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School of International Relations and U.S. Air Force Host National Security Conference

The event included 25 scholars from 14 West Coast universities and think tanks. U.S. Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, a USC Dornsife alumnus, led the discussions among scholars and other Air Force officers.

Gen. Edward Rice, Jr. (left) makes a point, while United States Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Albert Carnesale, UCLA's chancellor emeritus, listen during the West Coast National Security Scholars Conference held at USC. Photo by James Gordon.
Gen. Edward Rice, Jr. (left) makes a point, while United States Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Albert Carnesale, UCLA's chancellor emeritus, listen during the West Coast National Security Scholars Conference held at USC. Photo by James Gordon.

In a recent conference held at USC, United States Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said that today’s military must integrate knowledge from multiple disciplines and called for help from academia.

Sponsored by USC Dornsife’s School of International Relations, the conference was led by Donley, an alumnus of the school.

“After two successful Air Force national security scholars’ conferences on the East Coast — first in Washington and then in Boston — it was time for a conference on the West Coast,” Donley told the participants. “What better place to have it than USC.”

Donley was among 16 Air Force officers including five generals who spent the day discussing national security issues with 25 international relations and engineering scholars from 14 West Coast universities and think tanks.

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In the opening session, Albert Carnesale, UCLA’s chancellor emeritus, asked Donley and Gen. Edward Rice, Jr., commander of Air Education and Training Command and recently commander of U.S. forces in Japan, about important issues facing the Air Force.

“How do we now think about the economic entanglements and social and cultural entanglements as elements of deterrence?” asked Donley, underscoring the need for a multi-discipline emphasis in the Air Force. “Where do we go with deterrence theory for what one might call non-state actors or non-traditional actors on the international scene?

“And how do we think about global trends in regional and local contexts? What does globalization mean to the greater Middle East right now as we look at the ‘Arab Spring’ and the impact of communications technologies, and the cultural influences from the West?”

During an afternoon panel on the strategic future of Asia and the Pacific, participants included Lt. Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, Air Force deputy chief of staff for operations; David Kang, director of the Korean Studies Institute and professor of international relations in USC Dornsife and professor of business in the USC Marshall School of Business; University of California, Berkeley professor Michael Nacht; and Stanford University professor Scott Sagan.

The threat of terrorists obtaining nuclear weapons from Pakistan was on the minds of several participants. One speaker said the risk is low as long as the Pakistani military keeps its weapons on its bases. However, if the Pakistani military deployed into the field in a crisis, the possibility could be high, the speaker said. On base, the Pakistani military would be better able to maintain the security of the weapons, but in the field it could prove difficult to prevent spies among them from transferring a weapon to terrorist confederates outside.

Nacht, who served recently as assistant secretary of defense for Global Strategic Affairs, highlighted security consequences of the U.S. federal budget deficit. Political deadlock in the U.S. has rendered it seemingly incapable of reaching an agreement to substantially reduce the deficit, Nacht contended.

As a result, Washington may have to reduce permanent deployments of U.S. forces overseas. It may also force new alignments, such as closer relations with Southeast Asian countries to counter the growth of China’s increasing power.

On another matter, Kang noted that while most governments are planning for the eventual collapse of North Korea’s state to spur massive emigration, “in fact huge population movements are unlikely,” he said. The conventional wisdom that when North Korea collapses, hundreds of thousands or millions of North Koreans will flood the borders over to South Korea and China is incorrect, he said.

“Research in other famines and civil wars shows that most citizens stay close to home,” he said, referring to the possibility of North Koreans staying inside their state.

“The people don’t want to leave their home,” Kang said. “And in fact much of the planning we’ve been doing based on certain scenarios, based on massive flows — that is probably a less likely scenario.

“Even now, for example, at the height of the famine, maybe 100,000 North Koreans have left,” he said.

A final panel discussed fundamental game-changers and discontinuities that might emerge globally over the coming decades.  

Lt. Gen. William Lord, the Air Force’s chief of warfighting integration and chief information officer at the Pentagon, and Dean Peter Cowhey of the University of California, San Diego, led a discussion of the security implications of information technology innovations.

The conversation focused on U.S. vulnerability to cyber warfare with one participant suggesting that the rest of the world feels even more vulnerable. Some countries consider the latest innovations — mobile devices and cloud computing (delivering hosted services over the Internet) — as a new reassertion of American power, the participant said.

“The discussions were quite thought-provoking, especially because this gathering was unusual in several ways,” said John Odell, professor and director of the School of International Relations and conference co-host. “Scholars enjoyed a rare chance to share insights with top leaders informally, while Air Force leaders left the Pentagon to listen and influence the academic agenda. The meeting brought together academic tribes that rarely sit at the same table. And it gave students rare direct contact with players in the events they are studying. 

“It was a terrific opportunity for us all.”

During lunch, Donley spoke to international relations students about his experiences since his time at USC Dornsife, including posts as a national security leader in the Congress’s staff, the White House and the Pentagon.  

Rather than expecting to plan an entire career, he encouraged students to “bloom where you are planted,” and always leave an organization better than when you arrived.

“Work hard at what you do, learn all you can about an organization, make a contribution, and be open to new opportunities,” Donley said.

While at USC, Donley also visited with members of the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps Detachment 060. Some students named the April 26 conference and visit as a highlight of their academic careers.

“The opportunity to meet with Secretary Donley was a defining moment of my three years at the University of Southern California,” USC Dornsife international relations junior Anna Phillips said. “It was an opportunity that I will carry with me for a lifetime.”