Alumni Profile: Joshua Rovner | 2018 | News

Alumni Profile: Joshua Rovner
Joshua Rovner

Alumni Profile: Joshua Rovner


In this section we will ask an SSP alum 10 “Frequently Asked Questions” in order to spotlight their own career achievements as well as what insight they have gained as a result from their years at SSP.


Joshua Rovner is Associate Professor at the School of International Service, American University.



1) What is your degree and your dissertation title?

PhD., Political Science, “Intelligence-Policy Relations and the Problem of Politicization”

2) What is your current position/title?

Associate Professor, School of International Service, American University

3) As is often the case for SSP alums, when you finished your dissertation you had an important choice to make between a position in the policy world and an academic career. What inclined you toward the option you chose? Do you have any advice to share with current SSP students as they weigh their career choices?

I didn’t see it as a binary choice. My first job was at the Naval War College, which allowed me to continue my research while providing a lot of access to military officers and the defense officials. The downside was that I couldn’t teach undergraduates, so after several years I moved to SMU, before coming to Washington to take a position at American University. In all three positions I tried to keep one foot in academia without losing contact with the policy world.

There are lots of ways of doing this, if you’re so inclined. Say yes to speaking engagements. You never know who will be in the audience. Organize public events with policymakers, military officers, intelligence officials, diplomats, and so on. Serve on editorial boards where you can encourage debates (online or print) among scholars and practitioners. Always keep your eyes open for these kinds of opportunities.   

4) Would you say that your experience at SSP has continued to influence your current position. What key concepts or values from SSP have served you well in your current position?

SSP was where I learned how to take a punch. I struggled in the best sense of the word. What I love now (but didn’t always love at the time) was that faculty and grad students didn’t sugarcoat their criticism. This forced me to sharpen my arguments, and to prepare for counterarguments in advance. That lesson sticks with me today. Whenever I’m writing a new piece I always imagine how it would play in an SSP Wednesday lunch.

5) One of the primary premises of the MIT SSP is “War is an extension of politics. Politics causes wars. Policy must be the governing force.” Can you explain how, in your experience, this has been true or false? What has been your own experience?

I love that quote. It’s a neat summary of Clausewitz’s biggest idea, and gets at the tension in On War. The first sentence declares what war is. The last sentence declares what it should be.  
This tension is built into his theory. War is a rational act of violence because it is an extension of politics, but violence unleashes irrational forces that are hard to control. Civilian leaders ought to be in control of strategy, but military necessity tempts them to give the reins to military professionals. Statesmen should be happy when they conserve resources and gain limited objectives, but victory fever causes them to grasp for more. Maintaining the link between politics and war is hard for these and other reasons.

This has been the defining problem for U.S. strategy since the Cold War. The U.S. won a limited victory in Iraq in 1991. Then we spent twelve years convincing ourselves that we had lost, and that conquest was the only solution. U.S forces destroyed al Qaeda after September 11, leaving most of the organizations leaders dead or imprisoned. But that was not enough, so we sought to rebuild Afghanistan’s government and economy. U.S. forces dismantled ISIS starting in 2014, but apparently that is not enough either, so we’re still there trying to forge some kind of political settlement in Iraq and Syria.

The idea that war starts as an extension of politics doesn’t mean it will stay that way. Nor does it mean that policymakers will be able to explain their objectives clearly, or stick to them. Clausewitz warns us that war tends towards extremes if unchecked by conscientious political leaders. This is a good lesson for anyone thinking about a career in national security.

6) What is the part of your current position that you think allows you the most satisfaction and/or dissatisfaction and why?

I have smart and dedicated students, and I’m lucky to share a hallway with a couple of E-38 alums. The SSP mafia is strong. I also enjoy being in Washington, which gives me the chance to interact with people in the intelligence and defense community more than would otherwise be possible.

7) What in your career are you most proud of and has SSP been a part of that?

The SSP faculty always talked about writing about important issues, and writing clearly. My favorite work does both. I also like research that gets in the historical weeds rather than accepting familiar analogies. It’s always a good feeling when historian friends give your work a thumbs up – often they don’t.   

8) What, outside of SSP and your work here, has been the factor that has most influenced who you are now, and what your current research interests are?

My family argued about politics all the time growing up, so I was interested from an early age. We still argue and I’m still interested.

My current research is about strategy and grand strategy. A state’s grand strategy ought to influence its wartime strategy, and vice versa. But very often the connection breaks down. I want to know why. This research is a reflection on my time studying grand strategy at SSP, and then teaching strategy at the Naval War College. I’d like to bring those two ideas together.

9) Looking back, what, if anything would you do differently?

Learn Russian. I’ve spent many years studying intelligence and strategy, and Russian history is fascinating for both. I’ve always been jealous of friends who can dig into Russian language sources in ways I can’t.   

10) What is the key piece of advice that you would pass along to current SSP graduate students, or those just beginning their careers?

Don’t obsess about landing the perfect job. Find a base of operations, settle in, and get to work. I know it sounds cheesy, but focus on your research and teaching, no matter where you end up, and develop a solid professional network.