A giving of accounts: remembering Rood

Last October, my teacher, Dr. Rood passed away.  The following is an account of what he meant to me professionally and personally. Without his help, I would not have achieved my PhD* nor would I have published my book. As a writer and a thinker, I owe him a great debt.** I studied with him at Claremont Graduate School, where Leo Strauss had an influence. I learned a lot from Strauss and his students.  They were extremely bright, engaged in the pursuit of knowledge and argumentative as hell.  Arguing with them made one understand why Socrates likened philosophy to wrestling.  Yet, I was shaped more by Dr. Rood and his approach to international politics. I do not mean this difference in a negative sense. Instead, it is that Dr. Rood’s teaching showed the practical application of the theoretical arguments about foreign policy, and domestic policy, that Strauss’s students were making through their study of political philosophy.  From the students of Strauss, I learned about the Philosopher.  From Rood, I learned about the Statesman and the art of statesmanship.

I wish I could recall an illustrative vignette that captures my memories of him.  Alas, my memory does not work that way.  Instead, what stays with me is the way he tried to get me to think about politics properly understood. At his “Rood Awakenings”, the 7 am breakfast sessions, bleary-eyed graduate students would come to Walter’s in downtown Claremont to discuss politics. During those breakfasts, we would get a chance to discuss current events with the topics ranging across politics, strategy, and statesmanship or whatever seemed to be happening in the world.  Those mornings were a great start to the day and they were a chance to see the world from a different, non-academic perspective.  We could begin to understand that politics was both a theory and a practice.  Most importantly, we could see that ideas had consequences. We also began to learn what was required to turn the political word into the political deed.

Perhaps the fundamental lesson of international politics that I learned from Dr. Rood was the need to have an organisation to carry out anything political. The solitary actor was a myth, a useful myth, but a myth nonetheless. Any political actor needed an organisation to exercise power. As he would say, power is the ability to move things through time and space.  He taught that lesson in practical ways. For example, he set a class assignment that asked the students to find out how long it would take to move two armoured brigades from California to South Korea and an infantry division as well.  On the surface, such an assignment seemed esoteric or more suited to a military academy.  To those graduate students who were following a more “scientific” persuasion in the study of politics, it seemed pointless. They would say, “That is the job of a military adviser.”  Why would one have to know such military minutiae if power was scientifically measurable and derivable from the GDP and the expected utility one might achieve from any political decision?  Yet, the art of statesmanship is understanding what is possible against what is necessary in the political sphere.  Through the exercise, he was teaching us about the statesman’s art.

We had to understand that for the United States to reinforce Korea, an important ally (in an unfinished war); it would have to spend blood and treasure. It would require the United States to exercise power, i.e. move things through time and space.  America’s use of power would have a cost and it would have a limit. It also illustrated that to defend America; leaders had to defend the distant ramparts.  Moreover, the effort to defend those distant ramparts would have a cost that may limit that defence. In this, we were learning the lessons he had set out in his justly famous 1967 prize-winning essay Distant Rampart. Through that excellent essay, he taught me to view the geopolitical past as the future, and the present strategic situation being shaped by the future limits of geopolitical power.

A third lesson, one that I see time and again, was the need to look beyond the obvious.  He taught me not to take any strategic position (or argument) for granted.  As he would say “Surprise!”  I learned to look for, and ask, the “what if” questions.  To illustrate the need for flexibility in our strategic approach he would offer the following scenario.  What would you do if, on the eve of a battle, your commanding officer were found to be a spy working for the enemy? What would you do?  For students of a less Machiavellian*** (or strategic) mind-set, the question seemed preposterous. How could an American defect? Why would he work for the other side? Yet, in considering such a scenario, one began to ask questions that made one or think through the possibilities with a political strategic mind-set. For example, what would be the leverage over a commanding officer?  How was your counter intelligence organised? Could you trust what your counter intelligence was saying? How did you know your enemy’s intentions?  In that sense, one was beginning to move through the looking glass of international politics.

Dr. Rood also taught me that small events and facts could be connected even when the popular press failed to connect them. What he had was the ability to show how apparently small, unconnected, details fit into a larger mosaic.  The mosaic would show a state’s intent and its long-term strategy. In a particular example, he had a 2-hour seminar on how the Soviet Union’s KGB infiltrated a Luxembourg banking house to launder money and influence the European Politics.  I was literally spellbound as he worked through the scenario tracing its evolution and how it came to be noticed and what happened consequently.  The seminar that afternoon was one of those moments when you see a teacher exercising the range of their talents.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Dr. Rood understood that politics was not an abstract science.  Politics is a sometimes-brutal arena where decency and democracy could be sacrificed to power and ambition. Yet, in revealing the sometimes-brutal nature, he taught us that decent politics is worth fighting for and defending.  He understood that the principles of the American regime had to be defended and could not simply stand on their merits. He taught that for America to survive as a sovereign state**** the strategic lessons had to be learned by each generation.  Most importantly, the public had to be reminded of the need to act decisively in the international arena.  In particular, there would be a time, in the future, as there had been in the past, when the inattentive nature of American democracy or the strategic blindness of its political leaders could lead America to the brink of catastrophe.  The only way back from that brink was to educate political leaders, as well as citizens, to have a strategic vision that kept watch for the gathering storm so that America could be warned in time of the danger.*****

He leaves an important legacy in his book, his writings, and his students.  I am grateful to be have been taught by him. I hope that my work can repay my debt to him.

* He gave me my dissertation topic in his own gentle style.  After a Rood Awakening breakfast, he casually remarked that he had met Dean Rusk once and he seemed like a good man.  He remarked that Rusk’s approach to Vietnam was worth taking a look at because it showed what great powers sometimes had to do out of necessity.  He continued casually that he had never met Henry Kissinger and he always seemed to have a different reputation, which makes one wonder how two different men could both be Secretary of State.  He then asked, “Let me know if you find anything interesting about these guys”.

**He would sometimes remark that excellence in political science could be exercised anywhere. Excellence in political understanding was not limited to the academy, the classroom, or the professionals.

***Or, as Dr. Rood would say “That Scottish fellow.”

**** He would often say, “Either you run the show or the show runs you.”

***** He would say, with a reference to learning beyond the classroom, “Finish the thesis. Then you can get the time to figure out what happened and learn something about what is happening in the world.”

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