Monica Duffy Toft
Impact Stories
October 1, 2017 – Foreign Policy

Monica Duffy Toft

Monica Duffy Toft, director of the Center for Strategic Studies at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Diplomacy, wants us to think harder about how to achieve our goals in the world.


Monica Duffy Toft

Monica Duffy Toft is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of several books on the roots of conflict. She also tweets: You can follow her on Twitter @monicaduffytoft. She spoke to us from her office in Medford, Massachusetts.

Monica Duffy Toft, global security expert and director of the Center for Strategic Studies at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, appeared destined for big things from a young age. She joined the military in her teens and trained in intelligence gathering. She earned a Master of Arts and Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago and an undergraduate degree, summa cum laude, in Slavic languages and literature from the University of California. She has taught at Oxford University and Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. 

What is your back story?
My father was a U.S. Army linguist who served in the Korean War. I went into the army myself at age 17. I was young and patriotic, and I was interested in the Soviet Union. This was the mid-1980s and Reagan was pushing the Russians against the wall. It was an opportunity to help fight the Cold War. The army was one way for me—one of six kids—to get college paid for. I’d worked all the way through junior high and high school to support myself and my family. The army allowed me to become fairly fluent in Russian, studying up to 10 hours a day. I had a fabulous time. I almost stayed in.

You did intelligence gathering via electronic surveillance. How did that work?
I was stationed in Germany, and we were listening to the Soviets on the borders, doing much of what the NSA does, intercepts and so forth. There was a lot of military jargon to learn and listen for. Also, I discovered that the Russians are masters at cursing.

You study conflict worldwide. Do you ever put on the flak jacket and helmet and get out there where the action is?
Not a great deal. I’ve been to some unnerving places, like Sudan during the civil war there. I did a number of interviews about the Caucasus, but I did most of those from Moscow, though I’m sure I was being watched and listened to. 

You’ve written that the need for territory is a human instinct and that fighting over it is a biological impulse.
Humans have a deep-seated need for territory. We’re soft-wired for it. It’s part of a basic human understanding that without territory it’s hard to get resources and to defend yourself. The soft-wiring kicks in when we feel threatened.

Let’s contrast two current conflicts. Kim Jong Un doesn’t seem to want to conquer U.S. territory, and yet ISIS does want to control other lands and submit people to their caliphate. How do you square those two motivations?
I’m not sure ISIS wants to conquer the U.S. They want the land of the Muslims to be freed from non-Muslims. Their problem is that the Americans are infidels mucking around in the Middle East. With Kim, it’s somewhat similar. The territory he wants is South Korea. The reason the North Koreans so despise the U.S. is that we’re standing in the way of reunification. They have a philosophy of self-reliance and survival. They want to feed their own people, defend their own people, and they don’t want anybody from the outside telling them what to do.

What about ethnic considerations in territorial conflict. You’ve stated that changes in population involving religious, ethnic, and racial identity can portend conflict. Is that what’s happening with the influx of Muslims into European countries?
Yes, their national identities are being threatened by the flood of migrants. Their fear is that the fertility of the incoming population is significantly higher than their own. The worry is that the new groups will, over time, “out birth” the native population. And that can happen. For example, Arafat told his people in the occupied territories, “Just keep having babies, folks.” And he was right. The Israeli Jews lost their majority.

You must love Game of Thrones. All these characters and their competing machinations to gain territory. Given their fictional motivations, do they behave in interesting, human ways?
I do like that show! I’m not a fanatic—my husband is. Look, it’s about power, right? Who’s going to control certain lands and tell everybody else what to do.

What are you working on now?
I’m working on a book about how demographics affect the potential for conflict, and I’m starting to think about a book on a U.S. long-term, grand strategy.

Do we have a grand strategy?
We don’t have one at the moment. Our policy right now is what I call “whack-a-mole,” in which we simply react to threats that emerge with military force without a full consideration of how our reaction might or might not impede what truly makes America such a formidable and inspiring country. But there is no long-term strategy that answers: What does the U.S. stand for now and how do we bring our resources to bear to achieve our goals?

When was the last time we had one?
George Bush, Sr. His strategy was to help the Soviet Union to decline gracefully and to protect U.S. hegemony. But since then we haven’t known what we’re trying to achieve as a nation. Most Americans don’t believe we need to be the world leader, but rather that the U.S. should be among leaders helping solve some of the worst excesses, like North Korea.

What do you think our goal should be?
Our national goal should be leading the world toward a future where all peoples have a say in their government, enjoy a fair standard of living, are subject to and privileged by due process of law, are secure from deliberate violence, and can benefit from these things sustainably. This is a goal which will demand patience and humility, compromise and teamwork, and a dedicated mix of resources including military, economic, diplomatic, scientific, artistic, and social.

Finally, apart from being an international security expert, you’re a black belt in karate?
Yeah. I don’t talk about it very much. What I like is karate’s philosophy that it’s something you use as a last resort.

But I assume you can take care of yourself in a dark alley conflict.
Yes, I can take care of myself.