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Equipped to Lead

In the summer of 2009, a North Korean ship containing illicit cargo departed from its territorial waters, seemingly headed for Myanmar (Burma), possibly before transfer to the Middle East. Delivery of the cargo would have been in clear violation of several United Nations Security Council resolutions. As Assistant Secretary of Defense for Global Strategic Affairs, Michael Nacht was called upon to participate in an inter-agency team to assess the situation and help formulate a response.

“We did not want to use force, if at all possible, or to create a major international incident,” remembers Professor Nacht. “But it was essential that this dangerous material not reach its intended destination.”

Professor Nacht has a unique view on the Goldman School’s intersection with the nation’s capital. He led the School as Dean from 1998–2008, and has served in two presidential administrations in posts where he received unanimous US Senate confirmation (Assistant Secretary of Defense for Global Strategic Affairs in the Obama administration and Assistant Director for Strategic and Eurasian Affairs of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in the Clinton administration).

Facing such high pressure is an essential part of the skill set needed to work in DC, notes Professor Nacht.

“How do you know a crisis when you see it? How does it affect decision making?” he asks. “The essence of Washington is making decisions in short amounts of time with limited information. It’s as much art as it is science.

“Lots of serious quantitative and qualitative analysis is routinely conducted in Washington,” he says. “The Goldman School’s core curriculum and electives give our students sophisticated training to be very literate in this material. But that is only a part of how decisions get made. So we also offer courses like Bob Reich’s course on leadership, Sean Farhang’s course on the law and courses on communication and negotiations. Policy analysis is important but in no way is it the sole determinant of how policy is shaped.

“Every federal agency is itself divided into subparts,” continues Professor Nacht. “There is competition within and between agencies for influence. You need to consider the role of Congress, the media and lobbyists. GSPP is a kind of boot camp for getting ready for the ‘combat’ of Washington policy making.”

So what happened to that North Korean ship?

“The situation was resolved in a very clever, non-obvious way,” says Professor Nacht. “The United States convinced a government close to the government of Myanmar to persuade them to deny the ship entry. The ship returned to Pyongyang. From our perspective, it was absolutely the right thing to do. We achieved our goal in a peaceful way after looking at many different options.”

Such fast-paced, critical problem solving is what makes working in DC so rewarding. “It’s not easy,” he says, “but you can have a big impact.” 

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This article was originally posted on the Spring 2015 edition of Policy Notes, a bi-annual publication released by the Goldman School of Public Policy.