Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Speaks on Foreign Policy Challenges

Michael Nacht former Assistant Secretary of Defense by Cass Krughoff

Last Thursday in Fromm Hall, Former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Global Strategic Affairs, Michael S. Nacht advocated for a cautiously optimistic approach to foreign policy issues in what amounted to a rare insider’s peek into the shadowy world of U.S. foreign policy.

Nacht, who is the dean of Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy where he also teaches, answered questions from USF Professor Patrick Hatcher of the Center for the Pacific Rim—the organization which hosted the event. Nacht spoke on a variety of topics ranging from the Arab Spring and United States’ relations with North Korea.

In his critique of the United States’ response to these conflicts, Nacht indicted a lack of imagination that obscures complex foreign policy dilemmas by squeezing them into categories where they don’t quite fit. Americans, Nacht mused, are like engineers, and like engineers, they will commonly “identify a problem, clear away the clutter, then solve the problem.”

Unfortunately, said Nacht, foreign policy involves “people” and “conditions,” which require patient, adaptable approaches.

Nacht has experienced firsthand the difficulty in overcoming such solution-oriented thinking. After graduating from New York University in 1963 with a degree in aeronautics and astronautics, Nacht briefly worked at NASA as a missile aerodynamicist, after which, he went on to teach in various positions at Harvard University. In 1994, he was hired by the Clinton Administration to work as an assistant director for strategic and Eurasian affairs in the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. After leaving the Clinton Administration, Nacht secured a position at Berkeley. In 2008 joined the Obama team for a three-year stint on the U.S. Department of Defense Threat Reduction Committee. Professor Nacht returned to Berkeley in 2010.

In the Obama administration, Nacht worked under Defense Secretary Robert Gates, developing projects designed to resuscitate defense programs relegated to the backburner during the Bush administration writing reports designed to shore up defense programs in areas such as space defense, anti-weapons of mass destruction and nuclear defense and disarmament. The work was part of a broader effort to reverse a course undertaken during the Bush administration to shift attention away from long-term defense objectives in Asia towards more immediate military activity in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Towards the beginning of the talk ostensibly dedicated to cyber-security, Hatcher recalled a recent report broadly charging Russia and China with crimes of cybertheft against private and public American institutions. The document, released earlier this month by the National Counterintelligence Executive, accused Chinese and Russian hackers of stealing various pieces of sensitive online information, a charge which those countries vehemently denied.

Hatcher wondered whether this information, or more like it, could lead to a possible break in relations with these two infamously mercurial allies.

To this question, Nacht slightly demurred, acknowledging that while tensions do indeed exist between the U.S. and some of its neighbors, such relationships should by no means “lead to a breakdown” in what Nacht described as mutually beneficial relationships.

Nacht’s experience would seem to support this type of guarded diplomacy. In one anecdote, he recounted a tense Cuban Missile Crisis-style showdown in which he helped advise the Secretary of Defense on how to respond to a North Korean cargo ship suspected of carrying sensitive equipment to what was then called Burma. In that 1981 incident, the U.S. was forced to work through an unnamed interlocutor in order to exert the influence needed to make North Korea back down.

According to Nacht, such convenient relationships are all too common in foreign affairs and should be valued and utilized.


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