Former ambassador teaches ASU course on US national security policy

Ambassador David Johnson during Washington Week for ASU International Affairs and Leadership MA students

Ambassador David Johnson (left) and Ambassador William B. Taylor during Washington week for ASU Online international affairs and leadership Master of Arts students.


Ambassador David Johnson’s career as a diplomat spans over three decades where he gained valuable experience in policy leadership, congressional relations, public affairs planning and crisis communications.

This semester, he is teaching a core course on “U.S. National Security Policy” for the inaugural cohort of international affairs and leadership Master of Arts students.

The MA program, which is offered through ASU Online and housed in Arizona State University’s School of Politics and Global Studies, empowers graduates to be future leaders in the global arena. The degree program establishes a dynamic and active learning environment led by senior international affairs professionals from the public and private sectors.

“Ambassador David Johnson is a ‘Washington insider’ with crucial assignments as assistant secretary and ambassador in the U.S. Department of State,” said Ambassador Edward O’Donnell, who is the program director of the MA degree and a member of the Leadership, Diplomacy and National Security Lab at ASU.

“He was directly responsible for policy decisions and implementation in critical areas of the globe over decades through numerous U.S. administrations,” O’Donnell said. “This semester he is mentoring his graduate students on national security, both current and future challenges, and preparing them for careers serving our country.”

Unlike some of his colleagues, Johnson said he did not grow up aspiring to be a diplomat. However, a college adviser suggested he meet with a foreign service recruiter who was visiting campus because of his interests in politics, foreign policy and economics.

He was immediately intrigued, and in 1977, a year after graduating college, he joined the U.S. Foreign Service.

Although Johnson says his background is not unique to his American diplomat colleagues, it does speak to how Americans differ from their professional counterparts in other countries.

“American diplomats are broadly representative of American society,” Johnson said. “What we all had in common was that we were well-educated, we were curious about life abroad and America’s place in the world, and we wanted to be part of a team that would advance America’s interests.”

When two of his former colleagues asked about his interest in teaching the course in the international affairs and leadership degree program, he said he saw it as an opportunity to provide a meaningful contribution to the education of a curious and diverse group of students.

He added that he could learn something from the experience as well.

“Diplomacy and teaching are not that dissimilar activities,” Johnson said. “In both, you are presenting information in an accessible way to someone that you hope will grasp it, understand it and come to a common understanding with you about what that information means and what actions it requires.”

As he approaches the end of his first semester teaching in the MA program, he took the time to share some of his expertise and insights into his course.

Question: You’ve had a wide range of roles during your 33 years of service as a diplomat, with increasing responsibility in the world national security. What are some of the challenges you faced defining U.S. national security policy and implementing U.S. foreign policy programs?

Answer: While no foreign policy problem is self-defining, the challenge in most cases is policy implementation. As assistant secretary of state for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, I executed programs that aimed to build effective criminal justice institutions — courts, prosecutors, defense bar, police and corrections. And, as you might imagine, we did not have the option of executing these programs in the easy places. My colleagues worked in many countries but focused on Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia, Mexico and Central America. The self-defining part — the logistics, the curricula, recruiting trainers and students, designing programs — was difficult enough. But the truly hard part was taking all of those individual elements and combining them into a criminal justice system that worked, that enjoyed the support of the country where the work was being done, and that was sustainable. That’s when you learn that this foreign policy work can be really hard.

Q: If you were still serving as assistant secretary in the State Department, what would you be advising the president and secretary on how to enhance national security and to deal with threats from the major powers, China and Russia?

A: That’s a really big question, so I’ll just focus on China. There’s been a lot of political noise about partisan differences on China, but there isn’t as much partisan difference as meets the eye. 

Containing or constraining China — in the model of U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union — isn’t in the cards, since to do that requires clear unity of purpose not just in the U.S. but among players in the region. This leaves you with the option not so much of "managing" China but of taking actions along with your allies and partners to address risks to the rules-based system. That system has served the world, including the United States, well and needs to be supported and preserved. So, this administration, or any administration, needs to do more or less what it’s doing now, just a lot more of it. Creating the "Quad" group of India, Australia, Japan and the U.S. is a deft move, but it’s a group that will have to be exercised continuously, both in terms of diplomatic consultations and military exercises. Similar activities, perhaps not with catchy names or as high a profile, need to be pursued with other actual and potential regional partners as well as our allies and partners around the world. And American diplomats must be talking constantly with governments and publics in the region and worldwide about how we can work together to address any unhelpful Chinese actions.

At the same time, we need to be having a constant conversation with China on these issues not to "confront" China but to engage China in an active conversation about how the world’s leading powers can work together to reinforce the rules-based system that serves their interests as well as the rest of the planet’s. But I’d also recommend a thus far impossible domestic step: The U.S. should ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the document that makes customary international law concerning freedom of navigation a recognized component of the international rules-based system. Such a move would put the U.S. on much firmer footing in dealing with efforts by China, or any other state, to step outside those boundaries. Describing these actions in a broad-brush way is challenging enough, but the really hard part is deciding exactly what to do, in what sequence, with whom and — no less important — what we are not going to do.

Q: This semester you are teaching a course on U.S. national security policy. How do your career experiences apply to what you will be teaching? What is your goal in teaching your ASU students about national security?

A: In my course, we are looking at some of the really tough national security issues that America is dealing with, and we are putting ourselves in the shoes of the people in Washington who work, systematically, in the development of national security policy. In short, we are looking at how agency leaders come together, under the aegis of the National Security Council, to develop those policy decisions.

During much of my foreign service career, I worked in this policy-making process. In the mid-'80s, I was what’s known as an "action officer," writing the first draft of instructions for a conventional arms-control negotiation. In the mid-'90s, I was the president’s foreign policy spokesman at the White House. At the turn of the millennium, I led the American team in Europe at an organization focused on preventing conflict and developing democratic institutions. Upon my return home, I led the group focused on Afghan reconstruction. And in my final foreign service assignment, I led the U.S. team working to build criminal justice institutions in some of the world’s more difficult locales. But in all of those undertakings, I was part of that larger, organized process of developing and executing our nation’s foreign policy. So, whether you aspire to work in government or out, understanding how policy is made can give you real insight into grasping how government works.

Since the U.S. government communicates with itself in writing, in English, in a really focused way, a significant goal for the students in my class is to learn how to participate in that work through writing clear, succinct, well-informed and well-documented policy papers that focus on real-world problems.   

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