What you'll learn

  • Issues in international affairs from a “policy perspective”
  • How to think strategically about feasible interventions
  • Effective communication of issue analysis in policy memorandum format
  • How to operate within current national security policymaking processes surrounded by an intrusive, inquiring press
  • An appreciation for the complexities of communicating national security policies to multiple audiences

Course description

How can Iran be stopped from getting a nuclear bomb—negotiations, sanctions, or military action? As a participant in this course, you will advise the president in deciding whether, and how, the U.S. should act. Once you’ve made your assessment, you will move on to wrestle with other scenarios preoccupying policy makers. Between the Assad regime and ISIS, civilians in Syria and Iraq face unimaginable atrocities. Should the U.S. intervene? China’s rise is rattling capitalist economies and a half-century of Pacific peace. What counterbalancing actions should Washington take? Leaks are a fact of life — but why do they happen? Who gets them, and why? Should journalists publish or withhold them? Does legal accountability lie with the leaker—or the journalist?

This seven-week course casts you as advisors on the hardest decisions any president has to make. We will go behind the veil to see the dynamic between the press and the U.S. government, to explore these dilemmas. We will also have to contend with the reality that government secrets rarely stay that way. Participants will learn to navigate the political landscape of an era in which private remarks become viral tweets, and mistakes by intelligence agencies become front-page stories.

Weekly assignments require strategic thinking: Analyzing dynamics of challenges and developing strategies for addressing them.  Students will learn to summarize their analyses in a succinct “Strategic Options Memo,” combining careful analysis and strategic imagination with the necessity to communicate to major constituencies in order to sustain public support. They will also examine how policymaking is affected by constant, public analysis of government deliberations.

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You can register now to participate in the Open version of this class: Feel free to drop in and out as you like, or work through the required material by deadlines indicated on the syllabus.

Or, you can apply to take this as an Intensive Online Course  (limited enrollment): The application to take part in the intensive, limited enrollment version of this course will open in early February 2015. Admitted participants will read approximately 75 pages per week, complete assignments including four short policy memos, participate in sections led by the course Teaching Fellows, and engage with fellow learners in moderated discussion forums. Participants who complete the requirements will receive an Honor Code Certificate. Those who would like to list the course on their resumes may choose to register for a fee to take the course as an ID Verified participant. Such participants are eligible to earn an ID Verified certificate, upon completion of the course requirements.

HarvardX pursues the science of learning. By registering as an online learner in an HX course, you will also participate in research about learning. Read our research statement to learn more.


  • Douglas Dillon Professor of Government in the John F. Kennedy School of Government; Director of Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the JFK School of Government

Associated Schools

  • Harvard Faculty of Arts & Sciences

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