I was asked by a certain unnamed PhD student to write up my conference trip to the United States in October and amazingly, I have actually gotten around to doing so. During the summer I applied to three conferences and to my delight I was accepted to all three. These are the ASMEA conference in Washington DC, the ISA Security chapter conference in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and the Annual ISA conference in San Francisco which will be held in April 2013. So far I have attended the ASMEA conference which was held on October 11-13, 2012 in the Key Bridge Marriot Hotel and the ISSS/ISAC 2012 Annual Conference held in Chapel Hill on October 4-6, 2012. I must thank CMSS and the Israel Studies Program at the University of Calgary for their generous funding and thank Dr. Duane Bratt the Chair of the Department of Policy Studies at Mount Royal University for giving me a full 10 days off from my teaching duties without even making me feel guilty.
The first conference I attended in beautiful Chapel Hill, covered a wide variety of security issues from a theoretical perspective. The topics actually gel almost perfectly with the type of work done at CMSS. Some of the panels which took place centered on the issues of nuclear proliferation, civil conflict, civil-military relations, counterinsurgency and peace building, terrorism, security studies as a field, energy and the environment, deterrence and sadly a round table on Lord of the Rings as a metaphor for IR theory. The attendees were probably 60% graduate students and noticeably dominated by the impressive Duke University Political Science students. There were also graduate students there from the finest institutions: Oxford, the University of Chicago, Kings College and the University of Michigan just to name a few. I did my best to take advantage of the impressive networking opportunities that the conference had to offer and met: Thom Shanker, the Pentagon correspondent for the New York Times, General McMaster, commander of the Army’s Maneuver Center of Excellence, T.V Paul one of the most notable Political Science professors in Canada and many others. I also met many excellent graduate students and invited them all to Calgary for the S3C Conference.
Shanker was also the keynote speaker and gave a notably fascinating speech on US counterterrorism in promotion of his excellent new book (written with Eric Schmitt) Counter Strike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al-Qaeda. The speech included the droll observation that “The relationship between Pakistan and the US is like a dysfunctional marriage. Both sides stay together for the kids.” The kids in this analogy are of course, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. I am not ashamed to say that I bought the book and got Mr. Shanker to sign it with an almost childlike enthusiasm. Another amusing moment at dinner was when one of the ushers came up to me at dinner, noted my University of Calgary nametag, and said “oh great! I am from Nova Scotia!” Not wanting to disappoint him with my blatantly non-Canadian identity I mumbled “that’s great, eh.”
My panel was on Grand Strategy and Strategic Culture and my presentation title was “To Build and Be Built: Strategic Culture Above and Below the State”. It was very similar to what I presented at the S3C conference although it had a far more theoretical slant to it. I shared the stage with three other excellent panelists. The format at the conference encouraged discussion and the post panel festivities were as long as the presentations themselves. The comments were incredibly informative as the rooms were littered with top notch academics, Pentagon officials, think tank analysts and security journalists. The panel was capably chaired by Kiron K. Skinner of Carnegie Mellon University, hardcore realist who challenged the very notion of strategic culture and grand strategy in the vibrant discussion she led. I found myself defending constructivist dogma against my better judgment.
The second conference I attended was the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa annual conference. As I regrettably had few opportunities to tour the stunning landscapes of North Carolina, I decided to make the most of my time in Washington D.C. On my first night at the conference I blew off the keynote speech by her excellence the ambassador for Bahrain. Instead I took a long walk over the Key Bridge through Georgetown, then through the GWU campus to the White House and down to the National Monument then went through to the Arlington Cemetery and back up to Rosslyn just in time for the Vice Presidential debate. I then ordered some Chinese from the China Garden Restaurant and chilled. Honestly, that was the highlight of the trip.
The ASMEA conference was very different. The focus was historical and the organization has a noted conservative bent, as it was formed by Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami in order to combat what they view as an excessive liberal bias in Middle Eastern studies. The panels were dominated by professors mostly from smaller universities with relatively few graduate students around. To spice things up, this time I presented on the totally new and revolutionary topic of settlers… I found myself placed in what seemed like the worst panel in the entire conference. Titled “Topics in the Middle East” and placed in the coveted, last panel of the conference on Saturday afternoon spot. To my astonishment the room was packed. I get up to deliver my presentation and….panic. The PowerPoint does not work. I had to give the presentation without the cues from my slides. However, the problem was overcome and I did as good a job as I could have, albeit sans pretty pictures.
The room exploded with questions and I found that about 60% were targeted at me. I guess that is what I get for picking a controversial topic. The questions ran the gamut from how I define strategy (thanks Dr. Terriff for drilling that one into me) to a nuanced criticism using Van Creveld, to lengthy political diatribes. To make things more amusing, my father showed up and decided to ask the following question: “what is the difference between culture and narrative”. I answered that doozie to the best of my ability and said “thanks dad” as raucous laughter erupted in the room. The presentation was better received by the Middle East crowd. The Washington policy hordes were generally disinterested as I was not talking about the US. I was inundated with cards and requests to send my paper to various people.
The US conference experience was highly rewarding and satisfying and I deeply recommend it to all Canadian graduate students and to CMSS students in particular. The US is the beating heart of international academia. According to the Shanghai Academic Rankings (which have no reason to be pro-American in their bias) 8 out of the 10 best schools in the world reside in the US. If you are looking at a career in academia, you chances of getting a job are much higher below the border as there are no less than 6,900 accredited universities and colleges in the United States as opposed to only around 200 in Canada. As I talked to people in these conferences, I was pleased to hear that the University of Calgary enjoyed a solid reputation. However, not a single person I talked to had heard of CMSS. Let’s make a concentrated effort by applying to conferences in the States and representing the Centre honorably. The Kingston, Halifax and S3C conferences that we all know and love serve us greatly as a tool to practice our presentation skills and sharpen our material. We should use these skills to improve our image worldwide by participating in the world’s best conferences.