Making Security Cooperation More Effective

| Eliza Markley
Eliza Markley
Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Institute of Technology

This Academic Incubator column is part of a partnership with the Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology, presenting regular expert commentary on global security-related issues by faculty, fellows, and students.

Making Security Cooperation More Effective:  The Role of Advanced Education in Building Trusted Professional Networks

Dr. Eliza Markley, Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Institute of Technology.

Today’s security cooperation requires fast, effective, and secure sharing of information across national borders and agency bureaucracies and increasingly emphasizes the role of networks. Effective security cooperation requires more than just joint strategies, structures, forces and missions. It also demands fast, effective and secure sharing of information across national borders and agency bureaucracies. Given the severity and unpredictability of today’s security threats, one way to improving interagency collaboration and cross-border security provision lies in the building of networks of cooperation among security professionals from around the globe. This is one central purpose of advanced education in security policy, defense affairs, and international relations for military officers and defense officials, which can also be referred to as International Security Policy Education (ISPE).

The process of developing effective trusted, professional networks across national and agency borders through personal connections is an important outcome of ISPE. Based on a survey administered to alumni of the George C. Marshall European Center of Security Studies (MC) in Germany, trust in classmates, hierarchical standing, education level, and duration of ISPE engagement are the key determinants for the development and utilization of security professional networks.

Networks, Attitudes, and Trust

Social and professional networks consist of links among individuals or groups of people who are interconnected for reasons of mutually beneficial cooperation based on shared norms and practices that enable network members to gain access to one another “through the accumulation of decentralized, individual decisions that come to constitute, over time, large scale social structures.”[1]

Weak ties are particularly relevant in the contemporary global security context for four interconnected reasons. First, weak ties and open networks (networks that encompass people with connections outside the network) facilitate the access to and transfer of information with minimum investment to maintain relationships.[2] Second, the access to information and capacity to transfer knowledge determines the efficiency of a relationship, network, or organization.[3] Third, people still prefer to turn to real people rather than documents, websites or online connections for information, especially security related information.[4] Fourth, individuals with weak ties have an advantage in receiving information more quickly than their colleagues who lack such ties. Weak ties, in other words, are the metaphorical glue to effective professional networks and can serve as an important foundation for developing operational inter-agency security cooperation.

Sharing one’s weak-tie professional network with others quickly and exponentially expands the number of potential collaborators based on categorical trust stemming from individuals’ affiliation with positively valued groups, allowing for a more speedy and comprehensive dissemination of critical intelligence and information. Snowball networks are fluid and are invoked based on the potency or latency of the individual’s weak ties. Networks in general and especially snowball networks, unlike firms, companies, or organizations, do not have a hierarchical authority to set up rules that may foster or inhibit opportunistic behavior. The key resource to establish and maintain the network is trust.[5]

This process of developing effective professional networks across national and agency borders through personal recommendations is dubbed snowball networking. The name alludes to the methodological approach known as snowball sampling – where one respondent recommends subjects to the researcher to interview. Like in snowball sampling, snowball networking works for building effective professional networks through multiple individuals.

The Marshall Center

Founded in 1993, the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany was created to provide a more stable security environment by “advancing democratic defense institutions and relationships, promoting active and peaceful engagement, and enhancing enduring partnerships among the nations of America, Europe, and Eurasia.” The Marshall Center’s (MC) educational and training programs encompass several resident courses, conferences, forums, seminars, and an active outreach agenda to military and civilian government officials, and alumni from countries around the world. Shortly after its inception, the Center became a “melting pot of ideas and views” as General Shalikashvili, then Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff defined it, bringing together students and faculty from diverse national and cultural backgrounds in a setting in which they could interact professionally, socially, personally, and intellectually.[6]

Since its founding, more than 11,000 alumni from nearly 140 partner nations have graduated from the MC. Faculty security experts from at least 12 countries have taught and numerous ambassadors, professors, researchers, and even heads-of-state, generals, and ministers of defense have guest-lectured in Garmisch. The type and number of courses as well as the academic curricula have varied throughout the existence of the Marshall Center in an effort to respond to changing regional and global security challenges. For instance, immediately following its inception in 1993, MC courses focused on democratizing the armed forces of former Warsaw Pact countries and helping to implement NATO Partnership for Peace programs. After 9/11, the focus of MC courses shifted to terrorism and counterterrorism and today programs examine cyber security, money laundering and narcotics traffic threats. MC courses range in length from one or two weeks to more than two months (including electives and field trips) and courses have traditionally included strong social components such as sporting events, cultural nights, or trips, enabling participants to build personal and social relationships.

The MC provides the ideal case study for exploring snowball networking among security practitioners, because it brings together security experts from a wide range of governmental and nongovernmental security-related agencies around the globe and, especially through its longer courses, it offers opportunities for building social and professional connections, not just while in residence but also post-graduation through an active alumni network.


By examining the extent to which respondents connected with MC alumni other than their classmates (categorical instead of interpersonal trust) upon graduation, the effect of snowball networking is observed. The creation of snowball networks depended primarily on the level of trust respondents had in the network itself. A majority bought into the system and many had internalized the value of networking. Confirming the importance of weak ties, network trust is a key prerequisite for respondents to build new contacts and professional networks.

Previous research has shown that professional and personal confidence increase as a result of ISPE. In looking at snowball networking, the extent to which advanced education can establish personal, institutional, and categorical trust and help develop networks of cooperation among security professionals from different countries and diverse institutional, national and cultural backgrounds is shown. Specifically, ISPE socialization brings about the establishment of sustainable effective professional networks among security practitioners. Using the MC as a case study, it was found that trust in classmates, hierarchical standing, education level, and duration of ISPE engagement are the key determinants for the development and utilization of professional networks. Additionally, alumni who, upon graduation, kept in contact with classmates and tended to exhibit higher institutional trust (in the network itself), were inclined to engage in snowball networking for security cooperation, and to build new contacts with heretofore unknown members of the original network.

Establishing trust is critical for building and “operationalizing” a global network of security professionals. Although not stated explicitly as part of its mission, one of the key objectives of the advanced military education efforts, like the Marshall Center, is to foster trust among its participants. The importance of social connections established during such advanced education confirms that such institutions and programs serve as an effective transmitter of shared security values, norms, and interpersonal relationships that continue far beyond initial course participation. Social activities and sporting events are found among the key activities promoting trust among participants therefore those types of social activities and events are an important part of institutional training and ought to remain an integral component of any effective ISPE curriculum.

It’s important to note that while trust among the security network’s members is important for operationalizing and using the network, alumni’s trust in the network itself (network trust) is most relevant for connecting with network members other than classmates.

The length of advanced security education is also found to directly relate to the extent to which participants forge and utilize professional networks. Not surprisingly, longer programs tend to provide more opportunity for building trust and forging lasting relationships. Recently, there is a trend to shorten the duration of ISPE and professional military education training programs in general. These recent trends may be detrimental to creating effective professional networks and negatively affect security cooperation.


Overall, maintaining extended face-to-face interactions among security professionals from different organizational, branch, national, and cultural backgrounds is important in order to foster the establishment of professional networks for effective security cooperation. This flies in the face of recent budget cuts in the area of professional military education and suggests that, given the increasing array of emerging security challenges, those cuts are being made in exactly the wrong place, namely where a common understanding is created, shared values are transmitted and praxis-relevant relationships are formed that can make global cooperation in the security field more effective. In light of the most recent global security threats and challenges, we strongly urge that more funding will be made available for exactly those types of programs that empower the establishment of reliable professional networks that foster more rapid, effective and coordinated responses to emerging threats in the future.

In an increasingly globalized world in which US military members interact regularly with international allies and partners, intercultural competence is a critical skill for strategic decision-making. Intercultural competence sparks the creation, utilization, and maintenance of global and interagency professional networks. As a consequence, and especially given the increasing need for international cooperation to meet emerging and ever-expanding security challenges, ISPE training ought to emphasize those themes and provide an environment where participants can freely explore and share cross-cultural experiences. These findings have policy shaping impact, raising again the issue of the types of activities, such as sporting and social events that are required to be part of ISPE curricula. Global vision typically develops intellectually during class discussions and educational activities, while intercultural competence develops experientially by engaging academically and socially with other cultures, different ways of thinking and varying customs, traditions, and norms.

Given the increasing array of global security threats demanding close coordination among professionals in the field from diverse organizational, cultural, and national backgrounds, providing opportunities for them to engage with one another is as pertinent today as it was at the height of the Cold War.

The Cipher Brief is proud to work with The Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Institute of Technology, to bring you this ongoing series on #EmergingTechnologies and #FutureWarfare.  

Margaret E. Kosal is The Academic Incubator’s liaison and an associate professor at Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Institute of Technology. She is editor and contributor to Disruptive and Game-Changing Technologies in Modern Warfare: Development, Use, and Proliferation

The Cipher Brief’s Academic Partnership Program was created to highlight the work and thought leadership of the next generation of national security leaders.  If your school is interested in participating, send an email to [email protected]

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[1] Grewal, S. G. (2008). Network Power:  The Social Dynamics of Globalization. Devon, PA: Duke & Company.

[2] Granovetter, M. S. (1973). “The Strength of Weak Ties.” American Journal of Sociology, vol 78, pp 1360-1380.

[3] Coleman, J. S. (1990). Foundation of Social Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

[4] Allen, T. (1977). Managing the Flow of Technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

[5] Gausdal, A. H. (2012). “Trust-building Processes in the Context of Networks.” Journal of Trust Research, vol 2, pp 7-30.

[6] Johnson, R. (1995). “Gen. Shalikashvili Congratulates Students.” The Marshall Center News, vol 3, pp 2-5.

The Author is Eliza Markley

Dr. Eliza Markley, Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Institute of Technology

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