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MSFS Faculty Q&A: Admiral John Kirby

October 27, 2018

Rear Admiral John Kirby (R) interviews former Secretary of State John Kerry (L) as part of his National Security and Communications class.
Rear Admiral John Kirby, a former Spokesperson at the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Department of Defense, taught a half-semester (module) class for the Master of Science in Foreign Service (MSFS) program this fall. The course, National Security and Communications, examined how public communications both shapes and undergirds national security, and its strategic importance to public policy. Admiral Kirby brought in an array of all-star speakers, including Admiral Mike Mullen, former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, former Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, Ambassador Mark Lippert, and former Secretary of State John Kerry. In advance of Secretary Kerry’s visit, MSFS interviewed Admiral Kirby about his course, experience in the U.S. Government, and advice for aspiring policymakers.

What are the main takeaways that you hope your graduate students have at your course’s conclusion?

The essential things I want my students to understand is the interconnection between policy and narrative and the importance of thinking through the communications piece of any policy well before that policy is decided. I think Ben Rhodes put it very well when he said that sometimes our policy is really what we say about it. I’m not suggesting that public communications is more important than sound policy. But I am suggesting it is every bit as important and very often the key to the success of the policy itself.

Why did you ask Secretary Kerry to come to campus to speak to your students about Syria?

I asked Secretary Kerry to come speak about Syria because I know the issue still haunts him, that he wishes he had had more leverage at the negotiating table, and because he understood implicitly how important it was to communicate US policy to a wide range of disparate and skeptical audiences. I joined his team just as international efforts to find a peaceful solution to the civil war were ramping up, so I was in the room for many of the sessions he chaired of the International Syria Support Group, and I watched how masterfully he was able to secure agreements and then explain those agreements to the world. He knew if they weren’t explained well, they would not be supported by the public, and that without that support they would fail. Ultimately, most of them did fail, but it was not for his lack of trying or even for want of public support, but rather a firm belief by the Russians that the US could not — or would not — compel their compliance.

What was your favorite part about working for the U.S. Government?

That’s easy. The people. My entire adult life was spent in service, most of it military. I loved that the Navy is such a diverse environment, with Sailors coming from all over our great country. And I love that the Navy sent me around the world to experience other cultures. I saw that same rich diversity at the State Department and in our diplomats, both career and political. Each and every one of them made me better at my job. Each one enriched my understanding of the world around me and convinced me that what makes America great is not her power, but her people.

What advice do you have for current students and aspiring policymakers?

I cannot overstate the importance of pause and reflection. There are important decisions you cannot put off. When life and limb are at stake, yes, by all means act quickly, even aggressively.

But in the realm of policy-making, when bigger equities must be considered; when a future we cannot predict and may never live to see rests upon our good judgment; when more people from more nations depend upon our performance and our principles, and when a public already overwhelmed with information demands clarity and context, we should want our leaders to slow down.

We shouldn’t expect them to make decisions before they actually need to make them. We should expect them to understand the culture and the time in which they make some of these decisions — past and present — and to consider the perspectives of other stakeholders, both here and abroad. And when they get up to communicate their decisions, which, by the way, they are going to have to do, we should expect them to say they heard all sides, they listened and maybe even changed their minds a little bit.

If they can do these things, they will lead and communicate more effectively on our behalf. They will make better, more informed decisions. And we, their fellow citizens, can take comfort knowing those decisions are not only in our best interests, but that they will be sustainable and defensible in this post-audience world of tweets and instant data.