I had the opportunity to work at the State Department early in my career, not only because diplomacy and the military are such complementary instruments of national power, but also because it was an opportunity to understand once again a different facet of transatlantic relations. One big difference between State and Defense that I observed was budget. State was doing a lot with very little, and funding was a constant concern. My State colleagues would sometimes vocally daydream about DoD levels of resources. I’ve heard it said that there are about as many musicians in military marching bands as there are diplomats in the foreign service. I don’t know whether that’s true, but it seems plausible.
What would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?
No question, the highlight of my career was as task force commander in Afghanistan about two years ago. I was the leader of a NATO task force composed of soldiers from nine different NATO countries, and we had a special theater-wide role. It was a huge job but a really rewarding one to have such close cooperation from so many different countries.
Something interesting to note too: even though I was the commander, because the commander was always a U.S. officer, some of the other participating countries’ officers outranked me in military rank—even though, by position, I was the leader. It was a role where some of those diplomatic skills came in useful.
Shifting gears to your 500 class, you have very recent experience as a practitioner. How has that influenced the way you teach international relations, especially the more abstract theory side of things? Are there any specific lessons you try to impart upon your students?
One of things I have found is that, as a scholar or student of international relations—particularly as you’re doing research—there is a lot of pressure and a practical need to focus on one particular kind of research or theoretical approach. But as a practitioner, this is not the case. Rather than limiting yourself to one particular approach, I think a broad understanding of international relations theories and history can be incredibly useful because, as a practitioner, you can survey knowledge of all the theoretical traditions for the most appropriate concepts or ideas to apply to a given problem. As a practitioner, you want to be able to bring any and all your intellectual tools to bear.
On the topic of NATO specifically, you mentioned that your master’s research was on transatlantic relations. How did you originally select that issue set?
When I was an undergraduate, I had an opportunity through West Point and the Atlantic Council to attend a NATO summit meeting where several countries were invited to join the Alliance. It was a remarkable experience to be there, to hear the leaders of those countries talk about what it meant for their security but also what it meant for their values and history, for those countries to have been behind the Iron Curtain and in a Communist regime during the Cold War, that they were joining the Western democratic community of liberal values and nations. This struck me as enormously important historically and also something that was worth working hard to try to preserve. Peace, prosperity, and the promotion of our democratic values—that was where it started.
In some of your recent writings, you have tried to situate NATO’s current moment in history in terms of where this current crisis stands relative to past historical crises. How unprecedented is this moment? Are there historical parallels to the crisis in transatlantic relations that exists today?
I wrote an article about this very thing in the French journal Politique étrangère last year, and the main argument is that NATO’s almost always said to be in crisis, so I think the question really is the one that you posed—relative to others, what about this crisis is the same and what’s different? Many of the tension points in NATO and transatlantic relations today—whether it’s burden-sharing, who spends enough on their defense, for example, or geographic prioritization of threats—many of these tension points are pretty long-standing. You could go all the way back to the 1950s, for example, and find the first real significant transatlantic tension over investment in defense capabilities, which occurred in 1952. These similarities lead me to be fairly optimistic because, not only is NATO always said to be in crisis but, as I have also written, NATO tends to adapt pretty successfully and in a pretty consistent way to these big challenges. So the issue with adaption of the alliances is not the institution’s capability to meet the new challenges of the day—but rather whether the members of the alliance have the political will and desire to do that.
What sorts of indicators and/or metrics should we look toward in terms of evaluating the health of transatlantic relations at any given time?
I think we tend to underestimate, or take for granted, just how important Europe is as a region. Most American treaty allies are in Europe as we discussed, but maybe what’s even more important is that, taken together, the countries of the European Union represent the second largest economy in the world after ours and, relatedly, the United States and Europe have deeply integrated economies. The United States is the biggest investor in Europe. Europe is the biggest investor in the United States. The trade flows are large, the investment flows are large, the data exchange between Europe and North America is large. These economic indicators are really striking, not just in terms of size but in terms of the level of integration and that’s especially remarkable considering that there is no “economic NATO,” or other transatlantic institution that governs the transatlantic economy.
One last NATO-related question. You walk into a gas station in some small town in rural America and strike up a conversation with a local who questions the value of spending taxpayer dollars on NATO. What is your pitch as to why NATO is important to the everyday American?
Did you know the European members of NATO and Canada, taken together, are the second biggest defense spender in the world? The United States is number one, but our allies spend more than China, Russia, or any other country. Isn’t it great to have such powerful friends, who invest such large sums on defense so we don’t have to spend more of our own? And by the way, NATO stood by us after 9/11, and still stands with us in Afghanistan today after the better part of two decades. These aren’t just powerful friends, but good friends too.
Consider this also: in the seventy years leading up to the 1940 campaign in World War II, Germany invaded France three times, and the United States was drawn into both costly world wars. In the seventy years of NATO, there’s been no great power European war. To anyone wondering what is the value of NATO to the United States, it has been a worthwhile insurance policy, a contributor to peace. This peace is also a stabilizing force that helped permit the extraordinary wealth and economic power the United States has enjoyed. And as I mentioned earlier with transatlantic economics, those allied countries are also our biggest overseas customers and investors.
What general advice do you have for graduate students, particularly at a time when, at least for the foreseeable future, we will still be in an online environment?
One of the biggest differences between undergraduate and graduate school is that success as an undergraduate is often about answering someone else’s questions, but success as a graduate student starts to become more about identifying your own good questions. My advice for graduate students is to ask the questions that really interest you. Do not follow the fashionable topics just because they seem fashionable today. Things change. Better to do what you really want to do. You will enjoy it more and likely be better at it.
For students interested in pursuing a career similar to yours, in which you have straddled the line between diplomacy and warfighting, what types of skillsets have you found to be most helpful?
Always have a plan. And always be ready to change it. A plan gives direction to your interests and vision. Readiness to change helps you deal with the inevitable surprises.
Do you have any book recommendations or any texts you have come across in your studies that have been particularly foundational as to how you approach understanding international relations?
I am turning around right now to look at the bookshelf… Study the First World War—we’re doing that right now in SEST-500. It has reminded me of how little we remember or talk about World War I. We rightly remember the Second World War, but it’s difficult to understand international relations today without understanding the first. Consider any of Hew Strachan’sseveral excellent editions of The First World War. For a new book on American foreign policy, I’m looking at Shields of the Republic by Mira Rapp-Hooper. It reviews this big shift during the twentieth century away from George Washington’s advice to avoid entangling alliances, but instead to embark on a large program of creating and leading international institutions–not just NATO, but others all around the world.
Last but not least, you have a diploma from the Ritz Escoffier School of French Gastronomy—how did that come about and what was that process like?
An old British friend of mine once advised, “know a little bit about everything, know a lot about something, and play a musical instrument.” Of course, the point was not necessarily that music must be essential, although it certainly could be, but rather that a well-rounded person—at Georgetown, of course, we place a very great importance on educating the whole person—should have a hobby or an interest unrelated to their everyday profession. So, for me, this was going to culinary school. I did it in France so there was a language-learning aspect to it too. And it is a skill that I get to use everyday and can share with others, and that makes life a bit more enjoyable.
The interviewed faculty member’s views are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or any other agency.