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National Security Advice--in 500 Words or Less

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Imagine you are the National Security Adviser to the President. What recommendations might you have offered during the Cuban Missile Crisis? Or during the coup to overthrow Chilean President Salvador Allende? Or during the Mexican peso crisis? 

Students tackle these and other thorny questions each week in American Foreign Policy, a course offered by the Jackson School of International Studies. Jackson School director Anand Yang describes the course as “great preparation for Foreign Service Officers.”

Charles Cross created and taught the course 20 years ago, followed by Ronald Woods and most recently Darryl Johnson (‘60). All three have served as senior U.S. diplomats.

“The course is intended to give students an insight into what the process of policy making really is,” says Johnson, “and how decision making really works.” 

Using weekly case studies, students explore hot topics—some historical, some current— ranging from the Truman Doctrine to nuclear proliferation in North Korea. In five of these units, students must prepare a “case memorandum” that advises the President on that issue. The memorandum must clearly state the issue, provide historical background, clarify U.S. interests, outline options, and then make a recommendation. And it must do all of this in 500 words—roughly one single-spaced page. 

As difficult as that sounds, Johnson insists that it is representative of what is required of Foreign Service Officers. “In the foreign affairs business, you do a lot of writing,” he explains. “If you are writing to policy makers, it has to be clear and concise. There’s often a tendency to overwrite.” 

Students do get a chance to write a more in-depth paper at the end of the quarter, focusing on an issue or event of their choice. The format remains the same, but they can expand to 12 pages, allowing for more detailed background and options. 

Johnson recognizes that few students, even those who join the Foreign Service, will be involved in history-making decisions, so he also shares basic information about the State Department and Foreign Service careers. “I talk about what embassies do and how they work,” says Johnson, “and I discuss the many institutions that have a role in U.S. foreign policy.”

One thing Johnson does not have to cover is what it is like to live abroad.

“My first year teaching the class, every student had lived abroad, either through an academic program or for some other reason. Granted, these students are self-selected with an interest in international issues, but I was nevertheless astonished. And very pleased.”