Spotlight: A Conversation With Our Leaders

It’s All About Freedom of Education at the Inter-American Defense College

The IADC provides a professionally oriented, multi-disciplinary, graduate-level course of study.
Marcos Ommati/Diálogo | 6 February 2017

Rear Admiral Martha Herb is the second general officer director of the Inter-American Defense College since its creation in 1962. (Photo: Marcos Ommati/Diálogo)

The Inter-American Defense College (IADC), located in Fort Lesley J. McNair, Washington D.C., was formally inaugurated on October 9, 1962 as an international educational institution operating as an element of the Organization of American States (OAS) through the Inter-American Defense Board.

The IADC provides a professionally oriented, multi-disciplinary, graduate-level course of study. The institution’s 11-month program provides senior military and government officials with a comprehensive understanding of governmental systems, the current international environment, structure and function of the Inter-American system of security and defense, and an opportunity to study broad-based security issues affecting our hemisphere and the world.

To talk about current and future challenges and other topics relevant to the Western Hemisphere, Diálogo spoke with IADC director [for the second term] Rear Admiral Martha Herb, who started her military career as a U.S. Navy diver and is only the second female director of the educational institution.

Diálogo: The section on the IADC portal where your profile should be, instead displays your words about the college itself. Why?

Rear Admiral Martha Herb: Because I am just the person who has been made responsible for the college at this point in time, so I’m not relevant. I bring in the leadership. I bring in, maybe, strategic vision, or some part about education. But really, this organization, this school, brings something very special to the hemisphere, and it has a culture and a life in and of itself that I have never seen at any other college in the United States.

Diálogo: Would you say the challenges IADC faced during your first term as director are the same now?

Rear Adm. Herb: I think some of the challenges I face here at IADC are consistent with the challenges that were present back in the early ‘80s in the Navy.

Diálogo: What are those?

Rear Adm. Herb: When I first came in, the diving community was very clear: “Women don't belong here, and we don't want you here.” But that was okay, because once you proved that you could meet the standards, they were more accepting. “Do the job then we’ll know you’re one of us.” This was back then. So nowadays, to have a female in this position, for many of the countries, is something they are not used to. It’s new. In their countries, they don’t have very many women as senior leaders, senior flag officers, or generals. Therefore, you have to be patient as those folks, as they come to the U.S., are experiencing unconscious bias or internal conflict with themselves.

Diálogo: Transnational organized crime is currently one of the biggest issues in this region, but it is still considered a security threat, and not a defensive one. How do you manage this, and other threats, in terms of the curriculum at IADC?

Rear Adm. Herb: The first thing you have to understand is that the college is under the auspices of the OAS, and the Inter-American Defense Board. So, our Master’s Degree, which is accredited now, is in the Inter-American System of Security and Defense. Moreover, because we bring in military, police, and citizens, we have a whole-of-government approach in the classroom. It’s about academic freedom, and I want them to have the conversation regardless of their opinion. Therefore, we have countries who think that you can only do defense if you wear a military uniform, and we have countries who do not have a military, so their police are doing defense and security altogether. Then we have countries which, just out of practicality, recognize that, “You know what? We’re going to have to use our military for more and more missions, just for economic reasons.” But for us, in an educational environment, it’s about the education.

Diálogo: How about cybersecurity?

Rear Adm. Herb: We are working to bring that on board. This spring we will offer the first-ever elective in cybersecurity, and it will be in Spanish. We have opened it up to some externals, so we have a few people, I believe, from one of the missions in the OAS, and a few people from the Inter-American Defense Board who are going to take the class along with some of the students. We will see how it goes. We will do it as an elective again next year, and then hopefully by class 58, it will be a full-time pillar in the curriculum. But that’s governed by accreditation, so when you get your Master’s Degree accredited, they look at the courses that you give, the content, what you’re doing, and you can only change so much without getting the approval of the accrediting body, which right now is ACICS (Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools). We have a letter in to see if middle states will accept us as a candidate.

Diálogo: How about human rights?

Rear Adm. Herb: Every year, we have an event, which involves human rights and international law. We bring in keynote speakers, and then we hit some of the think tanks here in Washington, D.C. As we set up the dynamic, we say, “We want the full spectrum.” So, here’s the continuum, left and right, in terms of politics. However, you [the countries] define that. I don't care, but I want left and right. I want the full spectrum. So, along the same lines, I do make that requirement on gender. We will not have a full male conference. You will have women up here. And the idea is we want to teach students to be critical thinkers. Therefore, if you are going to be a critical thinker, the only way you will get good at it is if you get put in the frying pan with somebody standing in front of the classroom pontificating on something you disagree with. And then these senior officers and senior civilians of police have to learn how to listen to it, dissect it, see what’s of value, what they should throw away, and how they ask a question with respect.

Diálogo: At a minimum, it’s challenging…

Rear Adm. Herb: That’s very true. A couple of years ago, one of our countries didn’t like one of the speakers we were having. We invited the OAS ambassadors to our keynote speech and reception. It creates an opportunity for students to engage with the ambassadors; for the delegates at the Council of Delegates of the Board to engage with the ambassadors; and to get some involvement. Nevertheless, that particular country did not like one of my speakers, so they went to the Secretary General, wrote a letter, and sent it over to the Council of Delegates, saying, “We don't like the speaker she invited.” But my response is, this is academic freedom, and everyone will have speakers they don’t like. So we wrote a letter to that ambassador, and invited them to come to the college, saying that we would give them a form so they could express their opinions about human rights, and we received no response.

Diálogo: That is on them…

Rear Adm. Herb: Right. Exactly, so between myself, the vice-director, and the chief of studies, we try to have a very level playing field, because at the end of the day, these critical thinkers need to be sitting next to their president or their minister of defense, and look at the options and say, “Here's my best advice,” and why. And sometimes you have to tell someone something they don’t want to hear.

Diálogo: What are you doing to minimize the preconceived notion some people have that IADC is a U.S. institution?

Rear Adm. Herb: One of my objectives has been to incorporate my vice-director and my chief of studies into more of the leadership roles that I have, that I can disperse out. One of the things I have done is try to travel to the other countries more and more. I have found, in talking with the ministers of defense in most of the countries, showing them the curriculum, showing them who our faculty is – pictures, showing them pictures of the staff, you know, the senior leaders – and then, they very quickly understand it is an international staff, and not a pure U.S. institution. They are astounded when they see that we do not teach U.S. policy, U.S. military planning, or U.S. budget planning processes.

Diálogo: It’s not indoctrination, right?

Rear Adm. Herb: Not at all. There’s nothing here. The U.S. students leave the school with a different kind of professional military education.

Diálogo: Do you think this notion is supported by the fact that the director is always a U.S. citizen, and the school is based in a military unit in the United States?

Rear Adm. Herb: Well, it certainly helps. But this was a decision made by the OAS ambassadors back in 1962, where they had other options on the table, so they brought the consideration up to a vote. The ambassadors came to the conclusion that Fort McNair was the most prestigious place to have this college. In the end, it was a decision by consensus – so a few countries had caveats – but this was the best location. This was an agreed-upon place to have the school, so they always had a U.S. person as the director by convention, even with the change in the 2006 statutes. They thought it was very important to have a U.S. director here – you are on a U.S. base, you have U.S. security, you have a large proportion of U.S. funding – so the person who is responsible and accountable for the facilities, for the whole campus, is from the United States.

Diálogo: IADC has the capability to have at least two students and/or observers per member country of the OAS. However, there are many nations who don’t participate. What are you doing to change this?

Rear Adm. Herb: We have a big gap in the Caribbean. We do not have Cuba, we don’t have Venezuela, we don’t have Ecuador… I would not object to having a Cuban student, a Venezuelan student, or anybody from the Caribbean, because it’s about education. It’s about academic freedom. It’s about everybody hearing the different perspectives and making their own decision as to what is relevant for their sovereign nation. These students have to make decisions or provide advice for their countries based on where they are from – the hemisphere – and based on the world situation. So, back to your original question, what has happened is many countries don’t participate. Other countries have figured out, “Wow, they offer a master’s degree. No tuition. This is a good deal. Even if I pay the salary and per diem for people to come here, I get a good return on investment, because I get a great, educated person.” In effect, you have countries like Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Chile, the United States, who have more than their fair share, and that’s just fine.

Diálogo: How do countries contribute to IADC?

Rear Adm. Herb: Some countries make contributions in terms of people, or in terms of money. For example, one way the nations contribute is by making voluntary national contributions. For instance, we have Dr. Paulo Edvandro Costa Pinto teaching here. Brazil donated Dr. Costa Pinto to be on the faculty here for two years. It’s a great concept, because I can’t run the school without those kind of contributions.

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