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Alumnus talks ‘Strategy’ in Sanford

John Hillen, Trinity ’88 and former assistant secretary of state for political military affairs, addressed students and faculty on the topic of Grand Strategy and associated policy-making Thursday evening.

Hillen, who served during the second half of former president George W. Bush’s administration, drew a capacity crowd to a lecture hall in the Sanford School of Public Policy with even Hillen’s mother in attendance. The event was brought to campus through a collaboration between both the Duke University Program in American Grand Strategy from the Sanford School of Public Policy and Triangle Institute for Security Studies.

“I think this program is so key to understand and solve because you can’t look at [Grand Strategy] in silos, you have to put it together because that’s the way the world is looking at it,” Hillen said in an interview. “I’m really thrilled that Duke is leading the way.”

Peter Feaver, Alexander F. Hehmeyer professor of political science and director of the TISS, introduced Hillen as “an intellectual who was part of some of the most important security debates in the ’90s.” Feaver lauded Hillen as an alumnus, colleague and friend.

After a few nostalgic quips about Duke, basketball victories and a certain stunt atop Baldwin Auditorium, Hillen discussed the importance of Grand Strategy and America’s policy perspective. He defined Grand Strategy as strategy involving varied resources, whether militant, diplomatic, political or cultural.

The concept also involves, “the collection of plans and policies by which the leadership of the United States mobilizes and deploys the country’s resources and capabilities, both military and non-military, to achieve its national goals,” according to Duke’s American Grand Strategy Program Web site.

He also underscored the importance of America’s Grand Strategy as a means to incorporate security and diplomacy and maintain America’s global position as a power. He said Grand Strategy is a “practical necessity if a country is in the business of accomplishing goals.”

Hillen spoke of the challenges to implementing Grand Strategy, as well as particular obstacles he encountered in Washington D.C. as a policy-maker and assistant secretary of state. He touched on his responsibility as the mediator between the Department of State and Department of Defense, and the importance of forging a connection between military security, foreign relations and economic understanding. Hillen made it clear that this is a challenging field.

“Life is not a linear process, and neither is strategy,” he said.

Hillen later addressed the undergraduates in the room specifically, encouraging them to seek work in the policy area of Grand Strategy.

“[It is the] most inspiring and consequential work you will do in your life,” he said. “And, the stakes couldn’t be higher.”

Hillen saved some time for a question-and-answer session after the speech with students, and disclosed further specifics about his time as a soldier, policy-maker, assistant secretary and businessman.

Students’ reactions to the speech seemed generally positive and appreciative of Hillen himself.

“He did a good job explaining how the process works with politics, and touched on linking those two in the policy world—that was really insightful,” said Katie Cochran, a graduate student in political science.

Feaver noted the importance of bringing Hillen to campus, especially as the American Grand Strategy program’s premier speaker.  

“Hillen is a triple-threat in that he has a distinguished record in thinking and writing as well as a distinguished record [working] inside government and industry, most importantly on the backs of a Duke education,” Feaver said in an interview. “I wanted my students to see and be inspired. I’m guessing I have a few future John Hillen’s in my classroom.”


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