Tell us a little about your background and how you became interested in teaching at
the Josef Korbel School of International Studies?
TS: I had an original interest in International Studies from growing up overseas. My dad was a chaplain in the Army and in addition to him going off to Vietnam, which was clearly a factor in terms of my current interest in intervention and wariness of military intervention abroad, growing up as an army kid where we spent 14 years living abroad during the Cold War period in post-war Germany-- that's where the original interest came from.
Interests around divided societies of the world and ethnic relations really began when I was working on an MA degree in journalism at Baylor University down in Texas where I had an influential professor, a former AP reporter, he was influential in that I was originally planning on doing my MA thesis research on the German Green party because I'd grown up there and was really interested in the Greens, I still am. But he told me "Europe is in decay, it's not exciting. You should really go somewhere interesting" and he arranged for me to go to South Africa in 1984. Once you start working on South Africa it gets in your psyche in a way and I was really drawn to the context and South Africa. I went there and worked as a journalist for a while and then the practicalities of earning a living beyond being what a stringer can do intervened. Eventually when I did my doctoral dissertation work it was South Africa which was my focus.
I'm interested in what you said about the hazards of intervention and questioning
the role of intervention in foreign policy, especially in the context in which you
placed it-- Vietnam.
TS: My dad was in Vietnam on two different tours and growing up in that generation which had seen their parents go off to Vietnam, particularly military kids, I saw that it was very hard on my father. Because he was a chaplain he worked with people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and one began to see the real human costs of interventions, particularly that one with an ideological goal and a false set of premises.
It seems to me that intervention as such has to be done very cautiously, if at all.
Do you see parallels between the intervention in Vietnam and U.S. intervention in
Iraq or Afghanistan?
TS: Yes, more in Iraq certainly. I think Iraq will become the Vietnam of this generation. And the idea of very high-cost intervention with very uncertain outcomes and no victory as such, the idea of achieving victory in these cases is elusive anyway. So it's really been a drive of my interests although these days I'm particularly interested in the UN's role and the role of UN peacekeeping operations, which I see slightly less cautiously as I do ones by the U.S.
When you said intervention needs to be done cautiously but then spoke more enthusiastically
about UN intervention, how much of your thinking on that has been impacted by what
happened in Bosnia in the 1990s?
TS: Interesting ? it was a little more upstream because I'd say it was more influenced by what happened in Somalia in the early 1990s. In the late 1980s/early 1990s I was working at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) in Washington, D.C. and I worked for Ambassador Robert Oakley who was the Bush administration's envoy to Somalia and actually went in and negotiated with key Somali leaders at the time. I worked with Ambassador Oakley very closely in the Washington context while he was in the field. I was his principle aide in Washington and that?s when I really got interested in the role of the UN and also just coming of age in terms of career right during the time when UN intervention in Namibia and South Africa was coming to the fore. Those were the kinds of cases I worked on early in my career. Now it's a whole different set, some are the same.
What do you think the main lessons were learned in earlier UN interventions? How have
more recent interventions changed?
TS: Sometimes I wonder whether the lessons that were derived from those interventions were learned. One looks at a case like Darfur and it looks a lot like Bosnia -- a situation where there's no peace to keep and trying to deliver humanitarian aid and protect aid workers in the middle of conflict. The UN gets drawn into these things by its own volition and often gets used as the mechanism of last resort. I'm not sure the lessons have been learned in these cases.
On the other hand, there has been a lot of institutional learning. Quick fixes don't work, which is a cliché but it's true. The focus of intervention is not the implementation of peace agreements but really about developing the kinds of internal capacities necessary to sustain the peace --peace consolidation. So I think that's the evolution. My own work had moved quite a bit from initially focusing on the military side of interventions to the use of development aid for so-called "state capacity development."
What brought you to DU and Denver?
TS: It started because not all of life for me is professional. And I'm a keen skier, mountaineer and I enjoy cycling in the mountains. So I moved here for quality of life purposes. D.C. is great for the career and learning but at the end of the day you can only ski West Virginia so many times before you want something better. And Colorado offers it. I also have close friends here from college days and so after looking at universities all around the country I decided I wanted to be proactive vs. reactive in where I wanted to live and Colorado was the place.
Did you come to Colorado thinking you would work at the Josef Korbel School (then
called GSIS) or did you think you'd end up at another university here?
TS: Yes, I initially thought I'd end up in Boulder just because I had friends there and it's well-known in conflict and conflict management. But Denver turned out to be a better fit with the professional school in international affairs. I started out teaching and was fortunate to get some research grants and then a position was sort-of created. So I got lucky in that sense in being able to find a place where I fit in well.
How has the school changed since you've arrived?
TS: The school has really grown and developed. The biggest change has been the growth. But the other changes I've seen are an even more clear definition of where we fit in APSIA schools. The Korbel School has increasingly drawn people who aren't necessarily interested in the "furrowed brow" world of Washington, D.C., where it's very serious in terms of U.S. national security. Nor the big money of New York or the headiness of Boston. What we've seen is people interested in development, human rights, conflict management, peacekeeping and peacebuilding gravitating here, almost from an ideational point of view. We attract a particular type of student and have evolved into a particular type of community. Overall the school has evolved and developed very well since I've been here.
You spoke a lot about the students who are drawn here. Do you think the faculty is
drawn here for the same reasons?
TS: It's harder to say because when you're in academia, with the job market, you're looking for the best fit for your research and interests and it's very competitive. It's difficult to say why people move to different schools.
What kind of advice do you give to students who admire your field and academic work
and want to pursue that same career, not necessarily in academia but professionally
working in conflict management or peacebuilding?
TS: I think graduate school is about specialization and it's helpful to have two specializations. One is a substantive specialization, a particular area of the world in which one is interested or a particular them like transitional justice or post-conflict economic recovery. The other is a skill specialization, a real skill in an area like project evaluation, program evaluation or assessment methods. The combination of these two is really helpful. Your specializations can change over time and one's career, but really, to be attractive to employers or to develop one's own initiatives, is to have a combination of specializations.
Thank you for taking the time to set down with us Professor Sisk.
TS: Thanks for meeting with me.
--Shane Hensinger, MA candidate in International Security
Josef Korbel School of International Studies