November 11, 2020

peter clement.png

Peter Clement
Peter Clement is Senior Research Scholar/Adjunct Professor at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies in the School of International and Public Affairs.
Peter Clement has had an illustrious career in foreign policy. He spent much of his career at the CIA, most recently as deputy assistant director for Europe and Eurasia. In 2003 and 2004, Clement was primarily responsible for delivering the
President’s Daily Brief to Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Council Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Deputy NSC Adviser Stephen Hadley.


SIPA News first spoke with Clement in 2013, when he began a two-year teaching appointment as the School’s CIA Officer-in-Residence. After retiring from the CIA in 2018, he returned to SIPA. Last May Clement received one of SIPA’s Outstanding Teaching Awards for 2019-2020. He recently spoke with SIPA News about his teaching and how his love of learning has lasted throughout his career.

What are you teaching currently and what have you taught previously?

This semester, I’m teaching Contemporary Russian Security Policy, which examines how Moscow thinks about its security and the various instruments it uses — including diplomacy and military force — to ensure its national security. This spring, I’ll be teaching Intelligence and Foreign Policy, about the interaction between the U.S. intelligence community and the foreign policy community. During the first week, we quickly review how presidents from Washington to Wilson used intelligence; the rest of the semester examines the growth of the intelligence community after World War II, intelligence collection and analysis, and the challenges inherent in the relationship with policymakers.

When I was first at SIPA, I developed a new course called Analytic Thinking, Writing, and Briefing, which focused on key skills of use in any profession. Through case studies of failures and successes in business, medicine, and intelligence, we identified a range of analytic thinking problems that afflict many professions. For one assignment, students did a timed, structured 10-minute briefing on any subject they liked. One student brought her cello to class and talked about importance of music in one’s life, while others did data-rich PowerPoint presentations aimed at persuading their classmates — on such issues as the false stereotypes about pitbulls and why Tom Brady should be considered the greatest quarterback of all time. Students also did multiple short policy memos and a 3 minute “elevator brief.” That was the only time I taught that class, but I’m hanging onto that syllabus.

You’ve both taught and practiced in the field for a long time. What brought you to teaching?

I knew early on that I enjoy teaching. Even in high school, I appreciated teachers for broadening my interests. I’m also very much an extrovert, so teaching is a wonderful means of engaging people to exchange ideas and viewpoints.

I also love learning about new things. I consider myself a lifelong student, because at the end of the day you never stop learning. My frustration is that I can’t keep up with everything that interests me. I have a large stack of “must read” books that grows each semester, but there are only so many hours in the day.

I feel there’s sometimes a choice between being a deep expert in one subject or having a wider, but less deep, knowledge of many subjects. Early in my career, as I developed expertise on Russian politics and foreign policy, I was hesitant about becoming a manager, for fear of spending less time on “substance.” I quickly came to realize that managers still had to remain quite substantive — and I discovered how rewarding it was to spend time developing your officers, getting them to strengthen their analytic skills, and hiring new talent.

You’ve talked about your experience in the White House as a kind of teaching experience.

In 2003-2004, I was a President’s Daily Brief briefer. That entailed going down to the White House six days a week to convey that day’s PDB; on any given day, the PDB might have stories on an Al Qaeda terrorist plot, North Korea’s missile program, the Iranian nuclear program, political turmoil in Venezuela, or the war in Iraq. I would come into the office around midnight to prepare for a 6:30 a.m. briefing, basically cramming on that day’s six or seven issues. Analysts also provided us briefers background notes to help with questions that might come up. You had to develop a good working knowledge of lots of issues — and on high profile issues, be prepared to go quite deep. If the VP or national security adviser wanted to go even further into the nitty-gritty, we would arrange for the analyst author or authors to provide a longer “deep dive” briefing in person.

Being a PDB briefer was a wonderful learning experience, pushing me well beyond my Russia expertise. I also found this exposure to so many diverse issues strengthened my comparative analysis skills in that I could draw upon similarities and differences between different political systems — for example, the intriguing parallels between Iran’s theocracy and the old Soviet system. The tradeoff, of course, is that you can’t maintain the level of detailed knowledge on your original area of expertise, so for that time as a briefer, I had become a generalist who can “go a mile wide… but only an inch deep.” Not surprisingly, one reason I enjoy teaching about Russia at SIPA is that it keeps me current on Russian issues and allows me to draw on my early experiences analyzing the USSR and the Yeltsin era.

Last year, you won SIPA’s Outstanding Teaching Award [for small classes]. How do you engage students in your classes?

First of all, I was honored and overwhelmed by the award, but I would note that there are many excellent teachers here at SIPA. I’ve had a chance to observe some of my faculty colleagues in the classroom, and have been wowed by their knowledge and teaching styles. So I’m thrilled I received this award, but also mindful of the amazing talent all around me; I’m grateful just to be part of this academic community and spend time with such smart and talented people. It has been a great blessing.

I went back and looked at past student evaluations and the ones that jumped out at me mentioned my enthusiasm and passion for the subject matter and my engagement of students. I love teaching because it does force you to “go deep” on a subject — and to re-think your understanding of things — as well as the chance to learn from smart students of other generations who bring a different perspective. A big challenge for me is balancing my natural instinct to share knowledge and insights with my understanding that real learning often occurs when students are actively engaged in a lively exchange of views.

In each course I bring in two or three guest speakers who have first-hand practitioner experience in their field, such as a former director of national intelligence or a senior White House adviser on Russia. In my intelligence course, I also bring in a retired case officer — people who go overseas and recruit assets, a.k.a. “spies.” They talk about the difficulties of convincing someone to be an asset or trying to assess whether these assets are not double agents.

I also try to keep students engaged by using videos of people/events we are discussing: excerpts of Putin’s impassioned 2014 address trying to justify the annexation of Crimea, documentaries that interview U.S. and foreign officials involved in expanding NATO, or a clip from that 1964 film classic, Dr. Strangelove, to convey timeless political satire.

How have you adapted to remote learning?

It has been a major adjustment, not only in how one interacts with students remotely, but also the presentational aspects of teaching. The in-person experience of being in a classroom allows you to gauge student reactions and class dynamics — which is near impossible to do on Zoom. Beyond the usual updating of the syllabi and course notes, I now spend much more time thinking about effective ways to present material, since teaching remotely in a visual format adds a very different dimension to the teaching challenge. So, for example, since last spring I have been employing PowerPoint slides — something I always avoided, having seen too many 40-page PowerPoint briefings with slides containing hundreds of words. Consequently, I try to craft short slides using bullets, and a good amount of graphics, maps, charts, photos and video clips to vary the slides and hopefully keep students focused.

Zoom also provides some terrific capabilities for promoting discussion and debate — such as the polling tool and breakout rooms. In addition, a lengthy Zoom session with each student to review a paper does provide a chance to get to know individual students pretty well, much as a visit during office hours did in the past. Overall, I’m grateful to have this online option that allows for some face-to-face interaction as we conduct classes remotely. We would have had few, if any, options had this COVID-19 pandemic broken out in the pre-internet 1980s or ’90s.

What brought you back to SIPA?

Returning to SIPA was a no-brainer. In a very real sense, I came back for the same reasons that students want to come here — to engage an amazing faculty and partake in serious intellectual discourse, not only in the classroom, but in SIPA’s many extracurricular and guest speaker/panel events.

As much as anything, I get much satisfaction from getting to know — and learning from — our students. SIPA offers a unique opportunity to meet a diverse range of students — those from different countries, from varied private-sector and government positions, and military veterans. Their perspectives on issues that involve their part of the world or occupational life experience has helped me to re-think some of my assumptions on a variety of international issues.

Finally, I have had the opportunity to make good friends with colleagues at SIPA and the Saltzman and Harriman Institutes. Being part of this stimulating intellectual community smart and renowned scholars is more than I could hope for my post-CIA life.

This interview, conducted by Aastha Uprety MPA ’21, has been edited and condensed.