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Profile in Security: Dr. Wendin D. Smith

November 11, 2017 | Interviewed by FSR Staff

Fletcher Security Review (FSR): We are excited to have you here talking about the Department of Defense, security and countering weapons of mass destruction. We also want to know a little bit more about you as a person. You have had an interesting career, so we would like to walk through some of that. You are a Fletcher School graduate, what were yours fields of study when you were here?

Dr. Wendin Smith (WS):  At Fletcher, I was International Security Studies, and International Environment and Resource Policy, which I assume is still the same name — the Dr. Gallagher program, then Dr. Shultz and Dr. Pfaltzgraff. Then when I started the PhD you have to add a third study, so I did Islamic Civilization and Culture with Professor Taftson and some others, who I think are still here. It is always great to be back [at Fletcher], even if it’s for five hours.

FSR: That is a quick turnaround. Since you’ve been working for the Department of Defense (DoD), could you briefly discuss your role in shaping and implementing policy?

WS: Since joining the DoD, it’s been in very different capacities. I joined first as a political appointee, as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for counter-WMD, so the explicit role was to shape our policy on WMD, both in terms of traditional treaties and norms and so on, with the nonproliferation treaty, to counter-proliferation programs, which are, you know, agreements that are international and so on, and then just a lot of special bi-lateral, multi-lateral and other relationships that are sometimes not with countries but with organizations and so on.

I would say it was very much a learning experience from the perspective of how to work the building first, because I think if anything I did not have experience with — before starting that role, was with the department of defense, because I would had a lot of experience with the counter WMD community, both domestic and international, but not with how the Department of Defense set the policy. Learning how to work with the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, and the various components of the Department of Defense to come to a joint policy was certainly a learning experience, but it confirmed everything I learned at Fletcher, and everything I do in my career, which is sort of, the criticality of communication, collaboration, common mission, coming to a policy that will fit everyone, and while it may not be the best one it’s one that going to meet a lot of the needs, and finally, push that forward. But I think, you know, in, in setting policy the trap is you often get in this continual discussion of the policy. With the State Department, and even in the building [Pentagon], it is easy to keep thinking about how the policy could be improved rather than simply saying, "This is the best we can do right now, we’ve thought about it hard and we’ve done our best effort, lets put it out and move forward."  It is less of an academic exercise and more of an actionable policy. If I've learned anything it was the special operations command way — find the 70% version and go.  You can then improve it as you go, but at least you’re going rather than staring at it.

FSR: In that 70% version, what are the details that are then ‘figured out later’?

WS: It depends on the policy itself. If the policy is specific to the Department, it is easier to get to 90 or even 100%.  If it is a policy that involves — as most of them do — a piece with the Department of Energy, a piece with the Department of State, usually what is missing in that 30% gap is how is State is going to either get their support, or contradict maybe DoD policy. We then have to decide how much time have we spend on trying to get the other stakeholders on board versus how much of it is just getting this department imperative—we, DoD, are moving forward and we will figure out how to get it fully worked out with the rest of you later. We would always discuss it with them at the time, but in many cases, especially with the State Department,  they want to spend more time thinking strategically about how we implement it, what it might mean now, and what it would mean 10 years from now. Sometimes you just cannot do all that analysis, you just need to move forward.

FSR: That makes sense, and I can see how that could be frustrating. How have you found your role change, both domestically and internationally, as you have worked your way up through DoD?

WS: I will say the first thing that what comes to mind is the importance of building a team, always.  It has probably been a tenet of my career and I think it is always in a Fletcher education too. Interestingly, I would say the teamwork and collaborative work that I did even before I went to DoD helped get me to where I am now because people knew me. They had worked with me, and said, "Hey, we need someone who can do A, B, and C plus Z, and that’s Dr Smith, let’s go get her." It was that kind of collaborative nature. Even in the Department of Defense, as time passes, the reputation that you build for yourself as you go along is critical, it is what has brought me back . It is pretty rare that you will be continuing to move up or across in any case without a strong network and people who believe in working with you. I can name only a few pure subject matter experts who are just so brilliant in their own right that even if they are a bit irascible and you do not really enjoy working with them, you still want them on your team, but most of the time you need to be wanted. It is because they want to work with you, they appreciate how you build consensus, how you listen, and how you ask. I have continued to learn how important that is. It also helps you build more effective policy because you have listened to what everybody’s inputs are and then created a common solution rather than simply you with your vision, blocking out the other inputs.

FSR: That makes sense. That sounds exactly like what we’re learning here. Switching gears, as different you have gone through different administrations, how durable are the policies of administrations, and how much does that reflect the President’s views, Congress’s views, or its own separate thing?

WS: That is a great question. In some ways I feel too early in my career to answer that because I have really only served under now two administrations.  I would say though, having been outside many prior administrations that I think it depends on the department and on the type of policy. From my perspective, many of the defense policies really do not change that much. When you step back and look at the goals of any administration, it is to keep the people safe, keep your Allies safe, and protect your territory; they are pretty fundamental defense goals so there are not many dramatic changes. There might be change in messaging and in how the priorities are set. For example, Secretary Mattis has been very clear that building Allies and partners capacity is a strategic priority for him. It was a priority for Secretary Carter as well, but it was not listed as his number 3 priority.  There is just a little bit more, really from the whole building, in that direction of partnership, but again, if you had asked Secretary Carter when he was Secretary he also would have said that partnerships are critical. Defense policy shifts are usually not big shifts. I think that only, and now I am sort of calling into my own weapons of mass destruction space, there are some fundamental shifts, but I would still say that they are relatively nuanced in some of the strategic nuclear policies. Our Nuclear Posture Review is about to be released under the Trump administration, it has been built differently, with different assumptions about the state of the world and so on than the prior Nuclear Posture Review. 

FSR: Shifting a little bit given that we are at the 2017 Fletcher Gender Conference, you have extensive experience coordinating between different departmental agencies at all different levels and recently at a very high level.  From what I have heard, these environments can sometimes have vibe of a toxic masculinity to them. Have there been any moments or incidents that you have noticed that, and how have you been navigating them?

WS:  I have certainly been asked that many times in my career at various events, some of them women-focused events. Often I think my answer disappoints in the sense, and funny enough, no one ever asks about a positive point of view, and mine is mainly a positive experience.

FSR: Well that’s good to hear!

WS: I mean I am certainly the only woman or one of two women in the room in most of my meetings. If I am in a meeting with more women in the room, most of the women are on the back row, you know, the people at the table are the men. So it is not at all that I have not been in a highly masculine environment, but I will describe the experiences I have had, both give credit to the men in the room who have been appropriate, and to my own. I very much believe in how you carry yourself, how do you know your stuff when you go into the room, do you have your talking points ready, are you ready to make your argument, can you craft it in a way that makes sense, and can you have dialogue in an appropriate way. If you cannot do that, then you probably do not belong there anyways. Regardless of whether you are a man or a woman, that is kind of the way I have faced it — that is the way I treat my colleagues. I respect them, whoever they are, as long as they are professional. If they fail to deliver, or fail to treat me or others with respect, I do not respect them either. I think I feel that is kind of the way I have gone through life. There have certainly been, I would say, stories from Russia, and certainly living in Russia, which is a highly toxic environment. Most women assume you are the secretary if you are the female.

It is not that it has not happened to me, actually just a year ago I was meeting a high-level unnamed country, one of the former satellite states of the Soviet Union, for a high-level meeting. It was one-on-one meeting, so another high-level official was with me, and then each of us had a plus one, a deputy, with us. We were meeting in the lobby of the International Atomic Energy Agency. We had not met previously, we were going to meet in the lobby and go up to the conference room. Admittedly, my name is Wendin, so I think most people assume I might be a man. When we went into the lobby, the two officials of this former satellite country approached and then went straight up to the man at my side and said, "Hi Dr. Smith, shall we proceed to the conference room?" I decided to just go with it. I translated for my colleague, who did not speak Russian, and they assumed I was the translator. We went up to the room, and the name cards were prepared at the table, so I sat down at my appropriate name card. A that point they realized they had been treating me as the translator for the whole elevator ride and the walk to the room.

Seeing the look of, "Holy crap," on their faces when they realized they had been making the wrong assumptions was enough. The meeting was great, and we got what we needed to do from both sides. The fact that I spoke Russian and my colleague did not was helpful, but it all worked out in the end. That certainly happens all the time, right? There are assumptions or stereotypes that you can visibly see you are overcoming or that are less visible. But once again, if you’re professional, confident, and a communicator, you’ll get through it. So that’s my positive take.

FSR: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us, Dr. Smith.  I am very pleased you could join us, and wish you the best.


Dr. Wendin D. Smith is the Senior Advisor to the Commanding General of the U.S. Special Operations Command for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (CWMD).  Previously, she served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for CWMD, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy (DASD/C-WMD), where she was responsible for establishing policy and guidance to protect U.S. and Allied forces against chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear attack from state or terrorist actors, as well as for preventing and countering global trafficking in WMD. This interview reflects Dr. Smith's personal views, and not the views of the Department of Defense or any U.S. Government Agency.

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