Politics & Policy

Rebooting American Foreign Policy

The Institute of World Politics is becoming an influential force.

It has been a bad decade for America’s foreign-policy and intelligence establishment. We’ve seen a devastating terrorist attack in America’s largest city, followed by two protracted wars fraught with strategic missteps. Meanwhile, in the face of threats to our security, the country’s intelligence-gathering methods have been the subject sharp political and moral disagreement.

If there is any hope of fixing America’s national-security apparatus, there’s a good chance that hope lies within a large, but discreet, brick townhouse in downtown Washington, D.C. From the street, the Institute of World Politics (IWP) may not look like much — and in fact, IWP tries to keep a relatively low profile — but the 18-year-old graduate school is fast becoming an influential force in the world of international affairs.

IWP takes an integrated approach to teaching all aspects of foreign policy — even relatively obscure subjects. “The culture here is guns and rockets and boxes of cash and the diplomacy concerning those matters,” explains John Lenczowski, IWP’s president and founder. “There are all of these other non-military arts that have been neglected.”

And there’s ample evidence that our current unsophisticated approach to foreign policy isn’t helping. “We heard Secretary of State Colin Powell talk about using all of the instruments of power, and yet for all of that talk, they were not used,” Lenczowski observes. “Even by the last year of the Bush administration, the president was saying we’re in a war of ideas. Tell me, Mr. President, which agency of yours hires warriors of ideas? Which one cultivates them in a career track? The answer is none of them.”

Lenczowski isn’t just an academic observer. He worked on national-security issues in Congress, at the State Department, and eventually at the National Security Council in the Reagan White House. Along the way, he taught at the University of Maryland and spent 15 years at Georgetown. Sitting in his office on the top floor of IWP, Lenczowski says the school’s unique curriculum was born of his frustration with the foreign-policy establishment.

“I was interested in the related question of public diplomacy, which is relations with foreign societies and not just governments. I worked on these things during the Reagan administration, and I found that the foreign-policy establishment had a tin ear towards them,” says Lenczowski. While the establishment may not have listened when Reagan called the USSR an “evil empire” and challenged Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” the people of the Communist bloc heard him loud and clear.

“I would argue — as we’ve seen how history has played out — that public diplomacy played the decisive role in putting the most important straws on the Soviet camel’s back, when it came to the collapse of the Soviet empire, which the materialistic foreign-policy culture cannot and does not to date understand.”

But public diplomacy was just one of many things America’s international-affairs community did not understand. Lenczowski found that the academic establishment was also unwilling to acknowledge the shortcomings of its approach to foreign policy when, at Georgetown, his attempts to change the curriculum provoked academic turf wars.

So he did something that would have been unthinkable to most persons in his position — he started his own graduate university. The school’s first-year budget was $83,000, and it offered credit through an affiliation with Boston University. Early on, most of its students were careerists in the intelligence and foreign-policy establishment. The school finally became accredited in 2006 — no small achievement — and currently has 129 students. The curriculum, which requires 52 credits for a graduate degree, is about as tough as they come.

After 18 years of trying to create a curriculum that addresses America’s considerable foreign-policy failings, Lenczowski’s metaphors are finely honed. “I consider [neglected non-military arts] to be instruments in the orchestra that is the symphony of our foreign policy. We try and conduct this foreign policy without entire sectors of the orchestra, or the conductors are unaware of the certain sections of the orchestra, or the trumpets blare loudly when it’s the time of the symphony to listen to the harp,” he says. “What you have is a lack of strategic thinking on behalf of everyone, both the conductors and some of the main musicians,” he says.

Lenczowski boasts that IWP is conducting its own symphony. “We have been preaching here all the instruments of national power for the last 18 years. We teach military strategy, we teach intelligence — we’re the only school that teaches counterintelligence. We arguably have the strongest intelligence program in the country,” he says. “We’re the only school, by the way, that teaches political warfare. And there are some people who say, ‘Political warfare — that’s something dirty and un-American.’ Well, the people who say that would rather kill somebody than persuade them.”

The school places a high premium on applied knowledge. In hiring faculty, its emphasis is on teacher-practitioners: Most have real-world credentials that outshine their academic qualifications. The students are similarly involved in practical affairs: Because many are already part of the foreign-policy community, they are able to apply what they learn immediately.

One of IWP’s students just completed a survey of Afghan responses to Taliban and al-Qaeda propaganda in six provinces. “He has in effect laid the groundwork for what could be — if the U.S. government had the strategic imagination and willingness to do anything about it — the first counter-propaganda effort in the Afghan war,” notes Lenczowski, with evident pride.

Another unique thing is going on at IWP — call it the Spiderman theory of foreign policy. “Since we are teaching people how to use power, we need to teach them how to use it responsibly and effectively so that they maintain the high ground in the moral battle space,” Lenczowski says. “We are concerned about moral leadership.”

But whereas a lot of schools merely pay lip service to the question of ethics, at IWP, exploring the moral underpinnings of national security is part of the curriculum. “We’re a nonsectarian school, so we do a sort of Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian approach to the study of moral philosophy,” says Lenczowski. This means exposing students to the tradition of natural law, the Christian conception of just war, and the ancient Roman notion of tranquillitas ordinis (“the tranquility of order”).

Most important, “We’re probably the only school of international affairs in the country that places a very high premium on the study of American founding principles. We don’t think that you can defend a country and a civilization that you neither understand nor particularly appreciate,” Lenczowski says.

This combination of expanding America’s strategic vision and exposing students to the moral questions surrounding their workhas earned the school lots of fans who happen to be heavyweights in the foreign-policy world. Former U.S. national security adviser John Poindexter is an enthusiastic booster, and former CIA director William Casey donated his  library to the school. When Gen. Ray Odierno, the top commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, visited Washington in May, he made two public appearances: one at the Pentagon, the other at IWP. (Television star Kelsey Grammar is another big supporter of the school, and he funds a number of scholarships to IWP.)

“I don’t think you can defend a country you don’t love,” Lenczowski says. That is a very effective piece of public diplomacy — aimed squarely at America’s foreign-policy establishment.

– Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been amended since its initial posting.

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