Reading the Tea Leaves

Adam Stulberg, left, introduced Gen. David Petraeus. (Photo by Rob Felt)

Adam Stulberg was working for Sam Nunn after the senator’s retirement from legislating when Stulberg became interested in a position at Georgia Tech’s School of International Affairs. The school wasn’t yet named after Nunn, Cls 60, and Stulberg didn’t learn of the connection until after he was hired.

Since joining Tech — he’s now an associate professor and co-director of the Center for International Strategy, Technology and Policy — Stulberg has continued working closely with Nunn in his efforts to educate policymakers on critical issues of international security. That includes planning the Sam Nunn Policy Forum, slated for March 29 on campus, to discuss the challenges to forming a partnership between the United States, Russia and Europe to work toward global nuclear risk reduction.

The center hosted the talk with General David Petraeus. What was the goal of that?

Beyond the obvious, that he’s an exemplary citizen and his military service speaks for itself, what stands out is that he has a PhD in international affairs. His particular view in 21st century threats calls for whole new ideas. Here’s a four-star general and the first thing he says is it’s not just about blowing the other side up. You have to win hearts and minds. I think that’s a message for future leaders in social sciences and engineering who need to understand what kinds of technologies and related systems are going to be viable and useful. They don’t have to build weapons systems to make a contribution to national security.

How does that relate to the center’s overall mission?

We see our role as a policy research arm of the Sam Nunn School. We want to engage faculty who are doing cutting-edge research and combine it with other research to give it a practical outlet. It’s also to engage students to relate their work to broader policies and to give them exposure to possible mentors in the community. We want this center to be a hub so other people off campus and across the country can see us as a bridge builder between the worlds of science, policy and technology and as an inroad to academia. And we can provide seed support to generate new research into what we see as new threats that policymakers are going to be dealing with.

Where does the center fit in Georgia Tech’s long history of involvement with the military and Department of Defense?

It’s an evolution to go beyond defense policy to international security. We define international security much broader than supporting U.S. defense policy. The defense offices we interact with are much different than those Georgia Tech has historically dealt with. We work with offices contemplating future threats and think tanks. We have a tremendous amount of freedom to bring our own ideas to bear on the frontier of international security.

What are some of the center’s focus areas?

We have a project directed by [assistant professor] Margaret Kosal on emerging technologies and international security. She’s done a lot of research in biosciences and nanotechnology, trying to understand what types of threats are associated with related emerging technologies, what are the institutions and political cultures that will govern their integration into national policies and what are going to be the strategic consequences of their global diffusion.

All of the great players have declared nanotech is the next revolution in military affairs. The scientists and engineers are still scratching their heads because they’re not sure what nanotechnology is. But all of these communities are defining what this technology is going to be and how it’s going to fit in international security in different ways. We need to look at: What are the scientists thinking? What are the institutional structures and the political cultures? The third leg is understanding the forecast. What are the prospects for strategic interaction between the United States and China? What are the challenges on the battlefield and diplomatically?

How do you and your colleagues strike a balance between forecasting the future and trying to shape it?

We do a little advocacy depending on the research of the faculty. Professor [and the center’s co-director] Seymour Goodman gives testimonials on the Hill about cybersecurity. He provides assessments and criticisms of current policies. Others have written white papers that deconstruct policy problems and offer practical recommendations. But we’re mostly social scientists. The puzzles that intrigue us are why is it we see cooperation breaking out in some areas and competition breaking out in other areas?

What under-the-radar threats do you believe deserve more attention?

It’s not the emergence of a new threat but a new combination of threats. We talked about the era of the tank or the era of the nuclear weapon. We’re moving into a much more amorphous threat environment, where there are different actors playing by different rules and using different combinations of technology and social systems.

The United States doesn’t have a peer competitor but might be a target for a lot of these actors. The challenge for us is to move away from a cookie-cutter approach. We need to think about things in interdisciplinary ways.

Also, the interface between energy and international security is going to become a bigger issue. I’m talking about the ways that states together with their firms use energy as a tool of statecraft. That’s not just Russia using gas as a weapon. It could be other countries using their domestic markets for energy to compete with the U.S. demand. That’s going to challenge the realpolitik of how great powers interact.

You have researched military transformation. Do you see changes happening?

There was a lot of lip service paid to transformation before the 9/11 attacks and subsequent wars. With those actions came more spending, and the services lost the incentive to transform, but they also had new challenges. We can innovate on the fly very well to meet the immediate challenges, but especially when we achieve victory we tend to go back to the way we were doing things.

I did a lot of work on unmanned air vehicles. There are a lot of institutional roadblocks to fully integrating UAVs into the fighting force. They require a totally new mind-set for the armed services and a whole new promotional tract. There has been progress, but are we going to go back after we leave Iraq and Afghanistan to procuring more F-22s that are less relevant to the conflicts we find ourselves in?

The changes we make have less to do with the technologies we’re developing and more with the cultures and institutions. Counterinsurgency is a good example of something that’s been difficult for us to absorb.

Nuclear nonproliferation is a major focus area for the center. What are the key issues facing policymakers?

The institutions that are put in place like the nonproliferation treaty have two speeds; there are the haves and have-nots. Does that mean states as they pursue nuclear energy are going to have more incentives to acquire nuclear weapons? What motivates the states to acquire peaceful nuclear energy? There’s a strong interface between the supply side and the political and economic issues that drive demand. That will be key to understanding the strategic consequences of a nuclear energy resurgence.

At the same time, Senator Nunn and former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former Secretaries of State George Schultz and Henry Kissinger are calling for a vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. How are we going to make that vision stable? How are we going to marshal those technologies in a way not that produces new nuclear weapons but helps to strengthen verification and enforcement?

Is it possible to improve nonproliferation during this nuclear energy resurgence?

Most of the growth is going to take place among countries that currently have nuclear power. The key issue is the proliferation of enrichment or reprocessing technologies. There’s a big debate, whether the current suppliers can reassure the new customers they will deliver the fuel even when they politically don’t like them. The concern is that customers won’t trust the current oligopolistic supply mechanism and they’ll seek to develop their own indigenous system. But doing so may push them closer to the brink of developing their own nuclear weapons capabilities.

What about Iran?

The situation in Iran is so confusing right now. It’s hard to know what the domestic politics are. I’m glad I’m not responsible for that watch right now. However, an important step is for us to know clearly what it is we’re offering them.

What’s concerning is when other countries whose actions speak to only benign intentions oppose some of these multinational approaches. We need to get our own house in order while Iran stabilizes.

How can the center’s interdisciplinary approach make an impact?

We can bring together people working on nuclear from public policy, international security, economics as well as safeguards, detection and the basic physics of the fuel cycle in a coherent way. That’s our challenge. We wrote a grant to create a certificate program for graduate students. The program would be comprised of an interdisciplinary set of courses and would allow them to do some research that would cut across boundaries.

The Sam Nunn Policy Forum this year is titled “Path Toward a World Free of Nuclear Weapons: The Euro-Atlantic Challenge.” What’s on tap?

The first part of the forum is, to make progress on global nuclear elimination, we need to have Russia, Europe and the United States working together. If we can’t get those three, it’s hard to imagine we’re going to see progress with other nuclear weapon states. All sides have talked about partnership for 20 years, but we’re not yet allies.

The second part of the forum says, all right, once we reduce these challenges, how can that impact global risk reduction?

Leave a Reply