Q&A With Philip Potter, Batten’s National Security Policy Center Director

(Editor’s note: This article appeared in UVA Today and is posted here with permission.)

With the goal of creating a hub for training, research and engagement on pressing issues in national security policy, Batten launched its National Security Policy Center last summer.

As part of the initiative, the Center’s new Director, Professor Philip Potter; Batten Dean Allan Stam; Professor Gerald Warburg, and other experts travel abroad to answer questions within foreign governments, universities and other organizations about Trump administration policies.

“There’s a hunger for understanding the American national security process—it’s palpable,” Warburg said. “And it’s incumbent upon on our students—whether they’re Democratic or Republican, liberal or conservative—to understand it.

“Partnerships with overseas American allies will help us develop a cadre of folks who can talk to each other 10 or 20 years from now when they’re in the professional environment.”
Another part of the Center’s mission it to recruit international students for Batten’s Master of Public Policy degree program. The hope is to “prepare the next generation of policy leaders for present and emerging challenges,” Stam said.

This week, UVA Today caught up with Potter—a former colleague of Stam’s at the University of Michigan—to see how the center’s first six months have gone. (The July 20, 2017 conference to launch the center, The Future of National Security Policy: Threats and Interests in the Digital Age, held in Washington, D.C., attracted more than 120 students, policymakers, scholars, and others. Foreign Policy magazine co-sponsored the conference.)

Q. Why did you think starting the center would be a good idea?

A. We saw a lack of engagement by UVA in national security policy.

We also have a group of scholars here who were already working in this area who have something to say, and we thought it was important for people to hear.

Finally, UVA has a long tradition of public service that puts us in a great position to leverage these advantages to contribute meaningfully to national security.

Q. Was the political climate at all an impetus?

A. It wasn’t, really. I think, in the end, international affairs are always pretty complex and pretty fraught. There are always important and pressing national security policy issues whether it’s terrorism, Iraq, Afghanistan, China or Russia—the U.S. is a big country with expansive national interests. As a country, we need to consistently be working on international relationships and issues in a considered way, regardless of who is in the White House.

That said, this has been an important time in national security, and there has been a lot of rethinking going on in the context of the Trump administration in terms of what the U.S.’s posture should look like, what our strategy should look like, where we should be making investments, and all those sorts of things.

All of those are areas where I think UVA can make important contributions.

Q. What challenges does having a president who is so active on social media pose for the National Security Policy Center?

A. I don’t think it’s social media, per se, that’s the challenge. Social media has amplified something that has always gone on. Democracies are noisy and it can be hard for allies and adversaries to interpret what we mean—what we’re serious about and what we’re not serious about. That’s always been true, but social media, the internet, the proliferation of satellite television—there are a lot of different technologies that are compounding this—have increased the noisiness of the policy space.

The worry is that this increased the risks of miscalculations or misinterpretations. If something goes wrong and we’re not speaking of a single voice, people fail to interpret correctly what we’re saying. I think that’s worth taking seriously.


Whitelaw Reid

University News Associate, Office of University Communications