What Israel—and the World—Need Now: An Interview with Dr. Eran Lerman
Designed to respond to a critical need in Israel for big-picture, well-informed thinkers who can successfully navigate risk and uncertainty, the new Shalem College Program in Strategy, Diplomacy, and Security (SDS) was granted official approval by Israel’s Council of Higher Education in March. Featuring courses on classical theories of statesmanship and war; modern military thought and foreign policy; and international law, conflict resolution, and economics, the program will provide students with the knowledge and skills necessary to pursue senior roles in government, academia, diplomacy, or journalism—although, according to the program’s chief intellectual architect, Col. (res.) Dr. Eran Lerman, most Shalem students accepted to the major will aim for “a seat at the table where the most important national decisions are made.”
Shalem College President Russ Roberts spoke with Lerman recently to learn more about the new major’s curriculum, what makes it unlike other programs of its kind in Israel and the world, and how it would incorporate the lessons of the current Russian-Ukrainian war.
President Russ Roberts: What was the vision that drove the creation of this new major for Shalem?
Col. (res.) Dr. Eran Lerman: Shalem is a college for students who are both uniquely dedicated to their nation and have the potential for real leadership—the sort of people you can imagine sitting at the elbow of decision-makers at the highest level, if not being those very decision-makers themselves. While the Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies Department for which I’ve been teaching for the past six years gives students the language and the tools to understand the region, we felt that there was also room for a program that would train them to take that next step and actually make decisions in support of Israel’s grand strategy in the region and beyond. And to learn strategy, you need also to learn about its two complementary components, without which it couldn’t be carried out: diplomacy, which is always the more preferable option; and security, the sometimes necessary one.
The really unique advantage of offering a program like this at Shalem is that it’s not nested in the department of political science, which relies on scientific models and a pseudo-scientific approach. Instead, the Shalem program is grounded in an understanding of the human condition in its different historical contexts.
Roberts: How do you structure a program that’s drawing from so many different sources and including so many disciplines?
Lerman: Like all students at Shalem, SDS majors will spent most of their first year taking courses in Shalem’s Core Curriculum, and there’s real wisdom to that approach. If you read the Hebrew Bible or Homer properly, you gain a lot of insight into the foundations of grand strategy in Western civilization. We won’t leave it entirely up to them to draw those conclusions themselves, though. We’ll help them to explore what precisely it is in the human experience that leads to the need for grand strategy, and what it is that makes it successful or not.
In the second year, we’ll begin a multi-semester course on grand strategy modeled after the famous course at Yale that used to be taught by Paul Kennedy, Charles Hill, and John Louis Gaddis, and which aimed to give students a grounding in the thinking that underlies strategic decision-making. Our course will feature three lecturers in conversation: Myself; the rising scholar Dr. Pnina Shuker, whose field is the interactions between public opinion and national security; and Dr. Eitan Barak, who comes from the world of international law and norms. Each of us will offer different perspectives on and attitudes toward strategy from classical times to today, with an emphasis on great strategic decisions in Israel,
In their third and fourth years, the program drills down into the specific policies and strategic issues in the United States, Russia, and India, focuses on diplomacy and the military as a profession, and teaches the quantitative tools that students will need in order to converse with their social-science colleagues in the field.
Roberts: What are the great books for a major in strategy, diplomacy, and security?
Lerman: Well, we certainly expect students to read Thucydides, and also—as befits a college in the Jewish state—the great stories of psychological, guerilla, and information warfare found in the Hebrew Bible, which rival any of those we’ve experienced here in the last decades. We’ll also study the early theory of the state in Islam and the origins of the rationalist system in Machiavelli. We want our students to understand that in facing the great strategic dilemmas of the future, others have faced similar challenges before.
Roberts: Is there another angle to the program that you can’t find at other Israeli universities? Or, to put it more directly, what is the advantage to studying these subjects at Shalem?
Lerman: Studying the humanities—in particular, history, literature, and philosophy—puts human nature and all its complexity at the center of our attempts to understand how the world works. For instance, I don’t think Putin ever imagined that Zelensky would rise to this occasion in the way that he has, just as it’s possible that a former comedian may be responsible for changing the course of history. Studying strategy, diplomacy, and security from that very human perspective turns it from a science into a highly nuanced craft. A Shalem education is unique in that it puts that perspective front and center.
Roberts: We’re speaking in the middle of an incredible moment in this country’s strategic and diplomatic history, with war raging between Russia and Ukraine and Israel acting as mediator. How would this program prepare our students to play an essential role in a situation of this kind?
Lerman: One of the things that the IDF teaches its squad commanders is that when you’ve been challenged—charge. Don’t retreat, but rather extricate yourself from a difficult situation by taking the initiative in a well-informed and intelligent way. Israel found itself between a Russian and Syrian rock and a moral hard place: We know what it means to be a nation under attack, and we empathize deeply with the Ukrainian plight. But instead of retreating into silence, we moved forward in a proactive and really unprecedented way that has garnered praise from both sides. The program would use this as a model for how to act creatively, while at the same time recognizing the complexity of the risks involved and drawing from the lessons that history has to offer.
Also, and in keeping with our emphasis on the human dimension of strategy, diplomacy, and security, we wouldn’t hesitate to explore what has made [President of Ukraine Volodymyr] Zelensky so effective as a leader. One of the things that makes the SDS program so special is that we don’t only learn about grand historical processes. We also learn about people: their perspectives, their fears, their hopes. These elements make for a rich conversation—not just a technical analysis of these fields, but rather a deep and nuanced engagement with the full range of factors that come into play in every conflict, in every place and time in history.