Lectures from a Spin Doctor: a Nato strategist's position at a top British university

When a Nato spokesperson is lecturing at one of the top British universities, it's clear that the autonomy of higher education is under threat
Luke Cooper and Maïa Pal
30 June 2011

Last October Sussex University appointed Jamie Shea as a ‘Visiting Lecturer’ in the International Relations department. A longstanding Nato spokesperson, indeed for many years one of the organisation’s most prominent media personalities, Shea currently works as Director of Policy Planning in the Private Office of the Secretary General.

While no longer leading press conferences, Shea’s current role remains in the terrain of ‘strategic communication’, or the art of war and spin. But his audience these days is increasingly the academic world. In the last five years he has embarked on a whistle-stop tour of the global academy and his appointment at Sussex should be situated within this general orientation. In 2006, the same speech ‘Does Europe still need Nato?’ was presented at UCL and HarvardThis theme, and the need to affirmatively answer it, is a recurrent discursive practice for Nato officials. In 2009, at the Institute for European Studies at Brussels, Shea had a similar lecturing arrangement to the one agreed at Sussex.


Jamie Shea. Image: BBC

Shea’s CV, indeed, lists a number of university affiliations and lectureships, all received while being a Nato employee, and thus not comparable to the regular appointment procedures academics have to go through. Considering that he is not publishing in any way that parallels his vocal engagement (and thus not submitting his work to the rigours of proper academic scrutiny), it is not unreasonable to infer that this focus on the university world is part of a conscious policy designed to give the military alliance a greater academic profile and orientate research to its policy concerns. 

Shea’s position at Sussex is thus a worked-example of the current encroachment on the ideal of the university as a public space where society can reflect critically on itself. This ideal involves a research agenda and education which is publically funded and thus free from the murky world of commercial, bureaucratic and military interests. It encourages academic freedom; embracing both the freedom to speak out on matters of controversy, to determine agendas free from bureaucratic and state control; and also to be subject to challenge by other peers through open and transparent argument.

Today, these principles are being eroded in sometimes dramatic and other times subtle ways. The latest White Paper on Higher Education signals a qualitative intensification of government efforts to undermine the ideal of universities as autonomous, public institutions.  

With Shea’s appointment, we were faced with the prospect of someone teaching MA students with the stamp of university authority as a ‘Visiting Lecturer’ (not merely a guest speaker) who remains instrumental to over-seeing the conflict in Afghanistan. Even though participation by students in his lectures is voluntary, a large and vocal section of the student body is concerned about the conflicting messages his long-term position (three years, from October 2010 to June 2013) could project. Indeed, as part of the movement against Shea’s position at the university, we have always been crystal clear that there is much more to our opposition than a moral reaction to having a ‘war-monger’ directly in our midst.

Shea was a spin–doctor before the word had even entered popular discourse. He has been central to developing the art of war in the post-Cold War world with its aesthetic of conflict as an exercise in technological precision. War was made suitably palatable for the western media by actively dehumanising it and thus conflict is now presented as an entirely technical exercise

This could only result in manufacturing deceit, and in a very upfront way. Shea is indeed known for his ‘cards-on-the-table’ attitude and examples abound of his controversial opinions on war journalism as a propaganda tool. He has also been helped by experts in the field of media manipulation. It was Alastair Campbell, for instance, who put together a ‘super-team’ with Shea to deal with the 1999 Kosovo campaign.

Accordingly, Shea’s turn to the university world has not been about engaging with academic discourse critical of Nato or the penumbra of other connected issues, but, rather has focused on making the case for the western alliance and specifically justifying the conflict in Afghanistan. Back in 2007, for example, when speaking at Oxford University, Shea complained that “some political leaders have not, to their domestic audiences, effectively built the case for the Afghan mission”. It was, for him, a failure of “strategic communication”, “for some governments have not managed to link the Afghan situation to security at home, and they have not adequately communicated the significant progress achieved in Afghanistan”.

That Shea has used the platform of the academy for this purpose should hardly come as a surprise. Academic argument and the process of peer-review is anathema to the life of the spindoctor, because it presupposes integrity in the use of facts and loyalty to the other side of the argument. In other words - in theory at least - it is truth, not spin, which should be paramount in the academy.  

During our campaigning on campus, leafleting on Library square and debating in open forums, many of the arguments put to those of us against Shea’s appointment identified our opposition with a knee-jerk leftism (also see here, specifically the comments on articles), one that itself expressed intolerance towards the views of others. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. While we do not rejoice at the thought of neo-conservative academics helping to legitimise what we see as a distinctly imperial view of the world, we would never dream of challenging the academic positions of those who held these views.

As, to this day, a paid-up Nato director, Shea is however very different. He can neither be expected to, nor is actually able to, step out of his position at Nato to question its actions without prejudice to the organisation’s vested interests. Only the most partisan of observers could deny at least the possibility of a resulting conflict of interest. In December 2010, i.e., during his appointment at Sussex, the following news was reported: “NATO created its new Emerging Security Challenges Division in August to deal with a growing range of what the alliance calls ‘non-traditional risks and challenges,’ including terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), cyber defense and energy security. Jamie Shea leads the new division, which will also provide NATO with a strategic analysis capability to monitor and anticipate international developments that could affect allied security.” In other words, Shea remains at the ‘cutting edge’ of Nato’s military and strategic planning, from the conflict in Afghanistan, to the encirclement of Iran. Shea’s track record is indeed evidence enough, that for him the academic forum is not a critical space, but a platform to be used instrumentally so as to advance Nato’s ‘strategic communication’.  

The rashness of the Shea appointment overlooked these dimensions and the potentially damaging effect of associating the department with a military organisation allegedly involved in war crimes. The latter are well documented. A group of international lawyers, for example, filed a formal complaint of ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘crimes against the laws and customs of war’ to the ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia), including Shea as a responsible protagonist, among a group of other Nato officials and western leaders. (See How America Gets Away with Murder by Michael Mandel.) 

The Shea experience at Sussex has also brought to light some of the dangers for the educational curriculum that are lurking in what appears to be the fast-approaching age of the private, neoliberalised university. For students of international studies, there is a danger that this could create a growing role for organisations such as Nato. On the one hand, pressures from funding shortages and constant budget requirements to attract more students make relatively cheap advertisement stunts, such as the Shea appointment, offers that management find hard to refuse. On the other hand, Nato is showing a desire to strengthen its ties with academia: this is apparent in Shea’s presence and lecturing in other institutions (for example, at Harvard, where Shea was understood as having “another PR challenge on his hands: explaining why a treaty organization founded nearly 60 years ago to fight a Cold War that no longer exists is still necessary”). Moreover, anthropologists at Sussex have reported being directly contacted by Nato to conduct shared research projects. This must be seen as part of its increased participation with government offices in shaping development work and moving towards valorising its emerging ‘liberal’ and ‘democratising’ agenda for ‘state-building’.

Last autumn and spring, the protests at Shea’s appointment took place in and outside the bureaucracy. The first lecture given by Shea in October 2010 was met with dissent outside the lecture hall and also inside, where students voiced their concern and anger, notably at Shea’s use of the term ‘mistake’ to qualify civilian casualties in Afghanistan. More protests followed during the year, endorsed as a motion during the spring term’s Student’s Union AGM.

In May 2011, the cumulative build up of pressure led to a vote by faculty members of the International Relations department as to whether to continue the appointment for the 3 years originally planned. With a minority strongly against, and a majority made up of some unopposed and others, in the face of a fait accompli, wary of the negative consequences of cancelling the appointment, Shea was accepted to continue lecturing and hold closed seminars next academic year, albeit with the new title of ‘Visiting Practitioner’.

Thus, the discussions and protests forced management to establish in the future a clearer and fairer procedure for the appointment of ‘sensitive’ practitioners, submitted the appointment to an extra ‘mid-term’ vote, and introduced a new official status as of next year, ‘Visiting Practitioner’, that at least will deny Shea the academic credibility which his current orientation suggests he covets.

The campaign also created a space for students to organise and think about current events. Debates that occurred with the wider student body fostered dialogue and interaction with other students, practitioners and activists, on and off campus. These will, hopefully, have a more lasting effect on students than Shea’s attempts to legitimise Nato’s military interventions.

Finally, the diminishing numbers of students and staff at Shea's lectures is testimony to general disquiet within the university. Management will have to wait now until October and the beginning of the next academic year to see how the Sussex community feel about Shea’s continuing presence.

The opposition to Shea’s position at Sussex has won small victories, but we must not forget the backdrop of increasing privatisation of the higher education sector. Shea’s presence at Sussex is part of this bigger picture, which should be a grave concern for all those who defend the ideals of public and free universities.

You can sign the No Shea at Sussex petition here. 

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