General Joseph Dunford (F ’92), the 19th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the nation’s highest-ranking military officer, engaged in a question-and-answer session with students of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in an overflowing ASEAN Auditorium on Tuesday evening.
As chairman, Dunford is tasked with providing military advice to the president, the National Security Council and the Secretary of Defense, according to Professor of International Politics Richard Shultz, who moderated the talk. Shultz fondly remembered his time teaching Dunford, and recalled that the chairman had ranked at the top of his class at the end of his first year at Fletcher.
The evening consisted of a 30-minute Q&A between Shultz and Dunford, followed by over an hour of questions from audience members. Questions covered many topics, ranging from cybersecurity to climate change to troops in Afghanistan.
Dunford began by describing the strategically complex environment that has existed since World War II.
“When I look at the challenges we have right now, I look at four state challenges and one non-state challenge,” he said. “We look at Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and then the threat of violent extremism.”
In the modern day, he said, challenges are no longer geographically isolated. Given that they are trans-regional and generational, he said the United States needs to find solutions that are sustainable.
Dunford predicted that violent extremism will be around for a long time, in some form similar to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
“The success that we’ve had in Iraq and Syria is significant, but we’re more at an inflection point in a campaign against violent extremism than we’re near the defeat of violent extremism,” he said.
Dunford acknowledged that the United States is not necessarily the most credible observer of ISIS, and that we should listen closely to the stories of people who have lived under ISIS.
Regarding North Korea, Dunford stressed the importance of deterrence in terms of the use and creation of ballistic missiles.
“To date, we have not been successful in deterring [Kim Jong-un’s] development of ballistic missiles or his nuclear program,” he said.
If deterrence fails, Dunford confidently asserted that as an ally to South Korea, the United States would initiate a military response.
“We will respond and do what must be done to protect South Korean sovereignty,” he said.
Shultz quoted part of Dunford’s recent testimony before Congress, during which he discussed the military’s budget.
“Without sustained and sufficient and predictable funding, in five years, the U.S. will lose its ability to project military power and it will erode our competitive advantage,” Dunford said in his testimony.
Dunford responded by identifying the two main strengths of the United States: its alliances and its ability to project power whenever necessary.
Although Dunford lauded the United States for always holding onto its values, he also lamented that U.S. intelligence forces have to navigate a lengthy process of laws about accessing private information which China and Russia do not follow, giving these two nations a strategic advantage.
Dunford was nominated to the position of chairman by former President Barack Obama and renominated by President Donald Trump. He says that, as one of the few government officials to have served under both, he is apolitical and is valued for his competence.
“I’m obligated by law to provide advice, but no one in their job description is obligated to actually listen to my advice,” he said. “The only thing I have is credibility and trust.”
During the audience question portion of the evening, Dunford engaged with attendees and held a dialogue. For example, when former Navy Reserve Intelligence Officer and second-year master of arts in law and diplomacy student Andrea Goldstein brought up the topic of diversity in the military, he asked her to further explain her position, as he could tell she was dissatisfied with his answer.
“You obviously must have an idea of something we’re not doing that we should be doing,” Dunford said. “I’m happy to be a student.”
He gave Goldstein a chance to explain how her time on active duty and her work with NATO as a gender advisor have influenced her approach to international relations.
Dunford also noted the importance of expanding the debate about security to people who are less knowledgeable on the topic and are not currently part of dialogue.
“The most important thing that those of you here at Fletcher can do is help expand the numbers of people that understand the issues and all of their complexities and context,” he said.
In his praise of Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Dunford addressed the importance of entertaining ideas different from your own.
“As a leader, if you stop listening to people who have different ideas than you or disagree with you, you actually become dangerous, in the business I’m in,” he said.
Dunford concluded with a piece of advice for the audience.
“The first boss I ever worked for said: ‘To be successful, the first thing you’ve got to do is surround yourself with good people,’” he said.