Alumni Spotlight: Geoffrey Kemp

Geoffrey Kemp

Degree: PhD in Political Science, 1971
Dissertation: “A Mission-Specific Analysis of Military Force Structures in Third World Strategic Environments and Some Alternative Arms Donor Policy Options”
Current Position: Director of Regional Strategic Programs, The Nixon Center, Washington, DC
Recent Publications:
“Our Imaginary Foe,” The National Interest, April 25, 2008.
“The East Moves West: India and China’s Great Game in the Gulf,” The National Interest, June 1, 2006.
"Iran and Iraq: The Shia Connection, Soft Power, and the Nuclear Factor," United States Institute of Peace, November, 2005.

SSP recently interviewed alumnus Geoffrey Kemp. Dr. Kemp has enjoyed a varied and distinguished career as a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, a staffer for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a policy planner and analyst for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, a special assistant to the president on the National Security Council staff, and an author and leader at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Nixon Center. He has written widely on energy security, geopolitics in the Middle East and Persian Gulf, the arms trade, and arms control.

1. During the 1970s, you worked in the Pentagon on U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf. Questions surrounding world energy security and other U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf are still alive and well. Do you see any parallels between U.S. interests and challenges in the region today and those of three decades ago? Could we apply any lessons learned from your earlier work to today’s issues in the region?

Many of the key issues are the same; Middle East energy remains essential to the world’s economy; the region is still beset with unresolved conflicts and ongoing wars; the disparity of income between the rich and poor remains wide; the U.S. is the only power capable of projecting military force in the region in a significant scale. Yet there are differences. The Soviet Union no longer exists and though Russia plays a role in the Gulf, especially its close ties to Iran, it poses no existential threat. U.S. credibility has been weakened by the Iraq war and its failure to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. The financial crisis facing the U.S. may require the new president to reassess the range of U.S. commitments worldwide. While withdrawal from the Gulf is unlikely, new military commitments to countries like Ukraine and Georgia will have to be deferred.

2. Recently you have been looking into Chinese and Indian interests and activities in the Middle East. What do you see as the future for those two Asian powers in the region? What might their choices mean for U.S. policy?

China and India have growing interests in the Middle East that transcend their increased need for oil and natural gas. They sell products to the region and export labor.  They have good relations with all Middle East countries including Israel, Syria and Iran. Neither India nor China are capable, or interested, in challenging the U.S. role as policeman; in fact both benefit from the U.S. presence. Some say they are “freeloaders” and this may become a political issue in the United States. India, rather than China is more likely to establish effective military-to-military relations with the Gulf States. This could be significant in the decades ahead but India will never be a surrogate for the U.S.

3. Your career as a scholar and practitioner began during the Cold War. How did the passing of the bipolar world affect your own professional agenda? How did you decide which issues to address? What Cold War knowledge proved useful? What did you discard?  Do you think the unipolar moment will be with us for quite a while, or do you hold the view that the world is entering another period of rapid international political change?

The two events that influenced my early professional career were the Vietnam War and the U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms race. However in the mid-1970’s the soaring oil prices and the emergence of OPEC changed the equation and reintroduced the concept of resource scarcity in the strategic equation. The unipolar moment for the United States lasted from 1990 to 2001. The high point was probably the Afghan war in the fall of 2001. However the Iraq war which in part was launched because Afghanistan was initially so successfully has undermined the concept and reality of unipolarity. It is doubtful that moment will ever return.

4. SSP students often feel that they must make a choice between the scholarly life and working in the policy world. You have combined both with great success over the course of your career. Can you offer advice to our students and alumni who hope to blend the two types of work over time?

If you want to pursue an academic career in security studies it is important to work closely with U.S. government agencies. Whether this requires stints in Washington is a matter of individual choice. The problem is that the more time you spend in Washington the more difficult it is to retain a sense of academic objectivity on the burning questions of the time. In my own case, I find Washington an attractive physical place to live. This offsets the partisan and often simplistic politics that now dominate everyday life.