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The Heights of the Cold War

3 Dec
Above: The height of Cold War satire.

Above: The height of Cold War satire. Slim Pickens as USAF Major ‘King’ Kong rides the bomb in Dr Strangelove.

A recent article in the Daily Mail, plus a subsequent Twitter conversation, has provoked me to address this blog posts to journalists everywhere. This is not some academic lecturing from his lofty ivory tower (it’s actually made of brick, and my office is only on the first floor), rather a plea for a little bit of historical thinking.

Daily Mail journalist Matt Hunter examines on a tense standoff between the air forces of the United States and the Soviet Union in October, 1986. Hunter notes that “The incident above the Barents Sea, near Soviet waters, took place between a US Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird and a MiG-31, the premier Soviet interceptor aircraft, at the height of the Cold War 30 years ago.”

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The Challenges of Teaching Intelligence Studies

28 Jun

This post is based on a short presentation I gave as part of a job interview at the International Politics department of Aberystwyth University. I didn’t get the position, but I am very grateful to Jenny Mathers and the rest of the InterPol department for the chance to visit Aberystwyth. 

In addressing the question of what are the challenges of teaching intelligence studies, I’d like to focus on four main challenges that I see as significant. These obviously are not the be all and end all, but are succinct summaries of key issues that I see as affecting how and why we teach.

spooksI’d argue that one of the main challenges is addressing student expectations of what intelligence is. These expectations are at least in part formed by a lifetime of exposure to popular cultural interpretations of intelligence, such as television programmes like Alias, Spooks, 24, and The Night Manager, the Bourne films, video games like the Metal Gear Solid series, and so on and so forth. As much as we in academia would like to think otherwise, films like Bridge of Spies, the Mission Impossible series, and Burn After Reading seem to have a much greater impact on the way people think about intelligence in the wider world than our publications in scholarly journals, conference papers, or blog posts. Oh how I wish it were otherwise!

So, it’s vital to demonstrate that the realities of intelligence are at the same time more pedestrian and more exciting than any film, television programme, video game, or book. For example, while intelligence analysis is a vital component of what intelligence is, it’s dull, painstaking, and often long-winded. I’m not sure a real time programme that involves watching analysts pour over decrypted emails would get quite the same viewing figures as Jack Bauer torturing and killing his way around the world. On the other hand, the career of Oleg Penkovsky or the story of Able Archer ’83 is far more thrilling than any fictional accounts. Able Archer ’83 in particularly informative. The way in which Soviet intelligence gathering that was at its heart based on faulty and often false assumptions about NATO intentions towards the USSR led us closer to nuclear war than any time since the Cuban crisis is a fascinating story. Tales of KGB and GRU officers wandering the streets of London and Brussels at 2 in the morning looking for excessive numbers of lights on in government offices never fails to catch the interest of students.

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The Pakistani Nuclear Weapons Programme and Globalisation in the 1970s

6 Mar

sargent_ASTReading Daniel Sargent’s excellent recent book A Superpower Transformed provoked me to re-assess some of the framework supporting my own research into US-UK and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons project in the 1970s. Sargent manages to crystalise some of the conclusions I was tentatively reaching towards, very handy as I work on the manuscript for my own book. One issue that formed a component of my work – but that I hadn’t made prominent enough – was globalisation. Not just globalisation in terms of markets, but in the emergence of modern transnational movements, networks, and ideas (such as human rights), and the significant role they played in US foreign policy.

Sargent’s thesis forced me to re-appraise the role that globalisation and transnationalism played in US-UK nuclear non-proliferation policy, and in Pakistan’s own clandestine bomb programme. The Pakistani nuclear weapons programme had a lengthy history, but only really emerged as an international issue after the catalytic Indian nuclear test of May 18 1974. This spurred Islamabad into action and gave leaders such as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Muhammad Zia ul-Haq the necessary oppositional context to push forward a national nuclear programme.

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Supervision, scholarship, and empathy

29 Jan
Above: I struggled to think of an image for 'supervisor'. So here's the late, great Carl Sagan.

Above: I struggled to think of an image for ‘supervisor’. So here’s the late, great Carl Sagan.

My biggest teaching challenge for the 2015-16 academic year has been taking on responsibility for supervising the final year dissertations of eleven undergraduate students. It’s very rewarding to be given this job, but it also makes me only too aware of the profound responsibility that I now have for the research of junior scholars.

It’s ironic that as academics, we all worry about our own research: its quality, accessibility, and implications. I’m grappling with that right now as I explore the relationships between governments, the secret intelligence services, and media institutions during the 1980s. Supervision adds to this. You’re now worried on behalf of a cohort of other scholars!

One way I’ve tried to approach this is by using the lessons I’ve learned from those who have supervised me. I’ve been lucky to benefit from the advice and support of a number of great people since I returned to university in 2008. In particular, my Masters supervisors Dolores Janiewski and Malcolm McKinnon, and my doctoral supervisors Fabian Hilfrich and Robert Mason.

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Nuclear Terrorism in the Modern Seminar Room

9 Dec
Time

I have no idea what that cover image is actually meant to be.

Next semester, I will be making statements supporting the proliferation network of A Q Khan, the idea of an ‘Islamic bomb‘, and and means of conducting ‘nuclear terrorism‘. Give me a few weeks and I’ll have MI5 at my office door with a set of handcuffs and a whole series of  awkward questions. Or not, as is probably the case

Of course, I don’t actually agree with A Q Khan’s self-aggrandising nuclear proliferation motives. The idea of an ‘Islamic bomb’ is complicated and multilayered.(1) And I don’t support the use of nuclear weapons by anyone. But, I will be making ‘controversial’ statements in order to stir up debate and provoke discussion in my seminars for The United States and the Conundrum of Nuclear Proliferation.

I mention this because of the UK’s ongoing Prevent Strategy (hereafter just ‘Prevent’)to combat ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremism’. Universities, colleges, and schools are now – for David Cameron’s government at least – the front line in a battle against ‘extremist ideologies’. Prevent aims to cover all ‘extreme ideologies’, but in the current climate we all know what they’re really talking about.

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Atomic Triggers

19 Aug

Stillman-Hiroshima-690

Note: Stemming from further useful discussions on social media, I’ve added some additional comment at the end of this piece. The original post remains unchanged.

Recent discussions about ‘trigger warnings’ in higher education have been all over the place, resulting in a predictable mishmash of reasoned argument, straw men, and pointless tosh. Rather than boringly attempt to give yet another take on the issue as a whole, I’d like to address how I see this intersecting with my own teaching of nuclear history. I’d also like to add my support for the term ‘content warning‘ in this context (the linked article usefully discusses this).

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“Thus it begins…”: Starting to teach the nuclear Cold War

17 Sep

This coming Friday, my honours (3rd/4th year undergraduate) course in the nuclear history of the Cold War begins. It’s very exciting to have so many students signed up and demonstrating such enthusiasm for the subject. As I’ve mentioned before, the course starts by questioning the relevance of nuclear weapons to the Cold War, then progressing in a broadly chronological fashion through the decades.

As part of the teaching and learning process – and as something of a personal aide memoire – I plan to blog about the classes each week. I’ll primarily be thinking about the debates that took place, how the seminar worked, and where the discussion went. I’m particularly keen for students to given open, frank feedback here on the blog as part of an ongoing conversation about our joint learning.

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