précis Interview: Kelly M Greenhill

  • Fall 2021 ∕  Winter 2022
précis Interview: Kelly M Greenhill

Kelly M Greenhill, PhD '04, joined CIS as director of the Seminar XXI Program—one of the most successful post-graduate education programs in the national security arena. The program links policymaking and academia by bringing together military and civilian executives with scholars from MIT and beyond. Greenhill is a Seminar XXI veteran and has long served on its executive board. She also serves as the 2020-22 Leverhulme Trust Visiting Professor, SOAS (UK); associate professor of political science at Tufts University, visiting professor at MIT, senior research fellow at the MIT Security Studies Program, and research associate at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center.

FALL 21/WINTER 22 :: précis Interview :: Kelly M Greenhill
Kelly Greenhill
February 10, 2022

précis: You became director of the Center’s Seminar XXI Program in fall of 2021.  What has your experience been so far? What are some of the biggest challenges you’re facing?

KG: Each meeting so far this year has been intellectually rich and edifying, provocative and thought-provoking. The program boasts a superb cohort of fellows, an excellent slate of faculty, and a crackerjack staff and set of program advisors. Last year’s interim director Ken Oye has played—and will continue to play—an integral role in the program, as he has for decades. All of which is to say, the strengths of Seminar XXI lie in the collective inputs of all of those who are a part of the Program and make this important enterprise more than the sum of its parts.

Unfortunately, Covid continues to present an array of challenges and complications for fellows, faculty and staff alike that neither I nor anyone else associated with the Program could have anticipated when I agreed to become the next director back in fall 2019. How much has changed in the last 2.5 years! We are all hopeful that the decline in Omicron cases of late presages better times ahead, but also know that the virus’s behavior has defied many previous predictions. 

précis: What are your goals for Seminar XXI, and what is the role of programs like XXI in the current political environment?

KG: I see my principal role as two-pronged: to simultaneously serve as a responsible steward and guardian of the program’s long-standing mission and as a creative and risk-acceptant innovator, attentive and responsive to changes in the national and global environments and to shifts in material and ideological challenges. Such an approach will allow us to best address the also-evolving needs of our enormously talented Fellows and the organizations they serve.

As has long been the case, Seminar XXI seeks to encourage regular and free-flowing intra- and inter-agency discussions and dialogue; the creation and utilization of new connections and networks across as well as inside and outside government; the expansion of our fellows’ perspectives, knowledge and analytical toolkits—all of which can be particularly invaluable in fraught and complicated times.

In recent months, we have also been taking proactive steps to further enhance the diversity of Seminar XXI fellows going forward. In addition, Seminar XXI staff have been hard at work modernizing and streamlining the program’s application process in ways that should benefit our sponsoring organizations and agencies; our future fellows; and Seminar XXI staff members.

précis: Have the goals of Seminar XXI changed since it started in 1986? Have the characteristics of the participants changed?

KG: After the 1983 attack on the US Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, US policymakers were eager to understand why the attack happened and to identify productive ways to respond that extended beyond traditional military options and, on both dimensions, found themselves coming up short. It was to help fill this recognized vacuum that Seminar XXI was first founded. Then, when the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed, US policymakers faced a new set of challenges, in different parts of the globe. Consequently, Seminar XXI too had to adapt and respond, identifying new issues and areas that warranted close attention. The events of 9/11, in turn, brought yet another set of pressing issues and areas to the forefront, and so it goes….

At the same time, while topics and areas of scrutiny have shifted and evolved over time, the core goals of the program have remained constant: to help educate senior leaders in our country’s national security sphere by bringing to them the best of social science theory and historical perspective.

As far as the fellows themselves, the number and nature of the organizations and agencies represented has expanded over time, and the number of civilians has grown as a percentage of total Seminar XXI participants. These increases have expanded the number and variety of perspectives the fellows can share and bring to bear in discussions, both in large group settings, in breakout groups, and in one-on-one discussions over drinks, meals and break times. Cohort sizes have also expanded over time, and every year the program receives more nominations and applications from candidates than the program can accommodate.

précis: What role do programs like Seminar XXI play in promoting healthy civil-military relations in the United States?

KG: Since its inception, the program’s focus has been international rather than domestic. However, fellows are exposed to theories that transcend borders, and there are almost always transferable, universal lessons that apply as much at home as they do abroad. Moreover, the program’s long-standing goals of fostering inter-generational, cross-agency communications, breaking down silos and building networks can help foster and sustain healthy civil-military relations.

précis: How does Seminar XXI address “new security challenges” like cyber warfare, disinformation and the consequences of climate change?

KG: The program speaks to issues such as these in two ways. In some cases, we hold sessions specifically focused on functional issues such as these—for instance, we held a session on cyber and bio at the start of January. In other cases, we focus on related issues more tangentially—for instance, I spoke to the problem of disinformation as part of a talk on causal inference, biases and the evaluation of evidence. 

précis: What are some of the greatest challenges in “bridging the gap” between academia and policy practitioners (like the participants in Seminar XXI)? Can the Seminar XXI model be adopted in other substantive research areas or academic/policy environments?

KG: I might be wrong, but I don’t think this is a significant issue for those participating in Seminar XXI, which has in effect been “bridging the gap” throughout its four and a half decade-long history. Program faculty are carefully chosen experts whose research is often policy-facing, and many faculty have some direct engagement with and/or experience in the policy world themselves. Likewise, Seminar XXI fellows are carefully chosen and selected for nomination by their agencies if they are anticipated to benefit and be receptive to the academic theories, viewpoints and expertise offered by the faculty.

I expect the Seminar XXI model is adaptable to other areas and environments and could be quite beneficial where both more inter-agency interactions and external expert input could lead to more synergies and better policy outcomes.

précis: Could you tell us about some of the research you’re currently working on?

KG: My research has four overlapping strands: the politics of information; migration and security; coercion, conflict and military operations; and asymmetric methods of influence. I have active projects underway and/or publications in the pipeline in each of these areas of interest. These include a March/April 2022 Foreign Affairs essay on the weaponization of migration; a piece forthcoming on the security implications of disinformation-driven cognitive hijacking and other forms of psychological manipulation; a piece on unconventional sources of great power threat reassessments that I hope will soon be sent out for review; and a co-authored paper detailing our new dataset project on forced migration and diplomatic outcomes to be delivered at the International Studies Association meeting in March. I also have several fruitful ongoing collaborations with co-authors: one is centered around a concept we call “global security entanglement”; and a second is a public opinion survey project that explores domestic political implications of shifts in threat perception in the greater Middle East. And, finally, I have two book projects out for review.

précis: Has your experience as a woman in the male-dominated security studies field evolved over the span of your career?

KG: There are certainly more women in the field today, which is just great to see. Moreover, that CIS and the SSP Program have played instrumental roles in this expansion is something worth noting and applauding. The number of superb security studies female scholars and practitioners produced by MIT is striking.

As far as my own experience goes, yours is a good question to which I don’t have a good answer. Since childhood, my sex and gender have never been primary identity markers for me. Both in my head and in my interactions with others, I am a person who studies and works in the security field, who just happens to be a woman. So, while there probably has been an evolution over time, it is not one of which I am especially conscious.

précis: What advice do you have for students (undergraduate and graduate) at MIT beginning careers in academia or policy?

KG: I’ve shared some of these thoughts with the MIT community before, but I stand by them and, if anything, I guess I endorse them more strongly now, with more experience under my belt and greater hindsight.

First, life is both long and short. With this oxymoron in mind, I would advise students to follow their instincts and listen to their guts. It can be really difficult to know ex ante if one is making the right career decision(s)—whether to pursue a policy job versus an academic one, whether to work in the public sector, go into government, or work in private industry. However, I have found that it is remarkably easy to know in one’s gut if one is making a decision that feels wrong, shortsighted or driven by other people’s expectations. So, I would tell students, first and foremost, to choose a career path that feels right to them and to aim to do work that feels important and consequential.

Second, an ever-growing mountain of research suggests that what one is doing tends to trump where one is doing it in terms of job satisfaction. So wherever one lands and whatever path one chooses, I recommend focusing on big (and under-examined) problems that matter and for which we lack good or sufficient solutions. 

Third, it is remarkably easy to get overcommitted. I  recommend learning early how and when you can say no. I have long been pretty terrible at following my own advice in this regard, which is why I can offer it with some authority!