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Interview with David Gompert

David Gompert

April 9, 2017

On October 13th 2015, numerous experts in the field of global affairs visited the Jackson School of International Studies as part of the “New Frontiers in International Affairs: A Conversation on the Arctic, Space and Cybersecurity,” the inaugural conference of the Jackson School’s International Policy Institute. This conference involved panels discussing some of the most pressing issues facing the United States today, and the Jackson School Journal was fortunate enough to sit down with several of the conference’s distinguished delegates. This is the second of three interviews conducted with visiting experts for the Jackson School’s conference.

David Gompert is the former Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence and is a Senior Fellow for the RAND Corporation. In this conversation, Mr. Gompert draws upon his wide range of experience in national security and policy making to provide insight on key international issues, as well as his view on the role of academia in policymaking. This interview originally appeared in the Autumn 2015 Issue.

Jackson School Journal: We’re interested in your initial education – you transitioned from a BS in engineering at the Naval Academy to a MPA at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. What inspired you to change from an engineering background to public affairs, and how have these different foundations assisted you in your career?

Gompert: Well at the Naval Academy, you could only get a degree in engineering – it was practically the age of wooden ships – and it was impossible to graduate without a degree in engineering. However, I was interested in political science, international affairs, and history, and it was that interest that I carried forward when I left the navy and went to graduate school at Princeton. However, I would like to add that I am grateful for that engineering degree because it enables me to understand technology. What I have tried to do in my career, whether it has been in the private sector, government, or research and teaching, I’ve tried to work at the intersection of technology and global affairs. In almost every case of my writing and my professional life I’ve tried to bring together an understanding of what technology implies for politics, and I would also say that throughout my education I have placed a very strong emphasis on economics.

Jackson School Journal: So as advice for students reading the Journal, how do you imagine today that a student can gain that broad experience in today’s educational system?

Gompert: My advice to students is to work on critical analytic skills rather than to try to fill up a bag with facts, which are highly perishable in today’s world anyway. So I would encourage undergraduates to develop the ability to perform analysis, to think critically about the future in ways that are not predictive but exploratory, and to be able to deal with complexity and uncertainty rather than just attempting to deploy the facts that you happen to learn in a classroom textbook. It certainly has been my experience at RAND, where I think the people who contribute the most to the research that RAND does in national security and in other fields are the people who have those analytic skills, rather than those people who have deep but narrow expertise.

Jackson School Journal: A great deal of your research and writing focuses on the topic of deterrence. Since you first started working in public policy, how do you think that the concept of deterrence has evolved, and what do you see the future of deterrence being as non-state actors exert greater influence on the global stage?

Gompert: Let me first address the question of nuclear deterrence – I know a lot of people worry about non-state actors acquiring nuclear weapons – radiological weapons, dirty bombs, and so on. Actual nuclear weapons, fissionable nuclear material are less of a concern because I have yet to see a non-state actor with the industrial capacity, the resources, and the technical capacity to produce the necessary material and to weaponize and deliver it. Therefore, the actors who are most likely to possess nuclear weapons will continue to be states. States are much more deterrable than non-state actors because states have territory, resources and population, things that can be destroyed, so they are deterrable. I do worry however about cases like North Korea, where the regime could place relatively little value on the survival and wellbeing of its population and enormous emphasis on its own survival and therefore in a crisis that could involve the extinction of the regime, North Korea might well threaten to use nuclear weapons as a last resort to ward off conventional threats against it. There are certain states, and I would put North Korea at the very top of that list, who might be difficult to deter under those sorts of extreme conditions. I would not put Iran in that category. Iran is a deterrable state, It is rational, it’s shown every indication particularly in the negotiations over the nuclear program in return for the relaxation of sanctions in a very rational way, and has much to lose by threatening the use of nuclear weapons. So those fundamental principles of nuclear deterrence still apply to nation states, which are the primary actors in the nuclear field, but may not apply in some cases to states like North Korea.

Jackson School Journal: As a follow-up question, many commentators have referred to the apocalyptic rhetoric of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and have used such rhetoric in order to equate the threat posed by a nuclear Iran to that posed by a nuclear North Korea. Do you believe that is an incorrect conclusion?

Gompert: I do, because of the structure of the Iranian state. The Iranian state does have a hardline military and theocratic faction, and you might be more likely to see extreme thinking about the possibility of threatening or even using nuclear weapons from this group. However, we’ve also seen that there are other elements like the presidency that act as a more normal state actor that looks after the interests of the state, the nation, and the Iranian people – as seen by the outcome of the negotiations. So I think that the loose talk of [Former President] Ahmedinajad might be reflective of how he saw the world, but he’s no longer in power and I don’t think he reflects the way that this complex thing called the Iranian state functions, and how it would make decisions involving the possibility of using nuclear weapons and possibly facing nuclear retaliation.

Jackson School Journal: Today’s conference demonstrated the interaction between the public, private, and academic sectors. As someone with experience in technology, the intelligence community, and the state department, how do you see academics fitting into the policy paradigm, and what unique skills can they contribute?

Gompert: Well here I’m a bit of an outlier, because when I’ve been in government, I’ve always thought that a lot of the analysis and advice received from scholars and academia in general was too tactical, and too actionable. It is as if academics think that they might know better than the government what the government should be doing that day with regard to the targets being struck. They might well be better informed or smarter than the government, but when I’ve been in government, what I have valued is not the outside world – whether it’s the press or the think tanks or the university community – questioning tactical judgments, but rather trying to find patterns, trends, that I was unable to think of because I was so consumed by immediate problems. I don’t disagree that academic work and research and opinions have to be relevant – but their relevance may lie in their ability to think about things that go beyond the horizon of the policymaker. The best contribution from the academic world is to complement, rather than gripe.

Jackson School Journal: As a follow up to that, based on your experience in both think tanks and academia, do you believe that the greater government and media attention given to think tanks will force academia to adapt in the future or can academia provide its own unique insights?

Gompert: The latter, clearly, because so many think tanks are so close to government. Even if they are non partisan, they are so close to government because they are primarily concentrated on Massachusetts Avenue. They do not have enough distance to offer judgements that are really of value to government. Moreover, many of these think tanks are not objective and not independent, because they are dependent on funding from certain political or industrial sources, So I think that the think tank industry, as it has developed in the United States, is not adequate, and I have found that universities, because they have greater distance, sometimes geographic distance and intellectual distance, from the center of power and policy-making, actually can have better and more independent ideas than the think tanks do. Now, I want to add that the RAND corporation prides itself on its nonpartisan, a political, fiercely independent, and objective approach. But not all think tanks are like RAND – a lot of them are simply outposts where government people go when they leave government, or are basically doing the bidding of one or more political parties.

Interview Edited by Francis Wilson

Article featured in:

Jackson School Journal – Autumn 2015

Volume 6, Number 2. Autumn 2015