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Congressional seminar introduces MIT faculty to 30 Washington staffers

Security Studies Program offers knowledge on national security issues.
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A large group of people in business attire posing in a semicircle.
SSP Director M. Taylor Fravel (center, with red tie) poses with SSP staff and participants in the 2022 Executive Branch and Congressional Staff Seminar.
Photo: Christopher Burns
Photo of John Richardson speaking at a podium
Former chief of naval operations Admiral John Richardson served at CNO from 2015-19.
Photo: Christopher Burns
Photo of Mariya Grinberg standing at a podium, gesturing with her hands as she speaks
Assistant professor of political science and Security Studies Program member Mariya Grinberg speaks to congressional staffers during a panel on “New Tools of Statecraft.”
Photo: Christopher Burns

More than 30 congressional and executive branch staffers were hosted by MIT’s Security Studies Program (SSP) for a series of panels and a keynote address focused on contemporary national security issues. 

Organized by the Security Studies Program, the Executive Branch and Congressional Staff Seminar was held from Wednesday, April 20m to Friday, April 22, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The program, supported by a generous grant from the Raymond Frankel Foundation, is hosted by MIT every other year to encourage interaction and exchange between scholars studying national security and policymakers.

Staff members from the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate, and the Congressional Research Service were joined by more than 15 MIT SSP faculty members and research affiliates. Each of them is an expert on one of a broad range of topics, from China’s ambitions to great-power competition.

This year’s program included a guided tour of the MIT Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington, Massachusetts, four intensive panels with SSP faculty and affiliates, and a keynote address by Admiral John Richardson, the former chief of naval operations.

Keynote address

In his address, Richardson argued the United States is facing two simultaneous revolutions that have the potential to reshape the world. First, a political revolution of rising powers is returning the world to multipolarity and spreading authoritarianism. Second, a technological revolution of interconnected new technologies, from artificial intelligence to quantum computing, promises not only to increase speed and efficiency, but also to allow for entirely new capabilities. 

Richardson compared the current moment to two points in history: the turn of the 19th century and the beginning of the Cold War. In both periods, he said, the United States faced intertwined political and technological revolutions. 

In each case, he said, the U.S. and its allies prevailed. This success was won in both the political and technological spheres. 

In those areas, there was a sense of existential urgency that enabled a more adaptable and learning-based approach to the rapid changes of the Cold War, he said. In the end, the United States benefited from a coherent strategy to address worldwide changes.

The current challenges, Richardson said, demand a similar sense of urgency, adaptability, and learning if the U.S. is to prevail in preserving its influence in the world, and its quality of life.

The changing international order

During a panel on the “Changing International Order,” staffers heard from Ford International Professor of Political Science Barry Posen, SSP Senior Advisor Carol Saivetz, and Jonathan Kirshner, a professor of political science and international studies at Boston College.

Posen focused his remarks on Russia and China’s growing power relative to the United States, in the context of the 2008 financial crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the war in Ukraine. Kirshner identified the domestic politics of key participants in the international order, especially domestic dysfunction in the United States, as the chief driver of change. Saivetz offered several hypotheses on the cause of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which include pushing back against the expansion of NATO and the European Union, the desire for great power status, concerns about a liberal democracy on its borders, and the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church.

New tools of statecraft

A panel on “New Tools of Statecraft” featured remarks by Richard Nielsen, associate professor of political science at MIT, Mariya Grinberg, assistant professor of political science at MIT, and Joel Brenner, senior advisor to MIT SSP. MIT’s R. David Edelman, director of the Project on Technology, Economy and National Security and Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory affiliate, chaired the panel.

Nielsen discussed the role of U.S. influence in a world beset by misinformation. He emphasized that the internet is more fragmented than it has ever been, and America’s ability to shape people’s opinions through the internet is extremely limited. Grinberg, an expert on conflict economies, addressed what policy changes are necessary — and what policy changes were unnecessary — in response to the Covid-19 pandemic’s effects on markets. Brenner observed that many existing tools of statecraft are not “new,” but the speed, coordination, and synchronization of tools is new, as demonstrated by both the Russians and the Ukrainians in the ongoing war.

China’s growing ambitions

A panel on “China’s Growing Ambitions” featured remarks by MIT SSP director and Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science M. Taylor Fravel along with two SSP alumni: Joseph Torigian PhD '16, an assistant professor with the School of International Service at American University, and Fiona Cunningham PhD '18, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania.

Torigian suggested that Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping’s views are likely a balance between pursuing the Communist Party’s ideals and mission with a deep skepticism of radical policies, and the kind of leftism and radicalism associated with events such as the Cultural Revolution. Xi is ideological, he said, but is flexible. Cunningham spoke broadly on China’s ambitions, and concluded with an argument that the U.S. needs to do more work to implement a more competitive Indo-Pacific policy, especially in terms of trade, and that U.S. officials should work to protect and strengthen existing channels of communication so that they can be functional in a crisis. Fravel discussed recent military changes in China. He noted that China adopted a new military strategy in 2019, which identifies the U.S. and Taiwan as principal adversaries, but stated that this was fundamentally not much more than top-level cosmetic changes to the 2014 military strategy in order to help cement Xi’s role as a military leader. 

The new nuclear era

The “New Nuclear Era” panel featured three MIT faculty and affiliates: Senior Research Associate Jim Walsh, Principal Research Scientist Eric Heginbotham, and Caitlin Talmadge PhD '11, an associate professor with the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and an SSP alumna.

Heginbotham discussed the increasing number and variety of roles that nuclear weapons play in international affairs, emphasizing how multipolarity and nuclear proliferation create “nested security dilemmas.” Talmadge similarly highlighted the complexity of the deterrence environment with multiple, multi-sided nuclear competitions occurring at once. Walsh framed the war in Ukraine as a reminder of nuclear danger that motivates the public both to “hug nuclear weapons more closely in a more dangerous world” and to “reduce nuclear danger before unimaginably bad things happen.”

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