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MIT Better World

By Mark Wolverton

Conceived in 1984 by MIT Raphael Dorman-Helen Starbuck Professor of Political Science Suzanne Berger, Mitzi Wertheim at the Naval Postgraduate School, and retired US Navy Captain Jake W. Stewart, it’s a one-of-a-kind educational program for current and future leaders in the US military, foreign policy, and national security fields.

The nine-month, eight-session seminar program adapts and extends material and educational approaches from several graduate-level MIT courses in foreign policy and international studies, aiming to provide participants with “the broad perspectives and analytical skills required to evaluate and formulate effective policy options for the United States,” as director Robert Art explains. In a series of intensive, immersive sessions held in downtown DC and nearby Virginia, Seminar XXI not only brings in faculty from MIT but is also able to tap into all the resident expertise of the Beltway, engaging instructors with vast foreign policy experience and knowledge such as Condoleezza Rice, Francis Fukuyama, and many others.

Because it operates at such a high level for a unique clientele, getting into Seminar XXI isn’t as simple as applying for a typical academic program. Participants have to be nominated and sponsored by their individual organizations, whether military branch, government agency, or nongovernmental organization, and it’s a competitive process for a limited number of spots. Once admitted, participants are introduced to the program’s three-pronged structure, combining “paradigms” (the varying worldviews of governments, peoples, and cultures); social science theories that can help explain and predict events and developments; and empirical knowledge based on historical facts, research, and practical experience. The idea is to engage a broad range of creative approaches to encourage fellows to think outside the usual boxes into which their past training and professional experience have too often limited them.

The latest program, which began in November 2017, includes sessions on cybersecurity and biosecurity; Iran, Turkey, and Israel; democracy and authoritarianism in the Arab world; and US national security policy. At the end of the nine months, Seminar XXI fellows receive a certificate and the satisfaction of knowing that they’ve become part of an elite group of graduates—a cohort of more than 2,100 military and civilian fellows who, over more than three decades of the program, have gone on to hold positions such as Deputy Secretary of Defense, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and directors of both the CIA and the National Security Agency.