THE OXFORD UNIVERSITY STRATEGIC STUDIES GROUP, 1987-2001:
A SENIOR MEMBERS PERSPECTIVE"
by ROBERT ONEILL
One of the attractions of moving to Oxford in 1987 for me was the OU Strategic Studies Group. I had addressed it a few times earlier in the 1980s when I was the Director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, based in London. What attracted me particularly to the Group in my new role as the Chichele Professor of the History of War were the qualities of its members: they were lively, confident, ambitious, reasonably well educated in international security matters, diverse in nationality and for the most part keen to work professionally in this field. The members were interested in policy development and policy outcomes, and so was I. It was also good to know that the Group, as a student society of the University, largely ran itself. Once the programme had been settled for the year or term ahead, the President or the Secretary would contact the desired speakers, arrange their reception in Oxford (often at the railway station), take them to dinner before the meeting, host the meeting itself and then arrange the speaker's overnight accommodation or return to London.
The role of the Senior Member (the post fell naturally to me when I arrived in Oxford in 1987 because of the nature of my Chair, together with my past experience in the field of Strategic Studies) was to make suggestions regarding the direction in which the themes of meetings might move over the year ahead, to offer connections with speakers with the right level of expertise and attractiveness to an Oxford audience, to exercise general oversight over the Group's activities so that no University regulations were infringed in any of its activities, to keep an eye on the Group's finances (I had to sign off on them each term for he University Proctors) and to be responsible to All Souls College, on whose premises most meetings were conducted, for proper supervision of meetings, preparation beforehand especially when a speaker might require special security precautions to be taken by the Police, and avoidance of any inconvenience to College members as a result of noise, intrusion into private parts of the College and prompt conclusion of proceedings at evening meetings. Alas, I did not always manage these last responsibilities to the satisfaction of every Fellow of the College, and I would hear about it next day, usually from the Porter.
Probably the most important aspect of my duties was to discuss with the President and committee members the shape of the programme each year, usually at the start of the summer vacation to allow adequate time to secure speakers for the term ahead. As the Cold War wound down through the late 1980s and the less structured new world disorder came into effect, so the nature of our programme changed from a focus on issues relating to the then super-power balance (e.g. political issues in the USA and the USSR, diplomacy and arms control, military developments in NATO and the Warsaw Pact) to consideration of security issues in the crisis-ridden regions of the world (e.g. the Middle East, North-east Asia, Africa). Once we had identified a good array of topics we had to put a speaker's name to each, and here my own network of contacts often came into play.
We would try to include in each year's programme British political speakers from both sides of the Parliament, diplomats from countries of key importance, armed service officers, journalists, research institute staff members (especially from the International Institute for Strategic Studies) and academics from Oxford and elsewhere (especially where they had a critical perspective on policies that we had considered from a governmental perspective). Sometimes we knew of an expert speaker coming to Oxford from abroad for other purposes the OUSSG's finances barely ran to train fares from London and he or she would be invited to address the Group.
The programme varied considerably from year to year. There were a few individuals who spoke several times during my fourteen yours as senior member, but not above five. The topics were chosen with regard to the issues of the day, the interests of the Group, especially the committee members, the availability of particularly attractive speakers and any strong views I had on matters that were likely to become more important in future years. The attractiveness of the programme was often confirmed by large attendances of fifty or so students. There were a few occasions where a speaker attracted an audience of over one hundred, which was really beyond the capacity of the Old Library to accommodate in any comfort. I usually held myself available as speaker of last resort in the event that a sudden change had forced the intended speaker to cancel out at the last minute, but occasionally I would also contribute a perspective based, say, on a recent journey to a country of high interest to the Group, such as China or Korea.
While a speaker's potential for filling the seats around the rectangular array of tables in the Old Library was always a relevant criterion for an invitation, reality did not always meet with expectations. I can recall a few embarrassing occasions at which there were fewer than ten audience members seated at the tables when we entered after a congenial dinner. I then incurred a debt of honour to make it up to the speaker by providing him with a larger audience on another occasion or at another venue, or inviting him to a social event in All Souls.
Most of the meetings themselves went off reasonably smoothly. The Chairperson, usually the President in his or her year of office, did the introduction of the speaker and conducted the following discussion, often doing the discussion opener from the chair. Occasionally the introductions were a little too brief or focused on less relevant parts of the speaker's expertise. I would then have to decide whether to work some additional comment into whatever I contributed to the following discussion or not. Sometimes an intervener in the discussion would press his or her point beyond the bounds of politeness and enter into the territory of confrontation, but most Presidents were capable of handling this situation with tact and firmness, and I do not think I ever had to try to assert control over a disorderly meeting.
On one occasion after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact a former senior Soviet intelligence officer had been invited to address the Group. It was an occasion when I was away and could not attend. The speaker opened by lamenting my absence because he had particularly wanted to meet me. Evidently the KGB had invested major efforts over the years in trying to subvert me, but to no effect. He really wanted me to know how hard they had tried to gain my co-operation. Sadly I was all too unaware of this sub-rosa drama running through the twenty years or so for which I knew that I was occasionally being entertained by members of the KGB or the GRU. I should have gone for the most expensive wines and dishes on the menu had I known that there was this deep plot behind what were often interesting, and to me valuable, opportunities for comparing approaches and levels of understanding of reality between East and West in strategic relations.
The financial strength of the Group was also a matter for my concern. Our expenses were not inconsiderable as we strove to provide speakers with a decent dinner before they faced the Group, and there were the occasional travel bills to be met and various other administrative expenses. With an average membership of around one hundred and a membership fee at an affordable fifteen pounds a year per member, we were usually able to make ends meet. Group committee members also pursued financial support from external bodies such as embassies in London and major corporations who might want to send the occasional member to meetings. Unsurprisingly the effectiveness of these extra-mural funding endeavours varied widely from year to year. There were the occasional years of crisis in which I had to take a more detailed oversight of the Group's incomings and outgoings.
The best part of being Senior Member was the opportunity it gave me to observe the abilities of individual Group members when they were in charge of proceedings, especially the Presidents and committee members, and to get to know them better as individuals. The record testifies amply to their skills. I can think of several presidents who have gone on to significant positions in the armed forces, diplomatic services and foreign ministries (especially the State Department) of their countries, or have become full professors at very respectable universities. And they are not bad at staying in touch. On a recent occasion in Washington DC four of my former doctoral students gave a dinner for me at which I was able to launch a discussion on the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan by calling the gathering to order as an out-of-session meeting of the OUSSG. All four were active in the group and at least two were President in their respective years.
The Group has a proud record and it is good that current members are taking an interest in its history. It is too good a set of linkages to be ignored.
PAST OUSSG EXECUTIVES
OUSSG is currently compiling a list of its former Presidents (below). Research for this is ongoing; if you would like to provide information for a year not yet detailed or a correction, please get in touch with us. Thanks to former Presidents Dr John Nagl, Dr Carter Malkasian, Jay Jakub and Samuel Evans, and former Senior Member Professor Robert O’Neill for their assistance.
2015-16 – Mr Edward Mortimer, CMG
2001-15 – Professor Hew Strachan
1987-01 – Professor Robert O’Neill
1982-87 – Professor Adam Roberts
1968-82 – Professor Sir Michael Howard
2018-19 – Adam Zibak
2017-18 – Andrew Payne
2016-17 – Mark Jbeily
2015-16 – Mark Mahvi
2014-15 – Josh Brown
2013-14 – George Bogden
2012-13 – Nick Altham
2011-12 – Mara Tchalakov
2010-11 – David Blagden
2009-10 – Hila Levy
2008-09 – Robert Nelson
2007-08 – Andrea Baumann
2006-07 – Sheena Chestnut
2005-06 – Eric Twerdahl
2004-05 – Samuel Evans
2003-04 – Samuel Evans
2002-03 – Brian Luke Lawrence
2001-02 – Alex Baxter
2000-01 – Michael Murphy
1999-00 – Carter Malkasian
1998-99 – Josefine Wallat
1997-98 – Nick Redman
1996-97 – John Nagl
1995-96 – Jay Jakub
1994-95 – Philip Barton
1992-93 – Tim Benbow
1991-92 – Mats Berdal
1990-91 – Holly Wyatt
1989-90 – Heidi Avery
1988-89 – Rob Radtke
1987-88 – David Fidler
1986-87 – Michael B. Froman
Information prior to 1988 has yet to be retrieved.