On Commencement, Georgetown, and Leadership in International Affairs: Five Minutes with Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates

(Wikimedia Commons) Robert Gateswho served as the 22nd United States Secretary of Defense from 2006 until 2011 and earned his Ph.D. in Russian and Soviet History from Georgetown University in 1974, discusses leadership in foreign service and his role in the 2014 Georgetown University Walsh School of Foreign Service Commencement Ceremonies in a joint interview with the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs and The Hoya campus newspaper.

Q: What do you plan to talk about at commencement?

A:  I’ll talk about not only public service but also the importance of international engagement and staying a part of the world.

Q:  How did you decide to speak at commencement this year?

A: It was a very nice invitation—and coincidentally it was exactly forty years ago this week that I received my Ph.D. from Georgetown.

Q:  How is today’s public service different from when you entered?

A: Particularly in the diplomatic and development arenas, service is more dangerous in more places than it was in 1966. We were at the height of the Cold War and the Vietnam War, but the rest of the world was relatively calm at that time. That whole environment is much more challenging now. I think another aspect that has remained the same, unfortunately, is that Congress still doesn’t seem to understand the importance of the nonmilitary aspects of our national security and foreign policy. As a result, funding for the State Department, USAID, and other such agencies continues to be a struggle.

Q: Do you expect these graduating School of Foreign Service students will bridge that gap?

A: This is a decades-old problem, so that’s a heavy burden to place on their shoulders. The important thing is that, despite facing these challenges, these graduates are still willing to undertake this kind of service. I think that’s very laudable, and one of the reasons I look forward to talking to them.

Q: How does a Georgetown education prepare students for a career in international affairs? How did your specialization in Russian and Soviet History specifically prepare you for a career in intelligence and defense?

A:  It was an immense help, given that I was working on Russian and Soviet affairs at the CIA. My specialization gave me a deep background in Russian history that helped me understand what was going on in Russia better than those who might have majored in general political science. At the time I joined the CIA, ironically, there weren’t very many people who had a deep academic background in Russian and Soviet studies. Within ten years or so, however, there were quite a few. I think it made a significant difference in the quality of work the agency was doing.

Q: Would you recommend specialized study in a field like Russian affairs or a more global perspective of general international relations studies?

A:  Both—from a career standpoint and also from the perspective of policymakers. It’s important to have a specialty. If I were doing the hiring, I would prefer somebody steeped in Russian and Soviet studies, Arabic studies, or Chinese studies, with deep knowledge in those areas and a broader education across the rest of international affairs. From the standpoint of just getting a job, having a specialty in which you have real expertise, as opposed to a very general degree, is a competitive advantage. I also think, frankly, it’s more interesting.

Q: Your career has spanned, in numerous capacities, eight different presidents. How do leadership changes affect the continuity of U.S. foreign policy? What was it like to go from working with one administration to working under another Commander in Chief whose political goals, approach, and style might be quite different?

A: It’s really no different than being a Foreign Service officer. We take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution, not a particular president or political party, so we serve under both Republican and Democratic presidents with very different political philosophies. We take recommendations to our leaders, whether that person is the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, or the President, and try to do what we think is in the best interest of the country. The President is the nation’s elected representative, so it’s up to him and his senior advisors to make those decisions. We work within that framework. That’s the way the military is, the way intelligence is, and the way the Foreign Service is. That’s the system, and I think it’s a very good one.

Q: Any leader must face significant challenges working within the system. As Secretary of Defense, you proposed unprecedented cuts to the military budget. In that particular leadership role, how did you decide this was the best approach and how did you implement the change in policy? 

A: I thought it was important, but frankly I was a little naïve. I figured that if we could take control of our budget, make hard decisions, prove that we could clean up our procurement problems, and spend tax dollars more wisely, we could avoid the budgetary train wreck that was inevitably going to take place after the end of these two wars [in Iraq and Afghanistan]. I was naïve, but I worked very closely with senior civilian and military leadership to get their best ideas on what programs we should get rid of, where we should make other cuts, and how we should approach this in a strategic way. I think the key in terms of making these changes—and making them stick—is incorporating professionals in the organization as part of the process, rather than some small cabal of officials around the Secretary or in the front office making these decisions and sending them out like thunderbolts.

Q: What do you wish you had known before entering a career in international affairs?

A: I wish I had known this would be my career for almost forty years, because I never intended that. My plan was to get my Ph.D. and teach; I had no intention to make a career in the CIA or the government. It was literally a matter of days after getting my degree that I was invited by [Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger and [National Security Advisor Brent] Scowcroft to take the Soviet job on the National Security Council staff. I told my wife I’d do that for a couple of years and then go teach. They just kept offering me interesting jobs, and then all of a sudden it was decades later.

Q: Do you still have plans to teach in the future?

A: No, I think I’m a little old for that at this point. But as Chancellor of the College of William and Mary, I do plan to be on campus for a week in the spring and a week in the fall to meet students and faculty. I’m looking forward to that.

Q: What’s the one thing you learned getting your Ph.D. at Georgetown that you took with you for the rest of your career? 

A: Once you start something, it’s important to finish it. So many people out there have done all the coursework for their Ph.D. and still have yet to complete their dissertation. I think that one of the big lessons is, if you’re going to do it, carry it out to the end.


Dr. Robert Gates served as the 22nd United States Secretary of Defense from 2008 to 2011 and with the Central Intelligence Agency for twenty-six years, including as Deputy National Security Advisor from 1989 to 1991 and Director of Central Intelligence from 1991 to 1993. After leaving the CIA, he was the 22nd President of Texas A&M University from 2002 to 2008. Since 2012, he has served as the 24th Chancellor of the College of William and Mary.

Dr. Gates was interviewed via telephone by Georgia Pelletier and The Hoya, Georgetown University's newspaper of record, on 13 May 2014 in Washington, D.C.