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Valuing Diplomacy on the Global Stage
The Fletcher School spoke with newly appointed Academic Dean Monica Toft about her research and global affairs
Professor of International Politics Monica Toft buzzes with ideas. She has authored 10 books and is working on three more. In her role as director of The Fletcher School’s Center for Strategic Studies, she led the Military Intervention Project, which recently published its findings in a book. Toft’s academic interests are rich and varied, from international security to ethnic and religious violence, and civil wars and demography. Now, she’s sharing her expertise with Fletcher in a leadership role as academic dean.
Her journey on this path began in high school. A teenage polyglot, Toft studied both French and Spanish. Her French teacher also spoke Russian, and when her high school offered the language her junior year, she jumped at the opportunity to study it.
“I was always intrigued by the Soviet Union,” said Toft. “It was like that Churchill quote, ‘a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.’”
She remembers her earliest curiosity dawning in the sixth grade, when students were assigned to draw a landmark from a country’s capital, and she chose St. Basil’s Cathedral. Her fascination only grew from there.
Russia hadn’t gone from Toft’s mind when she was sitting in a calculus class in high school at the height of the Cold War; she was thinking about college and heard a life-altering announcement. Students had the opportunity to sit for the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB). Her father had served in the army, and she connected with the opportunity to give back to her country and pay for college. With excellent results, she started receiving calls from Army, Air Force, and Navy recruiters. When the Army guaranteed that she could study Russian and avail herself of the Veterans Assistance Program to go to college, she enlisted at 17.
“I was doing highly classified intelligence work, the equivalent of the NSA, while stationed in Augsburg, West Germany. It was very exciting,” said Toft. “This was 84 to 87. Chernobyl was happening, and a rapid succession of Soviet leaders ending with Gorbachev in 1985. You’re an 18- or 19-year-old kid on the frontlines of the Cold War during the Reagan presidency; and he’s calling the USSR an 'evil empire'—it was a pretty intense time.”
Upon her return to the United States, Toft enrolled at the University of California, Santa Barbara where she double majored in political science and Slavic languages and literatures. At the University of Chicago, she wrote her master’s in political theory on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and then her PhD dissertation on what caused the disintegration of the Soviet Union; seeking to understand the conditions under which ethnic conflict turns violent.
She moved to Harvard on a postdoctoral fellowship, subsequently teaching at The Kennedy School for 12 years and publishing her first three books. The University of Oxford offered her a full professorship, and she taught there for five years before returning stateside and ultimately landing at Fletcher.
A Circumspect Approach to Diplomacy and War
Monica Toft’s personal interests, history, and academic career all entwine. She earned a black belt in Okinawan karate and is a certified yoga instructor, something she plans to use—yoga, not karate—to help veterans face trauma. Karate teaches that one should avoid situations of conflict that would necessitate the use of violence. Yoga emphasizes present mindedness and awareness. Through all of her work, her military service guides much of her ethics and thinking.
“Having served and understanding what it means to raise your hand and defend the U.S. Constitution, I think the biggest decision a leader could ever make is sending his or her citizens off to war, to possibly die and kill people from other countries,” said Toft. “During the Cold War, there was a fear that we were going to go to war. I was in Germany. There was no evacuation plan—we would have been the hostages for the U.S. and for NATO. If the Soviets came across the Fulda Gap, we understood that we were the pointy end of the spear.”
“I think that has made me circumspect about the use of violence, and really valuing diplomacy and other ways of thinking through conflict and alternatives to violence,” she added.
With this philosophy guiding her work, Toft founded the Center for Strategic Studies. She’d directed the John M. Olin Institute at Harvard while at The Kennedy School and wanted to convene the best and brightest in security studies to conduct research that could become a public good. This led to the Military Intervention Project, a recently-concluded five-year project involving 40 students and postdocs, which culminated in the publication of the book Dying by the Sword.
Though she’s been busy with the book’s publication, Toft is hard at work on her next endeavor. With the Afghanistan Assumptions Project, her team investigates how the U.S. ended up in 20 years of engagement in Afghanistan, and nothing to show for it but suffering on all sides. Now in their second year, the team—composed of Toft and two co-principal investigators—is authoring seven papers, the first of which is complete, and seeking to answer questions that the U.S. government cannot.
“There's the Afghanistan War Commission, which was set up by Congress, but it can't ask certain things. We can. We're asking very difficult questions. We've already talked to the top commissioners, and they're excited about our project, because we can go to Afghanistan, for example, to interview the Taliban. We can go to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and they can't do that. That kind of freedom and independence to go where we want to go and ask difficult questions is key—we are creating our own mandate to get answers to understand this 20-year catastrophe so as to not repeat it.”
Pride for the Tufts Community
Monica Toft is eager to begin her work as academic dean. She has been part of the Fletcher community for years, and her children are now both Jumbos. She exudes pride for the university. She’s completed the Boston Marathon with the Tufts Marathon Team and plans to teach yoga again during finals to help alleviate student stress.
As she looks to the term ahead, she’s excited to work alongside Interim Dean Kelly Sims Gallagher, who she has known since they were at The Kennedy School together. “Kelly and I work well together,” said Toft. “During my term, I’m looking forward to strengthening our curriculum, our teaching, and showing the world that we are absolutely mighty.”
She plans to continue the work Dean Gallagher undertook during her term as academic dean, supporting faculty and students to answer the most pressing global affairs questions today.
“We're building our technology and security program, for example, thinking through the AI piece, the cyber piece. Take war: is it the same or is it different? On one hand, you could make the argument that the war in Ukraine is very much similar to something we may have witnessed in World War Two. Then on the other hand, this informational warfare that's happening is quite different, or is it? We’re interrogating that in our teaching, in our research, and making sure that we have classes to help our students think through those complex issues.”
Drawing from her background in security studies, she’s interested in questions surrounding global politics, China’s rise, AI, climate, war, and the interconnectedness of the world today.
“There's a lot to think through if we are in a liminal moment. We want to tee up our faculty, our curriculum, our teaching in order to enable our students to be prepared to ask the best questions they can when they become decision makers. We can't necessarily give them the answers, but I think we can set them up to ask better questions, to be more analytical and prepared to mitigate or resolve the world’s most pressing challenges and enhance and advance opportunities.”