USMA Social Sciences Department Hosts Annual Security Seminar

By Meghan Dower-Rogers USMA Office of Research Date: Wednesday, Feb 21, 2024 Time: 14:23 EST
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More than 250 Soldiers, scholars, diplomats and other subject matter experts from around the world participated in the Department of Social Sciences (SOSH) Security Seminar from Feb. 7-8 at the West Point Club Ballroom and Jefferson Hall. 

Col. Jordan Becker and other SOSH faculty members greeted participants with military, government and industry backgrounds as they entered the Grand Ballroom prepared to discuss international security concerns, with this year's theme titled "States, Societies and Security in the 21st century." 

Becker, an academy professor and director of the SOSH Research Lab, and Maj. Joshua Woodaz, an American Politics instructor in SOSH, were the key organizers for the event. Moreover, SOSH arranged the event through partnerships with the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College, the Polish Institute of International Affairs, the Modeling Emergent Social Order (MESO) Lab at Ohio State University, and the Centre for Security, Diplomacy and Strategy at the Brussels School of Governance. 

Shortly before 8:15 a.m. on the first day, Becker welcomed the attendees, who were seated throughout the room at tables by their assigned working groups, and introduced the keynote speaker, 

Sasha Baker, the Acting Under-Secretary of Defense for Policy, attended remotely from the Pentagon and displayed on a large screen at the front of the room. 

Baker outlined the National Defense Strategy (NDS), which prioritizes U.S. defense against China and Russia as well as strategic attacks against its allies and partners while building a resilient Joint Force and defense ecosystem. Baker also discussed the conflicting strategies in recent years, noting that investing in both defense and non-defense infrastructure, technology, media and manufacturing are all important tools for building strong international defense. She also emphasized that leveraging partnerships and deepening relationships are critical to putting the U.S. in a position to strengthen the world. 

Also attending from the Pentagon was Matt Cordova from the Chairman's Action Group of the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Cordova discussed maritime strategy and the recent drone attack that killed three U.S. Soldiers in Jordan. 

He then continued with the highlights of the Joint Staff Report, including developing U.S. forces to become as effective as possible and the significance of trust in the profession of arms, particularly in building relationships with U.S. allies. 

The final speaker was USMA Superintendent Lt. Gen. Steven Gilland, who also emphasized the role that relationships play, saying that relationships are to the Army what location is to real estate and that the seminar offers the opportunity to develop enduring ones. 

Gilland also addressed how the seminar highlights the intellectual capital of USMA -- its faculty and cadets -- and encouraged visitors to venture beyond their conference spaces and tour the campus to gain an appreciation of the academy's rich history. 

One visiting attendee who developed a deep respect for USMA and its offerings was Dr. Alexandr Burilkov, a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for the Study of Democracy (ZDEMO), at the Leuphana University in Luneburg in Lower Saxony, Germany. Burilkov was invited by his mentor, the chair of International Relations at Leuphana, who strongly encouraged him to apply to the conference. 

"It seemed extraordinarily interesting to have the chance to be part of the seminar at such a storied institution like West Point," Burilkov said. "I knew that it would be a seminar that would bring together academics but also policymakers. It will be a higher-level kind of seminar, and that discussions would be extremely interesting, which they were." 

Burilkov, a native of the Czech Republic, completed his dissertation on the maritime strategy of emerging powers (China and Iran) and their actions in asymmetric warfare. 

Now, he focuses more on security and defense issues in Russia and the post-Soviet space. 

"I've written quite extensively about the Russian defense industry, Russian defense exports, Russian security assistance, which is an important element of the Kremlin's foreign influence," Burilkov explained. "Especially in the so-called Global South, like Sub Saharan Africa, East Asia, Southeast Asia, and so on." 

Burilkov went on to discuss what sparked his interest in studying Russia. 

"I come from the Czech Republic," he said. "We are a small country. We're one of the first Communist countries to join NATO in 1999. This was always something very important to Czech society, to become integrated into the West, to be a great ally, transatlantic ally, to become a member first of NATO, then of the E.U. (European Union) Of course, for us, the big threat has always been from the east.  

"We remember Prague Spring," he added. "And of course, that means that we have always been vigilant, and this is usually the motivation for me to study this question." 

Burilkov was a member of Working Group 3, "Russia-Societies and Strategic Perspectives," and was a panelist on the subtopic "Power and Strategy in Russia's War in Ukraine," chaired by Dr. Rob Person, International Relations Associate Professor and curriculum director for International Affairs. As one of the few Europeans in attendance, Burilkov found the different perspectives interesting. 

"It was just really valuable to be able to talk to people from the U.S., from the State Department, from West Point, from other American universities that are very much involved in drafting and in looking at the issues and seeing what their perspective is, what their priorities are, and how they see Russia because at the end of the day, for us in Europe, (Russia) is much nearer," Burilkov said. 

Burilkov added that he enjoyed working with Dr. Person, and that his research interests are like his own. 

"Dr. Person was a fantastic working group leader," Burilkov said. 'He's extremely knowledgeable, he's very passionate. 

"So, I think it was just a privilege and an honor to be part of (his working group) and to be able to participate in this endeavor and to get to know so many people," he added. "I think if I took one thing away is that Dr. Person's perspective is actually very remarkably close to the perspective of the Central and Eastern European members of NATO … so in that aspect, he was very close to some of the discussions we've been having in Europe about Ukraine." 

Overall, Burilkov valued his experience at USMA, and was particularly complimentary of the cadets he encountered. 

"I was impressed with their professionalism, their knowledge and just their drive," Burilkov said. 

Burilkov also appreciated how conducive the seminar environment was to networking. 

"I have to say that the very structured way that the seminar was designed really put making connections front and center," Burilkov said. "And I really appreciated that because very quickly we made connections with everyone in the working group, for example, and there were just a lot of opportunities for interaction." 

After their working group ended, Burilkov and some other attendees took a tour of the campus guided by retired SOSH faculty member Dr. Thomas Sherlock, visiting the reservoir among other sites. 

"It's really a very impressive facility and just the setting and the history of it are really something that leaves you with a lot to think about," Burilkov said. "The entirety of the experience has been extremely positive and if the seminar will be held next year, I will be very happy to return." 

Another visiting attendee was Dr. Edward Salo, a history associate professor and the associate director of the Heritage Studies Ph.D. program at Arkansas State University. 

Salo received his Ph.D. in public history and Master of Arts in History from Middle Tennessee State University and Bachelor of Science from East Tennessee State University. 

"I've been (at Arkansas State University) about 10 years," Salo said. "Before that, I spent 14 years doing cultural resources management, working for an archeology firm, doing projects all across the globe to help agencies fulfill their requirements." 

One of those projects brought Salo to West Point around 20 years ago when he looked at the gates at Camp Buckner, among other projects. 

Salo participated in last year's seminar via Zoom. However, this year, he managed to get funding to attend in person. For Salo, making connections while drinking coffee or dining with others was a much more compelling experience than networking through a Zoom call.  

He was able to engage with some members of the Swiss military and other historians, as well as political scientists, but what really interested him were his connections with the cadets. Salo even gave a cadet his business card and offered to collaborate on a project in the future. 

"To me, it's just a really great experience because it's not only the academics and practitioners working, but we're also getting different views and helping to mentor each other and the cadets," Salo said. 

"I feel as a historian, the importance of something like this (seminar) is that everybody brings a different point of view and a different skill set," Salo said. "We're dealing with things that are international relations, history, economics, and other types of things. "So, I think that's one of the real strengths of this conference," he added.  "There are so many unique views that we're bringing, things that may not traditionally be thought of in the ideas of security but are important." 

Day two of the seminar continued with more working groups and concluded in the early afternoon back in the Grand Ballroom with closing remarks by Col. Suzanne Nielsen, an academy professor and head of SOSH.  

Woodaz introduced the closing keynote speaker, Ambassador Douglas Lute, retired lieutenant general and former permanent representative to NATO. 

Before releasing the attendees to their final groups, Lute left them with the three key objectives of the seminar: taking strategy from academia to action, creating research partnerships and making West Point accessible to outside resources. The SOSH Security Seminar did just that.