By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)–The year was 1987. Iran and Iraq were at war, and had begun to target one another’s oil-production infrastructure, menacing tankers and giving the conflict a global dimension. Nestled between the warring parties was Kuwait, a tiny emirate shipping its oil to clients abroad. To protect these shipments, the U.S. launched Operation Earnest Will, which saw U.S. Navy warships escort Kuwaiti tankers through the Persian Gulf. The operation was controversial in Congress, as the tankers were being reflagged as American in order to comply with U.S. law. Any attack on them could be seen as an attack on the U.S., leading directly to war with Iran at the very least.
When a delegation of Senators arrived at the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait on a fact-finding mission, they were briefed by an Economic Counselor named Ken Stammerman.
As the thunder from distant artillery rattled the building, Stammerman delivered what is known as a Congressional delegation (CODEL) briefing that described the Kuwaiti economy and the progress of Operation Earnest Will.
“One Senator asked where all the Kuwaiti oil exports we were protecting were going.” Stammerman recalled. “I replied that almost all were destined for Japan.”
The Senator was shocked.
“You mean we are having a naval war in the Persian Gulf against Iran to protect ships carrying oil for Japan?” he blustered.
Stammerman replied calmly that without Kuwaiti shipments, oil supplies would tighten worldwide, including in the U.S., so the protection of these exports ultimately aligned with U.S. national interests.
At this the Senator bellowed, “You’d better be right, because I will quote you on the floor of the U.S. Senate!”
Today Stammerman teaches U.S. foreign policy and international political economy at IU Southeast, bringing a realism to his courses that few can match, and weaving his personal journey into the fabric of current events, to illuminate the world beyond Kentuckiana and give students a sense of their place in it.
A reality-based exercise
Stammerman’s innovation in his international relations classes is a group project that replicates a CODEL briefing: Country teams take the role of U.S. Embassy political and economic officers briefing a visiting Congressional delegation.
Stammerman assigns students to particular country teams, four to each team. There are two political officers and two economic officers who each deliver concise five-minute briefings. The political officers report on their assigned country’s internal political situation and foreign policy, in particular its relationship to its neighbors and the U.S. The economic officers describe the country’s domestic condition, emphasizing factors such as GDP and inflation rate that might influence its policies and priorities, and its international economic situation, which might involve debts to the International Monetary Fund or World Bank, its relationship with OPEC, the EU or other economic groupings, and any threats or opportunities arising from relationship with other countries.
The students buttress their presentations with information gleaned from foreign policy journals such as The Journal of Foreign Affairs, and online resources such as the CIA World Factbook and the IMF’s International Financial Statistics.
The students aren’t coming into this cold. Each week during the course, the semester, they prepare lists of topics in foreign relations of the kind that might crop up in the President’s Daily Briefing (PDB). There is a natural tendency to focus on items that have a potential to flare up into a full-blown crisis.
“The purpose of the exercise is to have the students notice foreign policy items which bring the textbooks’ principles into everyday news,” Stammerman said, who routinely asks students to justify their choice of items appearing in the briefing document.
Of course Stammerman’s own experience is perhaps the most important source for the final presentation as well as the PDB exercise.
Not only has he participated in dozens of country team briefings in the course of his service, he also received feedback from the Washington diplomatic community on his reporting and analysis. All of this makes international relations principles more tangible and relatable.
“The students seem to appreciate the reality and importance of foreign affairs principles when they apply textbook and journal readings, plus lecture notes, to their country team brief,” Stammerman said. “The PDB items help them notice how much of the news which affects our lives involves activities beyond our shores.”
That interconnectedness goes to the heart of Stammerman’s approach, which ties the personal, local experience of individual to events a world away.
The raw materials of those events are human beings themselves: living, breathing, hoping, dreaming individuals with a past, present and future, with responsibilities and loyalties, faiths and convictions, with the capacity to perceive, learn, judge and act on the basis of intellect, research and values.
The subtext may just be that each of us is situated in a time and a place, bequeathed a legacy and hard-wired to create a destiny.
By broadening students’ understanding of the context in which human actions take place, Stammerman invites a conversation that brings international relations down to earth, and makes the field at once more personal and more universal, requiring both reflection and research.
“It appears to me that student learning in international relations topics is enhanced by requiring research for a presentation in a country team environment,” Stammerman said. “I can tell stories about having been there, having done that, and they are assigned to do the library and journal research which brings them into that environment.”
In 1994, after a 30-year career with assignments in The Philippines, France, Israel, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Washington, D.C., Stammerman retired from the Foreign Service. But that didn’t mean shuffleboard and canasta. He contacted the IU Southeast political science and international relations faculty to explore opportunities for putting his experience to work for others. He was invited to teach in the early 2000s and has done so periodically ever since, including every fall semester since 2020.
Teaching is not entirely a departure. At one time, Stammerman had served as director of economics training at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute. Here he familiarized himself with teaching and curriculum development for adult learners. Well versed in the academic side of instruction in international economics, he helped other instructors add real-life relevance to theoretical principles for younger officers in the Foreign Service. In 1980 he received the State Department’s Salzman Award for outstanding economic reporting.
It’s fair to say that Stammerman sees a bit of himself in many of his students. Growing up on Louisville’s West End, a neighborhood with a strong German-Irish heritage and reputation for being a little rough, he was fascinated by tales of the wider world. He won a scholarship to Bellarmine University as a first-generation collegiate. Upon graduating, he passed the Foreign Service exam at a time when the State Department was still an Ivy League domain. He credits his success in part to the Xavieran teachers at Flaget High School who demanded the very best, and challenged students to aspire to careers beyond the confines of the neighborhood.
“The Xavieran Brothers made students work hard, taught us to speak with an accent and vocabulary like the guy on the six-o’clock news,” Stammerman said. “Some of the people I am still in contact from those years, people with professional degrees, agree that they never had to work harder than at that high school.”
He carries that tradition forward at IU Southeast, describing his approach as “illustrating textbook readings with stories from my career.” That humility belies the rigor required to do well, and the impact his courses can have on students who are inspired to discover what might lie beyond the far horizon.
Getting it right
Stammerman observes that his exercises have relevance for virtually any walk of life in which individuals are called upon to make decisions that rely on strategic considerations, or that have consequences for an organization.
“I tell students in my classes in International Political Economy or International Relations that international corporations require accurate information when judging on a loan or whether to do other business in country A or B,” Stammerman said. “If a bank officer can present a technically proficient briefing full of accurate and relevant information to a loan board or an investment committee, they are gold.”
Which brings us back to that CODEL in Kuwait.
Stammerman’s assessment in his briefing turned out to be correct. The information he provided shored up Congressional support for Operation Earnest Will.
The consequences of getting it wrong lie before us in the shape of ruined Ukrainian cities and a crippled Russian economy. Some combination of wishful thinking, faulty intelligence and/or the ingrained habit of those serving a dictator to tell him what he wants to hear led Russian president Vladimir Putin to believe that he could conquer Ukraine in three days, and that Russia’s invading armies of ill-equipped, disorganized and inexperienced soldiers would be greeted as liberators by the Ukrainian populace.
Stammerman’s message to students, be they in the Foreign Service or at IU Southeast, is that briefings should be both correct and well written.
“A good briefing will be a combination of good technique and accurate information,” Stammerman said. “The best analysis in the world is worthless if nobody reads it.”