A Case Study in Community Building: The Tobin Project's National Security Initiative

A key component of the Tobin Project’s model for catalyzing transformative research centers on developing connections between leading scholars from different disciplines and institutions and policymakers working on related issues. We have adopted this approach not only because scholars are the main drivers of new research and policymakers will draw on these ideas to shape public policy, but also because unique possibilities emerge when individuals with diverse backgrounds and expertise come together to address specific problems. While the lone scholar remains an archetype within the social sciences, the Tobin Project has found collaborative, cross-disciplinary engagement a more effective approach to identifying strategic research questions, developing pioneering research, and disseminating new ideas and findings to those best-positioned to effect change. We have found that this process helps generate real momentum around rigorous, innovative scholarship and a shared commitment to building understanding on important problems. The Tobin Project’s early work on National Security, and the origins of its inquiry on Sustainable Security, demonstrate the importance and power of community in cultivating, producing, and sharing new problem-oriented research.

“The creation of any first-rate scholarship is collective. You don’t come up with breakthrough scholarship in a bubble – it’s with the help of colleagues that you develop the important ideas.” 
– Stephen Van Evera (MIT) 



2006: The Tobin Project convenes a National Security & Foreign Policy working group of political scientists and policymakers, chaired by Stephen Van Evera (MIT), and produces a short volume.

In 2006, as the Tobin Project begins to identify areas of interest for research, a number of scholars cite U.S. national security as a subject whose understanding in both academia and public policy has the potential to be significantly enhanced by targeted, collaborative research. The Tobin Project works with Stephen Van Evera, an internationally-renowned political scientist at MIT, to facilitate a working group meeting in June – composed primarily of political scientists – to discuss broad issues of U.S. national security policy. Discussion is driven by ten papers, with input from Congressman Ike Skelton (Ranking Member of the House Armed Services Committee), Congresswoman Jane Harman (Ranking Member on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence), and Rear Admiral Mark Ferguson (Chief of Legislative Affairs for the U.S. Navy).   

Following the meeting, scholars revise their papers based on feedback received during and after the gathering and compile them into the volume How to Make America Safe: New Policies for National Security, edited by Stephen Van Evera. The papers broadly outline U.S. security strategies that would combat terrorism and address unique challenges in the post-9/11 era.

2007: In the Spring and Summer of 2007, the Tobin Project hosts working group meetings on national security issues, expanding participation and developing an intellectual path forward to addresses long-term, strategic challenges.

Two meetings in 2007 gather a variety of scholars, policymakers, and practitioners to share their perspectives and develop a research agenda that would address the most pressing, unanswered questions in the national security field. Discussion topics range from regional national security concerns – in the Middle East and in China – to questions of grand strategy. Senator Jack Reed provides valuable insight about on-the-ground concerns regarding the war in Iraq and, more broadly, on challenges for policymakers. Senior Fellows from key think tanks also participate. 

“In general, I was impressed at the willingness of Senator Reed to engage in this kind of dialogue with the scholars – he seemed to enjoy it but also get information. It’s also very useful for us to get the policy perspective, hear about their concerns. They work in the world of the possible. They can help us understand why our suggestions might not be possible.”
– Benjamin Valentino (Dartmouth College) 

2008: The Tobin Project convenes a conference on “America & the World: National Security in the New Era,” which draws more than fifty political scientists, historians, policymakers and practitioners.

After the 2007 meetings, the Tobin Project decides to host a conference that will draw a wider diversity of scholars - particularly those outside the political science and international relations fields. Over three days of conference sessions and community building, a group of over fifty participants discusses the changing global security environment and identifies key areas where research is most needed. With a keynote address from Congressman Bill Delahunt (Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs; Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight), the conference covers four broad themes: Grand Strategy, Identity Politics, Weapons of Mass Destruction, and Wars of Ideas. At the end of the conference, a collaborative brainstorming session surfaces dozens of important potential research inquiries. The addition of historians to the scholar community enhances conversation, as they bring new methodologies and historical insights to complement the political science perspective. The conference also includes seven graduate students from the fields of history, political science, and divinity. 

“Interdisciplinary scholarship is far more productive than scholarship done in isolation.  If you pull together people from multiple disciplines they come up with bigger, better ideas. The academic world is becoming increasingly focused on narrow, specialized knowledge. Tobin does a huge service by creating a forum for community that includes scholars from many fields.”
Stephen Van Evera

2009: The Tobin Project refines and categorizes research questions surfaced at the 2008 conference, developing a research agenda on nonkinetic power in U.S. national security strategy and convening a conference that includes a wider range of policymakers and scholars.

In consultation with 2008 conference participants, the Tobin Project refines and organizes questions from the conference’s collaborative brainstorming session, identifying research priorities and reaching out to scholars who might work on the most important inquiries. The theme of nonkinetic (or nonmilitary) power in U.S. national security strategy carries through many of the questions and, with scholars and policymakers agreeing that this area deserves more attention, the Tobin Project chooses this as a focus.

To begin motivating new research on questions of diplomacy, negotiation, and use of non-military tools of foreign policy, the Tobin Project convenes a conference in December 2009 on “America and the World: Power Through its Prudent Use.” The event grows the community by including nine new scholars and two new disciplines, as well as think tank researchers, Congressional staffers, and members of the State and Defense Departments. With nineteen repeat scholar participants, existing connections are also strengthened. For three days, the group considers the role of nonmilitary tools in the broader spectrum of instruments for advancing U.S. interests abroad, drawing partially on eleven discussion papers prepared for the event.

“This [was] an excellent conference and experience – very cohesive and every moment is action-packed…Great community-building.”
– Jane Cramer (University of Oregon) 

April 2010: Building on the inclusion of graduate students in the 2008 and 2009 conferences, Tobin initiates a focused program for graduate students, beginning with a day-long forum and expanding to include research fellowships and an ongoing seminar series.

Seeking to expand the role of graduate students in the idea generation process and to develop new scholars’ interest in strategic policy-relevant scholarship, the Tobin Project initiates a focused Graduate Student Program. The kickoff event – an April 2010 forum co-chaired by Sidharth Shah (The Tobin Project) and Nathan Black (MIT, Ph.D. candidate in Political Science) – brings together eight students of political science, history, and Islamic studies from four universities for an interdisciplinary discussion of policy-relevant research questions. By Summer 2011, Tobin’s National Security scholar community includes 18 graduate students.

July 2010: Tobin scholars Jeremi Suri (University of Texas at Austin) and Deepak Malhotra (Harvard Business School) present their conference research on diplomacy and negotiation to policymakers and researchers in Washington, D.C., strengthening ties between the scholar and policy communities. 

Jeremi Suri, Deepak Malhotra, and two Tobin staff members meet with senior staff at the Brookings Institution, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, and officials at the State Department's Policy Planning Staff. Presenting their conference papers on diplomacy and negotiations with adversaries, the scholars develop connections with the policymakers, many of whom attend the next Tobin Project conference.   

December 2010: Building the research community, addressing unanswered questions, and developing new lines of inquiry, a Tobin Project conference on “Strategies and Instruments for U.S. National Security” builds on the work from 2009.

After years of working together through Tobin, scholars greet one another with familiarity at the 2010 conference and meet new scholars joining for the first time. Policymaker participants, including officials from the Department of Defense and Department of State, serve as respondents on research papers, highlighting areas where further research would be helpful and commenting on policy challenges. Conversation pursues questions of military and nonmilitary tools in national security strategy, asking: How can the United States best integrate its diplomatic, military, and economic power to advance its national security interests?

Jeremi Suri, a historian and participant within the initiative since 2008, and Benjamin Valentino, also a long-time participant, become co-chairs of the National Security initiative, with Stephen Van Evera as chair. In addition to their expertise and leadership, Ben and Jeremi bring disciplinary diversity and the capacity to expand the initiative.

“There are two defining factors of a Tobin conference. One, the desire to do serious scholarly work with serious policy relevance. The second is that we’ve had the kind of conversations we always idealized when we decided to go to graduate school: conversations with smart people coming at issues in different ways—disagreeing, but disagreeing in a way that encourages conversation, learning, and friendship. I’ve made a lot of friends through this process and I’ve become a better scholar because of that.”
– Jeremi Suri 

May 2011: Growing out of a connection forged at the 2010 conference, Tobin Project scholars share their work on U.S. national security strategy with former diplomats and think tank researchers in Washington, D.C.

Jeremi Suri and Paula Newberg (Director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University), who met at Tobin’s 2010 conference, collaborate to hold an event where four Tobin scholars share their research on U.S. national security strategy with a group of Washington D.C. researchers and former diplomats. Participants – including former U.S. diplomats Dr. Chester Crocker, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, 1981-1989 and Ambassador Howard Schaffer, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State responsible for South Asian affairs and U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh (1984-1987) – discussed contemporary and historical aspects of grand strategy as well as the role of diplomacy in strategy. 

Fall 2011: Based on ideas from the conference, Professors Suri, Van Evera, and Valentino work closely with the Tobin Project and other scholars to chart a strategic path forward for the research initiative, focusing on “Sustainable Security.”

Based on questions and major themes arising from the conference, the co-chairs identify three complementary lines of inquiry that will drive the National Security initiative forward, encompassed by the theme of “sustainable security,” which asks most broadly: How can the U.S. sustainably advance its national security interests given fiscal constraints and shifts in the global distribution of power?

The three new research inquiries consider U.S. foreign security commitments, grand strategy for American national security, and political solutions to the Afghanistan crisis, and the Tobin Project works with the co-chairs to plan seminars on each of these inquiries for Summer and Fall 2011. Two of the seminars, held during August, include scholars contributing discussion pieces and policymaker representatives from the State Department Policy Planning Staff, Defense Department, and RAND. The third, held in October in Washington, D.C., includes a morning session at the Capitol, with six scholars presenting discussion papers to a group of senior Congressional and Administration staff, including representatives from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, and the Office of Senator Bob Corker (R-TN).

“Where else could you have historians, political scientists, and policymakers get their teeth into these issues and challenge each other to think differently – brilliant!”
– Carolyne Davidson (Yale University, Ph.D. candidate)