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Hamilton Lugar students advise U.S. State Department on hybrid threats in Europe

Dec 14, 2023

War and international conflict do not look like they did 20 or even 10 years ago. Weapons are no longer limited to bombs and ammunition, and threats now include disinformation campaigns, cyberattacks, the weaponization of energy and more. Students in the Indiana University Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies are advising experts in the U.S. State Department on how best to prepare for new types of hybrid threats, specifically in Europe.

Justyna Zajac addresses her class Hamilton Lugar professor of practice Justyna Zajac's course is one of three IU Bloomington courses that provided consultation to the State Department this semester as part of Diplomacy Lab. Photo by Sarah DeWeese, Hamilton Lugar School

IU is a partner in Diplomacy Lab, a State Department program through which research and innovation related to global policy challenges are “course sourced” to students and faculty experts at universities across the country.

IU is one of only 30 universities in the U.S. that are part of Diplomacy Lab. More than 300 IU Bloomington students have participated in the project since IU became a Diplomacy Lab university in 2016.

Hamilton Lugar professor of practice Justyna Zajac’s course, Contemporary Security Issues in Europe, is one of three IU Bloomington courses that provided consultation to the State Department this semester as part of Diplomacy Lab. In the course, Zajac’s students worked in four teams to conduct research on hybrid threats facing four regions of Europe: Western, Nordic/Baltic, Central and the Mediterranean.

Almost anything that aims to undermine democracy, cohesiveness of societies, trust between people, or trust between society and the government can be classified as a hybrid threat, according to Zajac. States and non-state actors use a variety of tools to enact these threats, including disinformation, cyberattacks and cyber espionage. Russia’s weaponization of food and energy in its war with Ukraine, and Belarus’ relocation of migrants to its borders with Poland and Lithuania, can both be classified as hybrid threats, too.

Lee Andrews in a classroom Lee Andrews, who is pursuing a bachelor's and eventually a master's degree in Eurasian studies, was part of the Diplomacy Lab project on hybrid threats in Europe. Photo by Sarah DeWeese, Hamilton Lugar School

“Because this is such a new phenomenon, students have to determine what the impact will be, what we should be paying attention to, how we should prevent hybrid threats, and what the United States and their European allies should really focus on to ensure resiliency of the state and society,” Zajac said.

Working in teams to solve a real-world problem for a real-world client mirrored the professional world perfectly, according to Lee Andrews, a student in the course who has returned to IU after spending several years in the workforce.

Andrews, whose varied background includes being an editor of a sheet music publisher and a chief operating officer of an orthodontics practice, enrolled at the Hamilton Lugar School to pursue a bachelor’s and eventually a master’s degree in Eurasian studies. He is a recipient of IU’s Cox Access Scholarship, which gives nontraditional Indiana residents who are academically strong an opportunity to return to school to build on their academic experience.

“I felt like I had more to offer the world,” Andrews said.

He said that by taking a deep dive into a specific topic, this course gave him a taste of what graduate school will be like. And the topic itself was so intriguing to him that it has shaped what he plans to study throughout his time at the Hamilton Lugar School.

The class has also had a profound impact on the future of Declan Gallagher. Gallagher, who is majoring in international studies and Spanish, said he aspires to work in a government agency like the State Department, and this class experience has been an invaluable step toward that goal.

After a semester’s worth of research, the students found that the European countries they were focusing on had an incredibly varied approach to fighting hybrid threats. While each region was facing different threats and had different needs, the students found one common tool that could be used to combat hybrid threats: education.

Declan Gallagher in class Participating in Diplomacy Lab had a profound impact on Declan Gallagher, who is majoring in international studies and Spanish and aspires to work in a government agency like the State Department. Photo by Sarah DeWeese, Hamilton Lugar School

“Helping everyone understand misinformation and disinformation creates a stronger society and more resiliency,” Andrews said. “Our biggest recommendation to the State Department was to educate people, really be honest with them.”

This approach can help combat fear, one of the most effective tools of hybrid threats.

“Losing sleep over these threats defeats the purpose of planning for them,” Gallagher said. “The point of hybrid threats is to spread fear, so these bad actors are already winning if we don’t keep a level head when planning for them.”

Becoming an expert on an emerging issue like hybrid threats will give the Diplomacy Lab students an edge in the job market. The students may now have more expertise in this area than some professionals currently working in the field, according to Zajac. Prepping experts who are eager to serve the federal government is one of many ways IU and the Hamilton Lugar School are contributing to national security.

“Diplomacy Lab allows students to feel that they can have an impact,” Zajac said. “The world isn’t created out of thin air; it is created by us. They are responsible for the future of the world and have to be part of the process of shaping the social changes. This project helps students understand that.”


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