Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Academics: "A wild, inspiring, productive semester" for a new SAIS professor

Prof. William Belding is teaching at SAIS for the first time this fall term. His course, "Weak and Failed States," attracted so many students that he will be offering two sections to accommodate all. Below Prof. Belding discusses his course and his background, including his service as a U.S. Navy SEAL during the Vietnam War and how that piqued his interest in studying state weakness.

Q: What course are you teaching?
Belding: "Weak and Failed States" -- two sections.

Q: What are the main themes? What are the readings, and what research will be conducted?
Belding: We will look at three issues: How are weak and failed states defined and measured; why have they failed, and what can be done to reverse failure, both internally and externally? A member of the faculty asked if we would be studying Italy and the United States. We will, at least when we take up the first of the three issues.
Prof. William Belding

The principal text is Acemoglu and Robinson's "Why Nations Fail," a recent work that has put this topic into the mainstream. Our research will be centered on case studies exploring the various faces and facets of weakness within regions, for example Zimbabwe and Botswana, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Thailand and Cambodia.

Q: How would students find the course useful?
Belding: Though it is presented as a Conflict Management course, it is cross-listed in IDEV and has relevance to Strategic Studies. As both Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton have noted, in the decades ahead failed states pose the most lethal threats to security within developed nations. The humanitarian issues are also of great interest to many students and practitioners of international relations.

Q: How did you gain expertise in the field?
Belding: My interest began in 1967 when I went to Vietnam as a Navy SEAL. War creates an effective laboratory for studying state weakness, and the experiences I had over the next five years created a passion that has lasted my entire life. After a career practicing law but doing loads of pro bono work for NGOs in the humanitarian field, I was able to tap into this passion again by entering the international NGO world and working with war victims, primarily those injured by land mines. I worked in Cambodia, Vietnam and throughout sub-Saharan Africa.  Teaching is proving to be the culmination of all the work I have done over the years.

Q: How would you describe your experience at SAIS?
Belding: This is the first course I have taught at SAIS. It is different from Yale, The New School in New York and American University in Washington primarily because of its smaller enrollment and the international mix of the students, both of which make for a rich, enjoyable experience -- at least so far. And the staff is wonderful -- particularly the librarians and IT folks. I have never seen such dedication and competence. Most impressive, though, are the students. After just one class I know it is going to be a wild, inspiring, productive semester.

Q: Is being a Vietnam veteran relevant to your teaching?
Belding: The work we did in Vietnam was critical to my being drawn to teaching, as in a small, personal sense it provides an effective way to apply the lessons we learned in past conflicts to those looming on the horizon.

I could go on for hours on the broader topic of being a vet. Of great concern is the lack of understanding most citizens have of the role the military plays in their country -- not just the United States but the U.K., Italy, Australia and elsewhere. The effect of the volunteer army has greatly altered this matrix in the U.S. by reducing the number of soldiers, sailors and Marines and erecting a firewall between citizens and those who serve. Margel Highet (Edsdirector of Student Affairs) and I are hoping to bring veterans together with the SAIS community on Veterans Day in November. We will be lucky if we can find a dozen to attend.

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