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Q&A: Gregory Mitrovich

Posted Jun 22 2014

Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies members Robert Jervis and Gregory Mitrovich have been selected to receive a $1.5 million grant issued by the Department of Defense’s Minerva Initiative for their project, “Culture in Power Transitions: Sino-American Conflict in the 21st Century.”

Partnering with the University of Notre Dame and the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary, the three-year project will examine how the United States and China will use “culture” as a means to advance their security interests and wage their hegemonic competition in the 21st century. Mitrovich recently spoke with SIPA News about the project.

What is the Minerva Initiative?

In 2008, the Department of Defense created a project called the Minerva Initiative to increase collaboration between the Department of Defense and the academic community. What they do is periodically issue a competition on topics of interest to DoD—for example, the future of deterrence. You prepare a proposal based on whatever topics they announce.

Logistically, how does a grant competition like this work?

It’s a multi-step process. First you write a concept paper of five pages… if your concept is selected you turn it into a proposal of 25 pages, single-spaced. I think there were 261 concept papers to start this year, which they narrowed to 63 proposals. Then last month they announced the 12 final projects [including ours].

They started the competition in September 2013, and we had until November 18 to create a concept paper. You have to figure out what you want to do, find colleagues to collaborate, agree to the concept paper, and then submit. We were approved for a proposal before Christmas and then had until February 18 to finish the proposal. That’s a very short window to prepare what is in fact a major scholarly article, which is what they’re expecting.

You get lots of feedback and write draft after draft—I had more than 110 footnotes. Basically, you have to demonstrate a very clear understanding of the literature in the area and have a very well-defined point of view that you want to bring to the topic under discussion. It has to be very, very well written. It’s amazing how many times we edited and copy edited our final proposal.

I understand you’re working with colleagues here and elsewhere—how is the project team structured?

Robert Jervis is the head of the project, and we’re also working with Victoria Hui, a professor of political science at Notre Dame, who earned her PhD from Columbia. In addition, Professor Erin Jenne of Central European University in Budapest [Hungary], a Stanford PhD, is leading a couple of other consultants including Will Lowe, a pioneer of the computer process program we’ll use to examine millions of pages of documentation.

You project title alludes to conflict between the United States and China. What more can you say about the study?

We’re going to undertake a comparative study of how the U.S. and China have used soft power to aid their rise to great-power status. Soft power is the use of culture and ideas, as opposed to hard military power, to influence other nations. My side of the project will explore how the United States used American culture to enhance its own position within in the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I’ll draw lessons from that, while our China specialist Victoria Hui will do the same thing for China, and examine how China is using its soft power today.

These are going to be qualitative studies, no numbers or statistics. But we’re also going to pair it with a very intensive quantitative study that Professor Jenne will head, which will use computer-aided text analysis, or CATA. CATA involves computers reading millions and millions of pages of text—articles, newspapers, reports, blogs, et cetera—and examining it in enormous detail. The computer program can show parallels in how words and phrases are used over time, how thoughts are expressed, and help identify trends across massive amounts of data.

You can do this kind of analysis on your own, but computers take it to a whole new level. We’ll write based on our expertise and work with Erin and her team. We already know how the U.S. rose to power and created the American century. The question now is, is China on the cusp of the same thing for the 21st century? And we feel this will help us answer that.

Can you say what a Chinese Century might look like, or how likely it is to come to pass?

First, take a step back. From the late 19th century, the U.S. promoted republican government, a laissez-faire liberal economic system, basic rights for individuals, and a democratic electoral process. We tried to project that as the way of the future. That led to debate within aristocratic Europe, which didn’t necessarily want any part of that.

There’s a large part of European society that was [historically] drawn to American culture; movies and music and other culture make up a big part of soft power. But there’s always an element of both attraction and repulsion—you have segments of those societies that are concerned that nations’ historical identities will be challenged and changed forever. Some Europeans looked across the Atlantic and saw barbarians… it led to the rise of a lot of extremist organizations that did not like the U.S.

What China is doing today is promoting the China model—basically a state-centered economic system with an authoritarian power structure. It allows for quick mobilization in a way that’s appealing to leadership in the third world. That’s the beginning of a possible challenge to the American century.

Now, when the Chinese pursue this process, we ask how does it create both positive and negative feedback and help us understand whether the rise of China will stabilize or destabilize the world. We want to see how it’s working today and then project over the next 50 years.

American culture is already dominant, but now you have this Chinese challenge. What does that mean for stability in the 21st century? At what point does conflict over culture lead to potential military conflict?

What’s the final product of a study like this?

The project is supposed to help sponsor thinking on national security within the academic community, so they very much want open-source publication.

It’s a three-year timeframe. Victoria will have one book, I’ll have two books, and we’ll have articles related to CATA analysis that we want to publish in academic journals. Then we want policy analysis in policy journals, briefing papers for DoD, the State Department, the CIA—Professor Jervis has a lot of contacts. The question is: what can we bring to U.S. foreign policy going forward in this century?