Our man in the Pentagon

by Judith Ritter, MA'72

Daniel Chiu, BA’88, is the deputy assistant secretary
 of defense for strategy in the United States

At first glance, Daniel Chiu’s office could be mistaken for that of a mild-mannered international politics professor. There’s the requisite wall of books, a just-this-side-of-messy desk and, of course, a very large world map. The amiable Chiu himself seems straight out of central casting – scholarly with just a hint of geek.

The heavily secured doors in his building would be out of place on most university campuses, however. And there are no backpack sporting twentysomethings rushing down the hallway to their next class. Instead, snappy uniforms with epaulets abound, along with shoes shined to a spit-and-polish gleam. Chiu, BA’88, is the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and his office is in the Pentagon.

Chiu’s job, in a nutshell, is to take stock of everything that could conceivably go very, very wrong in the world. Or, as he put it in a talk he gave at the Wilson Center last summer, his role is to help “identify things we want to avoid, things we want to prevent, things we want to see not happen.”

Chiu’s mandate is to monitor trends that might have security implications for the U.S. and to assess the potential risks of those trends. The job, he says with characteristic understatement, is increasingly complex. “The issues have just changed a lot. When I started learning about this in political science at McGill, the issue was simply how many nuclear weapons each side had,” he says. “Now we’re talking about everything – an incredible array of space, cyber and economic issues. Security has become remarkably interdisciplinary. And complicated.”

"Complicated” isn’t something Chiu has ever shied away from. He nurtured an early love for complex strategy games and found his intellectual passion in CEGEP, thanks, in large part, to Pam Butler, MA’71, PhD’80, a political science teacher at Montreal’s Marianopolis College.  “She didn’t just talk about conflicts,” says Chiu. “She talked about how to resolve and prevent conflict.”

McGill was the next step in Chiu’s education. His father, the late Ray Chiu, PhD'70, was a prominent medical professor at the University, known for his innovative approach to heart surgery. A McGill course on the issues surrounding nuclear weapons further sparked Daniel’s interest in international conflicts and led him to postgraduate training at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

In examining international security matters, Chiu says it’s impossible to neatly segment issues nowadays. Everything is interconnected. “There are no parts of the world that aren’t linked regionally and functionally; no issues that aren’t connected to other issues,” he says.

Chiu is careful not to talk about his job too specifically (the interview took place before recent events in Ukraine). But he does acknowledge that if anything keeps him up at night, it’s the thought that changes in the world occur rapidly and unpredictably, and that governments such as his need to be flexible and fast enough to manage that uncertainty. “Our system – and it’s not just us experiencing this – is not very flexible.”

Unstable dictators and well-known regional hotspots aren’t the only things that Chiu pays attention to. His office keeps a close watch over the strategic implications of changes in energy resources and markets and how that might affect the dynamics of geopolitical relationships. “Being energy independent,” he says, “doesn’t insulate the U.S. or Canada from the global problems created from world energy demands.”

Then there’s the impact of climate change and its potential consequences, including food and water scarcity and mass migration, which, in turn, could lead to an increased need for international disaster relief operations in the future.

If there is a bright spot for a future clouded by potential crises, says Chiu, it lies in the fact that there is a great deal of global cooperation taking place in the world today. This new landscape of intersecting, overlapping challenges has brought allies together and created new partnerships. “The more we realize we need to work with each other, the less we’ll focus on fissures and conflict. We just need to find a way to manage that complexity.”

Though he acknowledges the perception of the Pentagon is often otherwise, he says the focus of his work there is always on conflict prevention and conflict resolution. “Everything we’re talking about is about prevention. The reason I got into this is to prevent conflict.”