Q&A with Causes of War Professor

Dr. Benjamin Jensen is an Assistant Professor in the International Politics and U.S. Foreign Policy Programs and a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in Political Sociology and International Security with the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (French National Center for Scientific Research, CNRS ANR-08-BLAN-0032). His research interests include international security, historical sociology, international relations theory, conflict analysis, and conflict resolution. In addition to his research, Dr. Jensen is the course director for SIS 105 World Politics, the core IR theory class for SIS undergraduates. Outside of academia, he works as an adviser to General Dynamics, SAIC, and Aptima on command and control, intelligence, counterinsurgency, and stability and support operations. He is also an officer in the U.S. Army National Guard.


Q: What are your areas of research expertise?
A: My research sits at the intersection of security studies and historical sociology. My current research examines the sociology of defense concepts, how certain ideas about war emerge and evolve over time. My previous work focuses on military innovation and adaptation. Outside of academia, I work with the U.S. and NATO defense and intelligence communities on operational planning, red teaming, and strategic intelligence.

Q: What skills will a student have after completing your course, and how will these skills enhance their professional growth?
A: Answering this question requires unpacking what it means to be a professional and the purpose of professional education. I follow German sociologist Max Weber and define a profession in relation to a particular body of knowledge (i.e., expertise), collective identity, and responsibility. International relations as an academic discipline is historically linked to the emergence of what might be called a national security professional — a group of experts working in foreign policy, defense, or intelligence. In the modern usage, these professionals are not limited to defense issues or sovereign states, but support an increasingly wide range of activities and actors from nonprofits crafting sustainable development initiatives to multinational corporations and private equity funds analyzing political risk.

Given this definition of a profession and the nature of the profession(s) associated with international relations, I view my job as facilitating creative spaces where learning communities frame and solve policy related problems. The courses I develop are applied and focused on learning to integrate theory and observation to diagnosis current policy problems. These problems range from the causes of war and insurgent regenerative capacity to ways in which the design of a national security bureaucracy impacts the formation of strategy.  The courses deliberately mix professional tools from the defense and intelligence communities including operational design and forecasting techniques with academic research methods to provide students with a problem solving toolkit.

With respect to professional growth, these tools and the experience of working in teams to ‘solve’ current policy problems produces a significant advantage for our students. Find me an employer, whether government or civilian, that doesn’t want individuals able to work in teams to solve problems. The comparative advantage of the online Master of Arts in International Relations is this emphasis on problem solving and the strength of the academic foundation on which it is built.

Q: What advice do you have for someone interested in pursuing a graduate degree in international relations?
A: Take the time to read theoretical and historical masterworks. Some books stand the test of time; others are ephemeral. Often we get bombarded with buzzwords and fast solutions to complex problems as hordes of “experts” fill time slots on news networks and online media platforms. The lifelong learner that takes the time to read books that stand the test of time will quickly discover the enduring nature of certain international problems and be less likely to fall victim to buzzwords and fast solutions to complex problems.

Q: What excites you most about the online format? What do you see as the biggest opportunity in bringing the SIS experience online?
A: The online course format excites me as an educator and professional in that it is still an undiscovered country ripe for innovation and experimentation. The “modern” brick-and-mortar education space evolved over centuries. In its crudest incarnation it is education by mass production — large lecture halls and, if you are lucky, flashy Power Points without any opportunity for dialogue. Most early attempts at online education digitize this emphasis on mass. Yet, we have done something with this program that is truly unique and that builds on our teaching philosophy at SIS. We have created a digital forum that mixes original content platforms with the time-tested tradition of small, Socratic style seminars designed to empower individuals to solve complex policy problems.

To answer the second half of the question requires taking a moment to define the SIS experience. The School has a unique history linking academic research with a commitment to international service that continues to animate the student body. When President Eisenhower founded the school, his charter was to train a new generation of problem solvers to ‘wage peace.’ This spirit lives on in our students’ desire to turn their ideas into action. SIS is unique in that the student body feels a sense of responsibility to engage with the most challenging global issues. Bringing this experience online turns President Eisenhower’s original vision into a global call to arms.

Q: What is the most exciting project you’ve had the opportunity to work on thus far in your career?
A: While I have had the great fortune to work on many fascinating projects, the most exciting and challenging experience was working in a think tank for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commander in Afghanistan. I spent a year and seven months in-country and five months from the United States supporting a “red team” — a collection of planners, analysts, and other assorted characters charged with developing alternative assessments. This experience convinced me of the importance of integrating the best of intelligence community analytical tradecraft and military planning with international relations theories and social science research methods. That insight is what drives how I approach teaching at SIS, both in the traditional and online programs.

Q: What do you read to keep up with current affairs? Any newspapers, magazines, blogs, etc. in particular?
A: The sheer volume of information today requires that EVERYONE have a data collection and aggregation strategy. I use a collection of iPhone apps and Twitter to collect daily news alongside scanning the Defense Department Early BirdThe New York Times, and Washington Post. These quick feeds are balanced by a ritualistic reading of the Economist every week and (monthly) multiple foreign policy, security, and history journals. Combining these quick feeds and more substantive empirical and historical treatments help me see the past in the future as well as identify possible forces or factors shaping current policy problems. My strategy also includes a space for considering game-changing forces and factors (i.e., black swans). To this end, I periodically read multiple science and technology journals.

Q: If you weren’t in academia, what career do you see yourself in?
A: Assuming my professional baseball career never took off (a safe bet), I would be an active duty U.S. Army officer working in either strategic intelligence or strategic plans and policy.

Q: What are the essential books you would recommend every IR enthusiast read?
A: As discussed above, masterworks are a must. A few that have deeply influenced me are: 1) Man, the State, and War; 2) The History of the Peloponnesian War; 3) Arms and Influence; 4) The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy; 5) Perception and Misperception in International Politics; 6) The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society since A.D. 1000; 7) Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do And Why They Do It; and 8) The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations. Though not necessarily treated as international relations masterworks, other books I would recommend include: 1) Systems Effects (Jervis); 2) Winning the Next War (Rosen); 3) Why?(Tilly); 4) The History of Economic Analysis (Schumpeter); and 5) The Makers of Modern Strategy. If students have never read social theory, I would also recommend reading Marx, Weber, Durkheim, authors from the Frankfurt School, Goffman, Butterfield, and Foucault.

Q: What has been your favorite place in the world to visit?
A: At the risk of sounding parochial and corny, I have to say northern Minnesota.  I grew up in Minnesota and still have a special place in my heart for birch trees and cold lake.


About Dr. Jensen’s course, Theories and Concepts in Global Security: What factors and conditions explain patterns of peace and conflict in a global system of political, social, and economic actors competing for power, influence, and advantage? To answer this question, this course introduces graduate students to core concepts, paradigms, and seminal debates from security studies broadly defined. The purpose is to establish a foundation for investigating the causes and dynamics of conflict at the interstate, regional, and global levels of analysis. This perspective integrates theory and practice, enabling students to contextualize and assess the strategies actors employ to advance their interests as well the underlying structural and configurational constraints shaping how these actors make decisions. At the conclusion of the course, students will be able to:

  • Understand core theories, paradigms, concepts, and debates about the causes and dynamics of conflict at the interstate, regional, and global levels of analysis
  • Analyze how different understandings of peace and security inform policy choices and ways of thinking about patterns of conflict
  • Apply foundational theories and concepts from global security to develop research initiatives and policy analysis products contextualizing and predicting patterns of violence at the interstate, regional, and global levels