JPME Today



Joint Doctrine

Joint Force Quarterly 75 (4th Quarter, October 2014)

News | Sept. 30, 2014

Low Cost, High Returns: Getting More from International Partnerships

By Russell S. Thacker and Paul W. Lambert Joint Force Quarterly 75

Unbeknownst to most Americans, over 8,000 international military personnel are trained or educated annually in the United States at the invitation of the U.S. Government, studying every aspect of the military profession. The most select officers with future leadership potential are invited to participate in senior Professional Military Education (PME) courses alongside U.S. officers at schools such as National Defense University (NDU) and the Army, Naval, Air, and Marine Corps War Colleges. Many of these students are funded by the United States through security assistance programs such as the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program, which has an annual cost of over $100 million. This is a significant investment of time and treasure by the United States, and as we will show, the initial returns of these programs are high.

However, despite the significant investment, once courses end, the U.S. Government expends very little effort to maintain relationships with these international graduates and use them as potential strategic partners. The lack of attention is surprising, not only because we are divesting when our returns would be their highest but also given the way Departments of State and Defense leaders view these programs. Said Admiral Michael Mullen, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Security cooperation through PME is an investment in the future of both the selected students and the nations being engaged. Like all investments, an optimal return on our investment is sought.”1 Unfortunately, we are not seeing an “optimal” return in the long run when benefits could be the greatest.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey addresses students attending National Defense University at Fort McNair, Washington, DC, October 5, 2011 (DOD/D. Myles Cullen)

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey addresses students attending National Defense University at Fort McNair, Washington, DC, October 5, 2011 (DOD/D. Myles Cullen)

We argue that the United States can do better by maintaining long-term relationships with these graduates. While we think increased alumni outreach would be beneficial for all IMET and PME programs, the focus of this article is increased engagement with international graduates of Intermediate and Senior PME programs. Our analysis and recommendations for improvement are drawn primarily from our experience working with the international programs at National Defense University, a senior PME school.

Theory of Success for International Military Education

Figure 1. Growth of International Military Students at NDU

In the two decades since the fall of the Iron Curtain, participation of international military students in U.S. programs has exploded. At NDU, the number of students enrolled in our international programs grew from 12 per year in 1991 to 46 by the end of the decade. Following the September 11 attacks, a new wave of students focused on counterterrorism and homeland defense brought student totals to over 100 by 2010 (see figure 1). This rise is indicative of trends across U.S. PME and training schools. Currently, over 140 countries send students to study alongside the U.S. military each year at upwards of 180 U.S. military schools and facilities.2

What is the objective of these security assistance programs? As stated in the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, the intent of Congress in establishing the IMET program was to improve the ability of allied and friendly countries to achieve self-reliance in their security objectives, increase awareness of basic issues involving internationally recognized human rights and civil-military relations, and develop greater understanding and fraternity between participants and participating nations.3 Capacity-building, reinforcement of established norms and values, and a fostering of relationships all constitute ways in which the United States has retained influence with partner nations. Such military-to-military contact, which some call “defense diplomacy,” represents a powerful alternative to traditional instruments of power.4

Capacity-building. Much as technical training programs such as aircraft maintenance aim to raise the skill set of countries’ armed forces, the education offered to students at PME schools aims to bolster the leadership and strategic thinking capabilities of future leaders of partner nations. This education offers opportunities for greater interoperability, making countries more capable of working with the United States and within the international community by drawing from a shared curriculum and language. According to the State Department, one of the goals of the IMET program is to “enhance the ability of friends and allies to participate in coalition, humanitarian, peacekeeping, counterterrorism, and counterinsurgency operations.”5

Recognition of Human Rights. International PME programs also aim to instill recognition of established norms in human rights and civil-military relations through exposure of officers to U.S. values of equality, democracy, and civilian control of the armed forces. This experience comes through visiting institutions such as media outlets, universities, government agencies, and business locations around the United States and by engaging officers in discussion of these themes. For example, at NDU, international officers join a year-long academic course on American identity that addresses these concepts, and they participate in a robust Field Studies Program, traveling to over 15 locations around the country where they are hosted by representatives from every sector of U.S. society.6

Relationships and Improved Understanding. Arguably, the most important outcome of PME programs is the strength of relationships formed between the international officers and their classmates, sponsors, or other contacts here in the United States. Both U.S. and international representatives view these relationships not simply as personal friendships—although in most cases, they are—but as enablers of future cooperation, influence, and advancement of interests between their countries. At NDU, heavy emphasis is placed on bonding, networking, and socializing among classmates outside of schoolwork. The international officers form a tight-knit bond with each other and a working relationship with their U.S. counterparts after a year of intense studying, debating in the classroom, and sharing of cultures and perspectives. These outcomes are in line with what the Department of Defense (DOD) has stressed in implementing IMET programs: a desire to develop “rapport, understanding, and communication links” between U.S. and partner armed forces.7 This network, coupled with a surer understanding of and familiarity with the U.S. system, means international graduates are ahead of the curve in their future associations with the United States. General (Ret.) Mieczysław Cieniuch, former Chief of General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces, stated, “NDU helped me learn about the American way of life and doing business. This understanding and appreciation of the U.S. culture certainly helped me to establish a good relationship with all my partners and interlocutors from the United States.”8

Figure 2. Percentage Increase in Student Confidence
Figure 3. How Do You Think Your Country Ranks in Its Respect for Human Rights

Evidence of Success. Efforts to measure the impact of these programs on international students have been encouraging and illustrate an initial high return on the U.S. investment. In 2011, a study was undertaken to measure the impact of NDU’s international programs on the resident international students’ attitudes and understanding of the U.S. Government and culture as well as their commitment to democracy and internationally recognized human rights. The study was built around two survey instruments that measured these factors upon the students’ arrival to NDU and again at departure to their home country a year later. The study showed that international students’ understanding of the U.S. governing system improved significantly and that students’ views of democracy and internationally recognized human rights became more nuanced after their year at NDU.9

As shown in figure 2, the students’ confidence level in understanding the U.S. Government, institutions, and culture at the conclusion of their time at NDU significantly increased, especially the understanding of culture (an increase of 31.1 percent). The study also found that international students developed a more critical analysis and view of democracy and human rights in their own countries during the year enrolled in the program. The students generally saw their home countries as somewhat democratic in the arrival survey, but they became slightly more critical in the departure survey. In reference to human rights, the question was asked, “Compared to the rest of the world, how does your country rank in its respect for Human Rights?” Figure 3 illustrates the clear downward shift between the arrival and departure surveys. In the arrival survey, a majority of students indicated that they saw their home country as better than average in the realm of Human Rights (69.5 percent). In the departure survey, this dropped to 52.9 percent.10

In addition to the statistical evidence in this and other survey instruments we have used, there are countless testimonials from students and graduates that illustrate the effectiveness of the programs in promoting understanding and building capacity. One student remarked, “Exposure to American society has enhanced my knowledge on American culture, history, and politics so that I am better able to understand how the United States sees the world.” Another said, “The education I received at NDU gave me new skills to better analyze events and make decisions. The knowledge I received allows me to better analyze every situation, critically think about problems, and think strategically to find solutions with the collaboration of partners in the security community.”

Our experience and studies such as these give us confidence that the international programs at NDU and other PME schools are creating a high initial return from the U.S. investment in the students and their countries. While here in the United States, strong partnerships of understanding, respect, and commitment to human right and democracy are developed and strengthened among our international friends. But what becomes of those partnerships when these officers return home and take positions of influence in their country?

The Problem: Failure to Maintain Key Relationships Through Continued Engagement

We suggest that international PME programs are largely meeting their objectives during the students’ time in the program. However, once students leave these institutions, there is a dismal track record of maintaining contact with them. The reality is the majority of graduates are never tracked, contacted, or heard from again in their home countries. For U.S. policymakers, agencies, and schools, this not only means losing our ability to continue to achieve program objectives over time but also failing to accurately measure what has been achieved. Long-term return on investment for international military education remains unrealized, or at least unknown.

How few graduates are actually being followed? Beginning in 2001, U.S. law explicitly mandated that records be kept on each IMET student to include the type of instruction received, whether it was completed successfully, and “to the extent practicable” his or her subsequent career and current position.11 Despite the mandate, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimates DOD has actually maintained updated information on only 1 percent of graduates, focusing on the small percentage who reach certain positions of prominence.12 The online Defense Security Assistance Management System (DSAMS) was created partly to maintain this information, but it contains at best only snippets of data and is not regularly updated or used for this purpose. There is also no requirement to collect contact information for graduates, and many graduates have simply slipped out of reach. Individual schools may be collecting this information more successfully, but they are doing it in an ad hoc and uncoordinated fashion.

Even still, simply collecting the right data on graduates falls short of the intent of IMET and international PME programs, which is to create long-term relationships with graduates and establish global networks of security practitioners. When graduates leave schools like NDU, they largely take with them positive impressions of their time and a deeper understanding of the United States. They are motivated to stay in contact with American classmates, their school, and their international classmates. They are primed to be effective partners in their home country, able to communicate with U.S. representatives and understand the domestic political, economic, and cultural context in which American foreign policy occurs. They are also positioned to provide useful feedback and experience to the schools from which they graduated. Unfortunately, too little effort is made to utilize graduates for these advantages, thus limiting the full realization of program goals.

Roots of the Problem. This problem of tracking graduates is not new. In a 1990 report on the IMET program, GAO also reported “no system for monitoring use of IMET graduates” and no accurate way for DOD to measure the effectiveness of the program.13 GAO echoed many of the same concerns in a 2011 report as well as extending this line of thinking to U.S. graduates in a 2013 review of PME programs, saying schools must place a greater emphasis on continuing education and lifelong learning for graduates.14 Awareness within the security assistance community may finally be dawning. In the recent Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Strategy for International Professional Military Education, the Chairman places greater emphasis on the need to “facilitate long-term relationships” with international graduates, in order to “enhance our ability to foster peace and security.”15

Despite the greater awareness, the current PME system is simply not designed to produce vibrant continuing contact with graduates. In talking with other intermediate and senior PME programs around the country, we have found this engagement happening at different levels. Most schools have opted to do nothing and have lost contact with nearly all graduates; some have built small alumni activities into their current operations but are unable to commit any resources to a formal program; and a few schools have a formal program with innovative efforts under way but are limited in their ability to accomplish its full potential. The common theme through the feedback is that all agree we need to do more to maintain contact with graduates, but lack of policy guidance, limited resources, poor coordination, and an overall absence of focus on this aspect of education constrain these efforts.

Lack of Guidance. The problem begins with an absence of clear guidance as to who should be maintaining contact with graduates. Is it the schoolhouses, the Embassies, or other independent offices within DOD or the State Department that should undertake this effort? Until recently, the only formal guidance on this subject available to schools like NDU was found in a single paragraph of text in the Joint Security Cooperation Education and Training Regulation stating that schools are encouraged to maintain contact through either periodic mailings of school newsletters or a 1-year subscription to any relevant professional publication.16

Limited Resources. Lack of guidance translates into limited or no resources available to conduct this outreach. There are often no manning billets or positions for continuing engagement within schoolhouses and no dedicated funding streams for alumni activities. Further, because all funding for international students comes through a reimbursable model of tuition funds, it is quite difficult for schoolhouses to justify dedicating funding or personnel to alumni activities at the expense of current students to whom tuition dollars are tied. To work around this issue, some institutions have turned to non-official personnel to conduct this outreach, by working through nonprofit organizations or private foundations affiliated with the college or university. This may be a successful model; however, recent experience shows schools must be careful in allowing outside organizations such as foundations to perform “inherently governmental functions.”17

Lack of Coordination and Information-sharing. Finally, lackluster coordination between the key actors in the system remains a key obstacle to staying in contact with graduates. In the security assistance universe, the main touch-points for international students are the U.S. offices of defense cooperation (ODCs) in Embassies where personnel assist in selecting, vetting, and sending students, and at schoolhouses where international student offices support their education experience. ODCs have been primarily tasked with keeping accurate graduate information in that country by seeking reports from the defense ministry on the current position of graduates and updating this information online. However, we have found that due to the frequent turnover of ODC personnel and an abundance of tasks on their plates, this information is rarely sought and obtained, let alone communicated back to the schoolhouse. There is also little incentive for countries to actively report information to the ODC, and occasionally even a disincentive if countries are suspicious of U.S. motives in obtaining this.

When graduate information is obtained, it is rarely shared, either horizontally or vertically. International students often have attended multiple PME programs, and schools would benefit from knowing their backgrounds as well as any outreach efforts of other schools toward them. Graduate information is also rarely shared “up” between schools and DOD or the State Department. “Despite its potential value as part of a broader IMET evaluation effort, training managers do not systematically share this information with State and DOD and are only required to share information on the small percentage of IMET graduates.”18

Table. Benefits of Continuing Contact with International Alumni

Potential Benefits of Alumni Outreach

At NDU, we have faced many of these same constraints on alumni engagement but have nonetheless tried increasing our efforts to reach out to graduates. Two years ago, we created a dedicated alumni position, mobilized staff on specific alumni projects, became more active online and in social media, began conducting continuing education seminars, and started seeking updates on graduates in earnest. We have seen substantial benefits come from this engagement and anticipate many other benefits are within reach with additional efforts (see table).

For graduates, maintaining contact is beneficial in providing both further education and access to a broad network of classmates and alumni. Our graduates have increased their use of educational resources available on campus, such as lifetime access to the NDU library and collaboration with faculty and researchers, and have stayed current on security issues by participating in continuing education seminars and forums. Alumni have also found that using the graduate network opens doors to excel in their positions and benefit their countries. For example, 2 years ago, a Russian graduate who was serving as head of the aviation security agency in Moscow contacted our office with a desire to broaden his agency’s capabilities through learning from the U.S. system. Using connections at NDU, we helped arrange a counterpart visit between him and the Transportation Security Agency regional director in Washington. Similarly, one of our graduates from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was assigned to create the new National Defense University of UAE. His first action was to reach back through alumni channels to NDU and ask for assistance, resulting in a long-standing collaboration between the U.S. and UAE defense universities. Many other graduates have used channels directly to their classmates. When the political crisis erupted in Libya in 2011, one of our alumni from Austria led the removal of all Austrian citizens from the country. After encountering issues at the Egyptian border with the chaos of many people fleeing, he contacted his NDU classmate, a general in the Egyptian Army who provided the necessary arrangements to ensure the Austrian citizens passed smoothly. In many cases, the graduates’ connection to NDU or their classmates has allowed them to bypass significant red tape to achieve positive gains for their country.

For schools, the value of alumni engagement flows from their improved ability to assess outcomes and draw on the experience of graduates. At NDU, we have used assessment tools such as surveys, interviews, and feedback sessions to observe whether graduates have used skills obtained at NDU, introduced new ideas into the workplace, published, achieved flag officer rank, and stayed in contact with classmates. Schools are also able to draw from a pool of alumni subject matter experts working around the world to provide perspective on issues and enrich curriculum. Graduates have been able to return and lecture at NDU, help faculty in their research, and write for publications. In several cases, alumni have opened doors to NDU student or faculty groups traveling overseas, augmenting their itineraries with visits to places that would otherwise be inaccessible.

Finally, continuing engagement has value to the U.S. Government over time from a practical and strategic level, although this is most difficult to measure. Graduates are able to work in a more interoperable way with U.S. and international partners. Strategically, the United States is able to nurture relationships with those in key positions of influence. From NDU alone, there are 11 international graduates currently serving as chiefs of defense or secretaries of defense, 15 acting as chiefs of service within their armed forces, and numerous others in key governmental, diplomatic, or business positions around the globe. When expanded to all senior or intermediate PME schools, the success of graduates comprises an enormous network of senior leaders with whom the United States could engage. Referencing Indian graduates specifically, one U.S. Pacific Command country director wrote:

We are looking to ensure we have the visibility on these folks as they emerge . . . into senior leadership positions. From the middle of 2011 until the end of 2013, the three Indian service chiefs were all U.S. PME graduates . . . plus many other influential two and three stars. The Indian chiefs of service personally hand select the attendees to U.S. PME—it is that important to them. Furthermore, we can tell within three to five minutes the Indians that have been through our courses; they are broadly strategically minded, have a good understanding of jointness, and understand our systems (which are quite different from theirs).19

Even if graduates are not in key policy positions, they can still play a valuable strategic role. For example, several former U.S. ambassadors at NDU have said they wished they had information on NDU international graduates in countries where they served as ambassadors, as they often looked for government or armed forces officials with a familiarity with the United States and an established level of trust with whom to engage. Similarly, at NDU we have been contacted many times by unified commands or task forces asking for information on graduates in their regions—information they were seeking by contacting every senior PME school one by one. While we have been able to provide the information for these requests, we believe if information on graduates was more readily and systematically available to officials abroad, many more benefits would arise from employing the experience of these graduates.


We have distilled several recommendations to help individual schools and the U.S. Government as a whole achieve greater returns on their investments in international military education programs.

Raise Emphasis on Continuing Engagement by Assigning Guidance and Resources. In many cases, specifics are still lacking as to how the U.S. Government can and ought to maintain these relationships. How do individual schools maintain contact with graduates overseas? What personnel, resources, and opportunities are available to assist in this mission? There is a need for more specific guidance from the agency level to schools and to ODCs specifying what information managers should collect, how they should do it, and how it can be appropriately used. Greater guidance would unlock more resources for schools to use in reaching graduates—covering costs of communications systems, publications and materials, alumni events or seminars, recognition ceremonies, and personnel. Some graduates have raised the idea of building in a percentage of each IMET student’s tuition cost to cover future alumni connectivity and attendance at alumni seminars. Though not an IMET program, DOD’s Combating Terrorism Fellowship Program provides a good model of a program that has built-in provisions for alumni outreach and provides funds for dedicated staff positions, events, and communication tools.

Take a Joint Approach to Graduate Engagement. The successes of international education programs are repeated many times over at many PME institutions around the country. Currently, other than DSAMS, no common data management system exists to access, update, and share information on graduates. Such a system would enable schools to share information horizontally and enable them to easily communicate to higher levels of State Department and DOD officials what graduate resources are available in certain countries or positions, instead of expecting decisionmakers to painstakingly track this information from each school. This data sharing has occurred on a smaller scale in ways that can be replicated. For example, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency’s five regional centers now use the same student management system, which allows for full visibility of the background of international students between the centers and allows the centers to easily share information.

Although graduate engagement should be headquartered at each school, many alumni activities can be carried out in a joint manner. For example, at previous NDU regional continuing education seminars, we have partnered with the regional centers to invite their graduates to participate in the event. Likewise, Army War College graduates have occasionally joined. This only enriches the alumni network and opens more opportunities to individual graduates. Whereas U.S. Armed Forces are culturally divided along service lines, in the eyes of our international partners, any of these schools act as representatives of the United States.

Shift Focus from Tracking Information to Building Relationships. We regret that most U.S. efforts to date in reaching graduates have focused on collecting information, not building relationships. Narrowly focusing on data collection can imply we are only interested in monitoring graduates for one-way benefit, as if it were an intelligence gathering effort. Instead, focusing on genuinely building relationships through engagement will ultimately provide more lasting and mutual benefits. This engagement ought to happen with all levels of graduates, not just those occupying prominent or strategic positions.

The way in which we build relationships is first by communicating and then finding ways to work together. The most important information that can be retained on graduates is their contact information, such as a simple email address. An email or social media address opens up a range of tools such as e-newsletters, webinars, instant messaging, and real-time feedback. Social media cannot be overlooked as a crucial way to maintain relationships, although not all graduates are capable of or comfortable with communicating in this way. In addition to online outreach, regional or U.S.-based seminars or conferences allow these relationships to be maintained and strengthened over time.

We work together when we find ways to leverage graduates, both as ongoing resources to schools and as potential partners in their home countries, and allow graduates access to our networks and resources. Just as international students in PME courses are often expected to offer a different perspective in a U.S.-dominated academic environment, international graduates can make a unique contribution to schools by enriching their curriculum, contacts, publications, and opinions. For example, one school we spoke to plans to invite international graduates back on campus each year to sit in on courses and give feedback on whether the curriculum is keeping pace with security issues around the world. Likewise, U.S. officials should be aware of these graduates and seek out their assistance and perspective on matters of U.S. policy in their countries. Graduates can be relied on as sounding boards by U.S. officials who need feedback on new ideas or proposals, and they can be effective interlocutors on the other side of the table. Moreover, graduates should be encouraged to reach out and utilize U.S. opinions, contacts, and resources to the greatest extent possible as full partners. There are many other potential ways to use alumni we have not yet discovered.

Our experience in senior PME international programs convinces us that we are gaining a good return on investment when the students are in residence, both in achieving learning outcomes and influencing perceptions of students. However, in failing to maintain these relationships in the long run, we are missing out on the highest returns and fullest potential of these programs. Effective engagement of graduates across PME schools is entirely possible, but it requires the development of more sound policy, dedication of resources, collaboration, and a creative approach to utilize and engage graduates as part of a robust graduate network.

It is hard to argue against the value of strong international partnerships in today’s security environment. Declining U.S. resources and drawdowns of defense budgets continue to bring security cooperation to the forefront in terms of value and effectiveness. There has never been a better time for the U.S. Government to invest in the relationships that have been formed with the body of international military students who have attended PME institutions. This is a low-cost, high-return way to keep our international partnerships strong. JFQ

Russell S. Thacker is Alumni and Outreach Manager for International Programs in the International Student Management Office (ISMO) at the National Defense University. Paul W. Lambert is an Assistant Professor in ISMO.


  1. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “International Professional Military Education (PME) Strategy,” CJCS Guide 1800, August 31, 2011.
  2. U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), International Military Education and Training: Agencies Should Emphasize Human Rights Training and Improve Evaluations, GAO-12-123 (Washington, DC: GAO, 2011), 4.
  3. Foreign Assistance Act, 22 USC §2347b (1961), “Congressional Declaration of Purpose,” available at <www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/22/2347b>.
  4. Wolfgang Koerner, “Security Sector Reform: Defence Diplomacy,” Parliamentary Information and Research Service, May 17, 2006, available at <www.parl.gc.ca/Content/LOP/researchpublications/prb0612-e.pdf>.
  5. U.S. Department of State, Congressional Budget Justification: Foreign Operations (Washington, DC: Department of State, 2010), 142.
  6. U.S. Department of Defense, United States Field Studies Program (FSP) for International Military and Civilian Students and Military-Sponsored Visitors, DOD Instruction 5410.17 (2006).
  7. Defense Security Cooperation Agency, Security Assistance Management Manual, C10.6.3.1, available at <www.samm.dsca.mil/chapter/chapter-10>.
  8. General Mieczysław Cieniuch, remarks at NDU Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, Washington, DC, January 10, 2012.
  9. Adam Jungdahl and Paul Lambert, “Winning Hearts by Broadening Minds: Measuring the Impact of International Military Assistance at the National Defense University,” The DISAM Annual 1 (2012), 153.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Foreign Assistance Act, 22 USC §2347g (1961), “Records Regarding Foreign Participants,” available at <www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/22/2347g>. The GAO uses the term “monitor” to refer to tracking alumni in-country. Because this word is often associated with surveillance, we prefer instead to talk about maintaining accurate records or staying in contact with graduates.
  12. GAO, International Military Education and Training, 19.
  13. GAO, Security Assistance: Observations on the International Military Education and Training Program, GAO/NSIAD-90-215BR (Washington, DC: GAO, 1990).
  14. GAO, Joint Military Education: Actions Needed to Implement DoD Recommendations for Enhancing Leadership Development, GAO-14-29 (Washington, DC: GAO, 2013).
  15. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, International PME Strategy, A-1.
  16. Joint Security Cooperation Education and Training, 10-54 (2011) Army Regulation 12-15, SECNAVINST 4950.4B, AFI 16-105. 10-54, 186–187.
  17. Office of the Naval Inspector General, Report of Investigation: Senior Official Case 201103025 (2012), available at <www.secnav.navy.mil/ig/Pages/FOIA/ReadingRoom.aspx>.
  18. GAO, International Military Education and Training, 19.
  19. LTC Christopher M. Coglianese, email message to author, December 6, 2013.