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IR, or No IR? The Potential Contribution of IR Subjects to Professional Military Education at the Latvian National Defence Academy

IR, or No IR? The Potential Contribution of IR Subjects to Professional Military Education at the Latvian National Defence Academy IR, or No IR? The Potential Contribution of IR Subjects to Professional Military Education at the Latvian National Defence Academy
To cite this article: Rostoks, Toms, “IR, or No IR? The Potential Contribution of IR Subjects to Professional Military Education at the Latvian National Defence Academy,” Infinity Journal Special Edition, “International Relations in Professional Military Education,” winter 2016, pages 22-26.


This paper looks at the element of international relations (IR) courses at the Latvian National Defence Academy (LNDA) and poses the question of whether IR courses should assume a more prominent role in professional military education (PME). By doing this, it also examines both the actual and potential contribution of IR courses to the education of officer cadets in Latvia. The choice in favour of, or against the strengthening of, the IR component in military education is usually not regarded as a strategic choice. This paper puts forth the opposite claim. Although military strategy at its basis can indeed be described as “the direction and use made of force for the purposes of policy as decided by politics”,[i] thus emphasising the divide between political decision-makers and the military, many Western nations (see other articles in this edition of the journal) use international relations to help cadets develop a strategic mind-set. Why would strategy and IR otherwise comprise such an important element in the education of higher level commanding officers?[ii] In addition, because the behaviour and choices made by junior military officers affect strategic outcomes, their understanding of cause and effect relationships, when they confront a hostile environment far away from their home countries, becomes a crucial part of the explanation for the success or failure of any given operation. Strategy is likely to fail, unless junior officers have a good understanding of how they can contribute to the achievement of strategic goals. Besides, in a few decades, today’s officer cadets are likely to become the shapers of collective beliefs about what can and cannot be accomplished with the assistance of military means. Is the choice to shape the minds of those who will themselves shape strategy a few decades down the road not the most strategic choice? Beliefs about cause and effect relations regarding interactions with other communities are an important element that shapes strategy. Thus, choices regarding the contents of PME are strategic choices.

The following sections address the IR element in officer cadet education at the LNDA. The first section provides background information on the development of professional military education after Latvia had regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The second section looks at the current IR element in officer cadet military education and assesses the present debate about whether there should be more IR and in what form it should be taught at the LNDA. The third section goes beyond the information provided in the previous sections and looks at the potential contribution that IR can provide, not only in terms of specific IR theories, concepts and case studies, but also in terms of other potential contributions, such as the use of the social scientific method of inquiry, academic writing, and the practice of English skills. The section concludes that a limited number of IR courses have recently been added to study programmes at the LNDA, but further progress is unlikely because the key focus of study programmes is on the military tactical aspects of officer cadet education.

The organisation of PME in Latvia

Latvia is situated in the Baltic Sea region of the northern part of Europe. After a brief period of independent statehood from 1918 until 1940, Latvia’s statehood was interrupted by the Soviet occupation. However, Latvia’s independence was restored shortly before the collapse of the USSR in 1991. The creation of an independent military was among the first tasks to be completed in the aftermath of the restoration of independence. Along with this came the need to have a military education institution which would provide PME education and allow for the replacement of the old cadres who had received their training in Soviet military education institutions. In addition, it was imperative for the Latvian military to win public trust which had been severely damaged by Soviet military practices. A number of Latvians had been forced to take part in the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan, and this only added to the overall negative views of the Soviet military. By the time Latvia joined NATO in 2004, however, public attitudes towards the Latvian Armed Forces were already favourable with 55 per cent trusting the military and only 26 per cent having negative views. In comparison, public confidence in the police was much lower and stood at 43 per cent.[iii] A recent public opinion survey commissioned by the Ministry of Defence in 2014 indicated that public confidence in the Latvian military has grown even further with 64 per cent of respondents having positive views of the Latvian military.[iv]

The origins of the LNDA date back to 1919 when the War College was established less than a year after the declaration of independence. It was operational until 1940 when Soviet troops occupied Latvia. The Latvian National Defence Academy, which was established in early 1992, is seen as a successor to the War College. In the early 1990s, the main aim of the LNDA was to educate the officer corps of the newly independent Latvia. Shortly after the establishment of the LNDA, the first commanding officers’ course was organised. The first batch of officers graduated after taking a course which was just 6 month long.[v] At the time, the Russian military was still present in Latvia and only withdrew under intense international pressure in 1994. While the first efforts at military education were mostly aimed at establishing a core group of military officers, later attempts were focused more on the quality of education. Today, the LNDA is the only higher education institution in Latvia with a focus on professional military education with accredited professional bachelor’s and master’s programmes.

The work of the LNDA is largely conditioned by several basic characteristics pertaining to Latvia. Latvia is a small country with a population of just under 2 million. It has a small military; the needs of which have never been high on the government agenda. The bulk of the government’s time in the 1990s was devoted to managing the painful process of transitioning to democracy and a market economy. The needs of the Latvian military, however, became politically more salient shortly before joining NATO, but the attention paid to the needs of the military declined after 2004. The draft was abolished in 2007, and today Latvia has an all-volunteer military force of slightly more than 5,000. In addition, Latvia has a Home Guard force of approximately 11,000. In the wake of the economic crisis in 2008, Latvia’s defence budget suffered the heaviest cuts. In 2010, Latvia’s defence spending was 45 per cent lower than in 2008.[vi] As a consequence, the defence budget slipped below 1 per cent of GDP. It has recovered somewhat since then but it is still nowhere near the pre-crisis level (which was also below the NATO 2 per cent threshold). In absolute terms, Latvia’s defence budget for 2015 is just 253.8 million euros, a 12 per cent increase from 2014.[vii] (In comparison, Danish defence expenditure for 2015 amounts to 2,800 million euros).[viii] In 2014, the Latvian parliament passed a law which outlined the rate at which Latvia would increase its defence spending in order to achieve the 2 per cent benchmark in 2020. It is likely that the number of troops will increase as well. It remains to be seen whether political decision makers will follow through with this plan.

The Latvian military has participated in international operations since the mid-1990s. In terms of the number of troops, Latvia’s most significant contributions were to the US-led effort in Iraq and the still continuing NATO operation in Afghanistan. In addition to the security guarantees contained in NATO Article 5, participation in international operations was seen as an important factor contributing in a positive way to Latvia’s security, presumably, by strengthening the resolve of the NATO allies to defend Latvia. Although the logic behind this argument is questionable, it largely explains the reasoning behind Latvia’s increased participation in NATO’s ISAF operation in Afghanistan during the economic downturn in 2008-2010, when the defence budget faced severe cuts. In 2014, the war in Ukraine changed strategic thinking in Latvia. Although Latvia is still likely to take part in international operations, together with its NATO allies, there is a greater focus on national security and the need to increase defence spending in order to invest more in defence capabilities. In summary, Latvia has a small military which was established in the early 1990s, with its development being hindered by the recent economic crisis. Although there has been renewed interest in the strengthening of the military recently, it is clear that there are no quick and easy solutions to the structural problems and legacies of the transition period.

IR in Latvia’s PME

International relations is usually considered to be one of the subfields in political science, which in turn belongs to the group of social sciences. Unfortunately, modern Western-style social sciences are relatively new in Latvia. Political science and international relations, in particular, were heavily controlled and distorted under Soviet rule. International relations were interpreted in ideological terms as a collision between the socialist Soviet Union and its allies, against the hostile capitalist West. Thus, political science and international relations in Latvia were in a sorry state when the Soviet Union dissolved. However, social sciences were seen as vital in building a successful democratic and capitalist society. Therefore, civilian universities took the lead by establishing study programmes in economics, business, law, and political science, often with Western assistance to establish such programmes and provide training to lecturers. This welcome trend, however, had a limited impact on social science subjects at the LNDA, as there was not much cross-fertilisation between the LNDA and civilian universities. The LNDA was reluctant to draw upon the emerging political science and IR expertise from civilian universities, due to a lack of appreciation of the added value that IR can bring to officer cadet education. This stands in stark contrast to PME in other NATO member states. This is, to some extent, understandable because military education in Latvia had to be created from scratch and the main focus was therefore on the military tactical aspects of the officers’ education.

Today, the LNDA offers 4 professional undergraduate study programmes and one postgraduate programme in cooperation with the Baltic Defence College,[ix] situated in Tartu, Estonia. The four professional undergraduate programmes that the LNDA offers are “Land Force Military Leadership”, “Naval Force Military Leadership”, “Air Force Military Leadership”, and “Commanding Officer”. The latter programme is aimed at applicants who already have an undergraduate degree. The length of this study programme is 1 year and 3 months. The other three programmes are designed for holders of a secondary school certificate, and are taught in close cooperation with Riga Technical University and the Latvian Maritime Academy. The length of these three programmes is 4 years and 9 months. Applicants to these study programmes are required to pass prior training at the National Armed Forces Infantry School (13 weeks) and the School of Instructors (8 weeks) in order to be admitted to the LNDA. Prior training of 8 weeks is also required for applicants to the “Commanding Officer” study programme. Upon the completion of studies, cadets receive a professional bachelor’s degree in their respective field of study and receive the military rank of second lieutenant.

All undergraduate professional programmes at the LNDA feature a wide range of courses with a focus on military tactics. In terms of non-military subjects engineering, mathematics and natural sciences clearly dominate over social sciences. During their studies, students are exposed to such social science subjects as political science, sociology, social anthropology and project management. In addition, cadets are offered courses in economics, international humanitarian law, crisis management, and a number of other elective courses. Each undergraduate study programme has its own specific focus, but courses that are offered from social science and related disciplines are very similar across all three – Land, Naval and Air Force – programmes. Until recently, there were no courses focusing exclusively on IR theoretical or practical issues as part of the curriculum. Moreover, IR theories and concepts were not integrated into courses dealing with the art of war and military leadership.

IR courses are a relatively new addition to undergraduate programmes at the LNDA. Several IR courses have been made available to cadets commencing from 2013. These courses, however, are not mandatory and are taught only when cadets choose them from among the other alternatives. Thus, there are two elements in this picture that need to be explained. First, the former situation, when no IR courses were offered to cadets, should be explained. And, second, the current upward trend with more IR courses being introduced into LNDA study programmes also needs to be explained. The following paragraphs deal with these two issues.

First, there are two possible explanations with regard to the initial exclusion of IR courses: such courses were not deemed important enough to be included in the course curriculum, or such courses were not available. The first explanation implies that there was a strategic choice in favour of not including IR courses in the curriculum. It can be assumed that there are limits to what can be included in any study programme. Thus, cadets could benefit from IR courses being included in the study programme, but other subjects were regarded as simply more important. The second explanation assumes that courses are built on the existing expertise within the LNDA where IR experts were simply unavailable. With a significant number of courses already outsourced to Riga Technical University and the Latvian Maritime Academy, it was decided that priority would be given to offering such courses which would be taught by teaching staff at the LNDA, even though this would mean that a number of potentially interesting courses – such as IR subjects – would be excluded.

The available evidence from interviews suggests that the exclusion of IR courses from the curricula of LNDA programmes has indeed been motivated by strategic considerations in the sense that there was, and still is, a strong consensus that priority should be given to courses directly related to the military profession.[x] However, it seems that issues related to the availability of IR courses have also played a certain role because the expertise required to deliver even a basic introductory course on international relations was not available at the LNDA and its research branch, the Centre for Security and Defence Research (CSDR). The limited ties with the universities at which such expertise was available provided additional obstacles to outsourcing IR courses from beyond the LNDA. Moreover, there was little regional expertise in Latvia on the Balkans, the Middle East and Central Asia. Thus, while Latvian military personnel certainly needed additional training prior to international operations in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan, the existing IR expert community did not have specific expertise on the regions and countries where Latvian troops were performing their duties with other NATO and partner countries’ militaries.

Second, three factors are of particular importance with regard to the partial inclusion of IR courses in undergraduate programmes at the LNDA. First, there has been a notable change in terms of greater openness to the internationalisation of higher education at the LNDA. Although the Latvian military as such has been extensively internationalised, due to Latvia’s NATO membership, Baltic military cooperation and participation in international military operations together with other NATO allies, the internationalisation was less intensive in the sphere of PME. Recent years, however, have witnessed increasing changes within Latvian PME. Second, the increased availability of IR expertise at the LNDA has certainly contributed to the inclusion of IR courses in study programmes. The overhaul of the Centre for Security and Strategic Research (CSSR), the research branch of the LNDA, which now hosts 4 researchers with PhDs (one in economics and three in political science) has to a great extent contributed to the increasing availability of IR expertise. Third, there has been a conscious move to provide officer cadets with the possibility of choosing from a pool of non-mandatory subjects. Thus, IR subjects are now offered as optional courses at the LNDA. In addition, the course on political science is being gradually phased out and replaced by other courses on politics and international relations.

Although there has been a somewhat noticeable shift in thinking about PME at the LNDA, it falls short of a strategic choice towards the greater inclusion of IR courses in undergraduate study programmes. Thus far, no decision has been made to include IR courses in the mandatory part of the four undergraduate study programmes. This means that IR courses are being taught on an ad hoc basis with very few students attending these courses. Professor Žaneta Ozoliņa, who taught an IR course “Latvian Security Politics” in the spring semester of 2015, commented that there were very few, if any, preferences expressed on the content of her course and teaching methods by the LNDA. This course focused on international security and Latvian security policy. Unfortunately, the cadets who attended her course lacked a basic understanding of IR theories and concepts and were thus largely unaware of the place of security studies within IR studies.[xi]

In summary, IR subjects and courses have gradually been introduced to the LNDA, albeit on a limited scale. This move, however, has not been motivated by a coherent strategic vision and falls short of establishing IR courses as part of the body of mandatory or core courses taught at the LNDA. This process has largely been motivated by the increased availability of IR expertise rather than by a deep appreciation of the added value that such courses can bring to PME in Latvia. The next section, in turn, deals with the potential contribution that IR studies can make to PME in Latvia.

The contribution of IR to PME – more than just theories and concepts?

It should by now be clear that the current approach to integrating IR subjects into the curriculum is less than strategic at the LNDA. This begs the question, however, about the potential added value of teaching IR to cadets. Indeed, the benefits are many, and are not confined to IR theories and concepts. The remaining part of this section looks at some of the theoretical material that IR could offer to officer cadets and then goes beyond these theoretical instruments in order to assess other potential contributions that IR courses can bring to the table. Although the main focus of this section is on PME in Latvia, some of the contributions discussed in the following paragraphs may be relevant in other countries as well.

IR studies can provide added value to Latvian cadets in several ways. First, IR studies are especially relevant in small countries that are heavily affected by the international environment. This is not to claim that IR studies are not relevant in medium-sized countries and for the great powers. Quite to the contrary. The great powers have the capacity to use military means either on their own, or with allies, and therefore domestic discussions on their role in the international system are inevitable. The great powers have the ability to shape their regional environment and can exert influence beyond their regional setting. The behaviour of small countries, in turn, is shaped by great power politics. For Latvia, IR issues have become an inalienable part of any discussion on its security and development. Latvia’s security depends on Russia’s domestic politics and foreign policy aims, and EU and NATO policies towards Russia. Latvia’s economic development is also seen in terms of relations between Russia and the West. Thus, IR studies can help cadets to make sense of Latvia’s regional and global international environment. IR studies can help cadets to grasp the basic images of international politics such as realism and liberalism and explain differences between Russia’s foreign policy and EU and NATO policies.

Second, there is a military aspect to virtually all IR theories. Although IR studies deal with both cooperation and conflict, IR scholars mostly emphasise conflict over cooperation. Sometimes differences among states are resolved through armed conflict, and this is where the military has a significant role to play. The application of military instruments, however, is contingent upon many factors, as states use military means for different reasons that can be grounded in realpolitik, liberal values, normative considerations, and domestic politics. Thus, it is essential for cadets to consider the wide range of reasons behind the application of military force in international politics.

Several caveats are in order, however. Although a better understanding of domestic and international contexts can help the military to improve performance, certain aspects of IR studies are of limited use. Examples are international economic relations, foreign policy decision-making, regional integration and area studies of countries and regions to which the military is unlikely to be deployed to etc. Moreover, there are certain aspects of IR studies that are clearly problematic from the perspective of military practitioners. For example, recent studies on foreign imposed regime change and democracy export have emphasised that external intervention is unlikely to result in stable democratic order (or any sort of stable political order for that matter). This is at odds with what the military have been tasked to do in Iraq and Afghanistan, which means that these efforts are likely to be less than fully successful. Although such studies are clearly relevant for military practitioners, their main message is that external military interventions are unlikely to achieve their key objectives. Arguably, if political decision-makers and the general public forget lessons from past instances of regime change, it should be up to the military to remind them of the limited success rate of such previous efforts. Although IR-based military expertise is not a substitute for political decision-making, it may facilitate a discussion on how the military can assist the government in formulating and pursuing strategic aims with regards to foreign political entities. Thus, IR studies for military practitioners should not only focus on devising better strategies aimed at removing the various obstacles that stand in the way of military organisations achieving their aims in international operations, but may also serve as a platform for engaging in an informed dialogue with political decision-makers on what can and cannot be achieved with the assistance of military means.

Third, IR studies are especially relevant for states such as Latvia where PME is still in a state of formation for reasons not always related to the specific theories and concepts that this subfield has to offer. IR courses can serve as a platform for practicing the English language and learning about methods used in social sciences. In Latvia, even the basic texts of the IR sub-discipline have not been translated into Latvian. Thus, mandatory reading for IR courses at all Latvian higher education institutions are almost exclusively in English. Studying IR from literature published in English has its practical purposes and applications because English is also the preferred language of communication for Latvian military personnel within the NATO alliance.

Another potential way to use IR courses, for purposes not confined to the specifics of this sub-discipline, would be to integrate the basics of academic writing and research into such courses. At the end of their studies at the LNDA, cadets have to complete an undergraduate dissertation. Unfortunately, cadets receive little prior training in academic writing. The lack of training in academic writing may result in poor quality undergraduate dissertations.[xii] Although this is not something that can be remedied easily, a number of steps can be taken to move in the right direction. One option would be to integrate academic writing and research design into IR courses in such a way that these elements would supplement the core aspects of IR classes. Achieving a proper synergy between the core elements of an IR course and academic writing is an arduous task because this would require course instructors to provide timely feedback. As for students, they would have to re-work their research papers at least once after receiving feedback on their work. Synergy would only be achieved when cadets submit research papers that correspond to high academic standards both in terms of content (IR part of the assignment) and research design (academic writing part of the assignment). Although academic writing would normally be part of the curriculum as a separate study course, there is nothing unusual about pursuing multiple goals within a single course. It is evident that it would be difficult to integrate specific IR courses in LNDA study programmes because officer cadets already face a very heavy workload,[xiii] therefore priority should be given to courses that pursue multiple learning objectives.

In summary, IR theories and concepts deal with the strategic aspects of the use of military force in international relations. Arguably, junior officers are likely to spend their first years after completing their PME at the LNDA operating at the platoon level and therefore do not need IR courses. Such an understanding of the relationship between education and the professional requirements of junior officers, however, is outdated and misinterprets the role of education, including military education. IR studies, albeit usually emphasising the importance of strategic decision-making, nevertheless broaden the worldview of young officers. Education, in the modern sense, does not prepare individuals for their first professional assignment. Education prepares individuals for life. Why should PME be different?


Should the LNDA offer IR courses to its cadets? Should it increase the proportion of IR courses in the curriculum? Arguably, the answer to the first question is an emphatic ‘yes’. This conclusion is strengthened by the current trend of including a more prominent IR element in LNDA study programmes. The benefits of including IR courses in PME are mainly related to cadets being better informed about the domestic and international context within which they will be operating. A better understanding of the strategic environment may help junior officers to adjust their behaviour at the tactical level. However, IR courses may offer a broader range of benefits because international relations courses can also be used for other related purposes such as improving academic writing skills, English proficiency, and the ability to conduct research. As to the second question, it remains to be seen whether the proportion of IR courses at the LNDA can be increased. Currently, IR courses are not mandatory for all cadets, therefore the first step towards increasing the profile of these courses would be to move one course from the elective part of the four programmes to the group of courses that form the core of the four PME undergraduate programmes at the LNDA. Even such an incremental step may become contentious. The timing for such a decision is unfortunate because the proportion of IR courses was increased at military academies in response to the changing security environment after the Cold War and the increasing participation of Western militaries in international operations (in NATO’s case – out of area operations). Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has had a significant impact on Latvia’s security priorities, and the focus for the Latvian military has shifted back from participation into international operations to homeland defence. In addition, the Latvian military is likely to face an increase in terms of the tasks and functions that it will have to perform in the coming years. Cooperation with NATO allies is also likely to become more intensive. Thus, the answer to the question posed in the title of this paper would be along the lines of ‘IR, or some IR’.

This article has argued that the choices regarding the content and organisation of studies for cadets in PME should be regarded as strategic choices. The initial exclusion of IR courses from the curricula of LNDA professional programmes was indeed motivated by strategic considerations. It was motivated by placing priority on those aspects of military education that did not fall under the banner of social sciences. The later choice, regarding the gradual inclusion of IR courses in the curriculum, was motivated by the sudden availability of academic staff at the CSSR and by a gradual recognition that IR courses should be offered to cadets at least as elective courses. However, the changes did not go as far as to include at least one IR course in the list of mandatory courses. The result of this partial opening can be best described as an untenable status quo which stops short of fully recognising the value that IR courses can add to PME.


[i] What is Strategy? IJ Briefs. Infinity Journal, 03.04.2013.
[ii] The professional master’s programme “Military Leadership and Security” which is jointly conducted by the Baltic Defence College and the Latvian National Defence Academy has a large number of courses that fall within the IR field of studies: International Strategic Environment, Strategy in the Modern World, Media in Modern Democracies and International Military Operations, and Crisis Response and Peace Support Operations. In addition, there are a number of courses that deal with international law and NATO operational planning.
[iii] How Democratic is Latvia? The Audit of Democracy. (Cik demokrātiska ir Latvija? Demokrātijas audits) Juris Rozenvalds, ed. (University of Latvia Press, 2005), p.230.
[iv] Public opinion survey: respondents have positive views of the Latvian military. (Pētījums: iedzīvotāji ne tikai uzticas bruņotajiem spēkiem, bet arī saredz to attīstību un karavīru profesionalitātes palielināšanos)., 05.02.2015.
[v] History of the Latvian National Defence Academy.
[vi] Data provided by the Defence Ministry of the Republic of Latvia, 2012.
[vii] Defence Minister Raimonds Vējonis: The 2015 defence budget will have a positive impact on the Latvian armed forces (Vējonis: 2015. gada budžets sekmēs bruņoto spēku attīstību). Ministry of Defence of the Republic of Latvia, 2015.
[viii] Defence expenditure. Danish Ministry of Defence, 2015.
[ix] The Baltic Defence College is a trilateral cooperation project between Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. It is funded jointly by the three Baltic states. The Baltic Defence College is “an English-speaking educational institution for operational and strategic-level military and civilian leaders in the Baltic States and their allies”.
[x] Interview with Ms.Andžela Rožcenkova, lecturer and Head of Studies Department at the Latvian National Defence Academy. 17.06.2015.
[xi] Interview with Ms.Žaneta Ozoliņa, professor at the Department of Political Science, University of Latvia. 15.06.2015.
[xii] Interview with Ms.Nora Vanaga, a researcher at the Centre for Security and Strategic Research, Latvian National Defence Academy. 28.05.2015.
[xiii] Interview with Ms.Andžela Rožcenkova, lecturer and Head of Studies Department at the Latvian National Defence Academy. 17.06.2015