Task Force

Why Task Force Matters

Donald C. Hellmann is Professor Emeritus of International Studies at the Jackson School and founded the Task Force Program in 1983. He teaches courses on Japanese government and politics, American foreign policy as well as the international relations of Northeast Asia. 

Thanks to a generous gift by his son Jack and daughter-in-law Betsy, the Task Force Program is now named in honor of Donald Hellmann. The gift was made also to facilitate and inspire others to join in supporting this important program that will shape and develop future generations of critical thinkers and engaged global citizens who are committed to making a difference in the world.

Donald Hellmann shares with us his thoughts on the purpose of Task Force and its present day application to policymaking.

Why Task Force matters in the study of international relations
by Donald C. Hellmann

The Task Force Program was created in winter 1983 when I served as the first director of the International Studies / Global Studies Program. Its unique structural format is a product of my personal as well as professional life. Although a graduate of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, my decision for a career focused on international affairs was the consequence of the 18 months spent as a draftee stationed at an Army base near the front line shortly after the end of the Korean War. Daily exposure to the horrific impact of the protracted military conflict on Korean society gave me a new unsettling meaning of war.

Even more than a fuller understanding of war was my extended first-hand contact with Asian cultures (Japan as well as Korea). They were rich and complex yet so different from Western culture, and offered another intellectual and existential challenge to which I could devote my life. Consequently, after acquiring a Ph.D. in Political Science with specialties in Japan and the international relations of East Asia, I began my academic career. I arrived at the UW in 1967, having previously taught at Swarthmore College and Vanderbilt University and published a book and a number of articles. Then events in Asia unexpectedly added a new dimension to my life and career.

The “economic miracle” in Japan, the rise of a hostile nuclear China, and the Vietnam War, exploded the demand for Asian specialists to advise on policy toward the region and I was in the center of it. This led to testimony, policy articles and books, fellowships, trips abroad, and frequent conferences. Included were the U.S. government (the White House, State Department, Pentagon, Congress), American policy “think tanks” (Council on Foreign Relations, a Rockefeller family commission, Brookings, American Enterprise Institute) as well as foreign governments and policy institutes in Japan, South Korea, China, and the Soviet Union (notably a multi-year biannual meeting with Soviet Asian specialists).

Because these activities sometimes involved direct participation in policy making and always provided a unique window on how decisions were made regarding international affairs in various countries, it provoked me to consider how this perspective might be incorporated into a course in foreign affairs. Hence the Task Force: designed to give students an opportunity to actually address concretely a foreign policy issue and have their efforts evaluated by individuals who had done this in the “real world.” It worked!

Over the 35 years since its inception, the Task Force “project focused” teaching formula has evolved to become the signature component of the undergraduate international studies program. Much of its success has been due to the imaginative leadership of the faculty, the specialists and the outside examiners who have participated in it.
However, the success of any instructional program is ultimately decided by its effect on the students at which it is directed. Although it provides a demanding challenge, the vast majority have embraced Task Force. For some, it is a career-defining experience – and it is the students who have given it a distinguished and distinctly UW brand. This is a consensual judgment of the outside examiners and those who have taught in it.

The flexibility of the Task Force formula is ideally suited to deal with the complexities and fluidity of our increasingly interdependent and non-convergent world in the 21st century. Having it named after me is both satisfying and humbling.