MEDFORD — General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, returned to his alma mater Tuesdayevening, speaking at the Fletcher School at Tufts University for a wide-ranging discussion of world events.
For nearly two hours, the South Boston native touched on nuclear concerns in North Korea, ISIS and threats of cyber attacks. But such weighty issues were offset by lighter moments, such as his time at the prestigous Fletcher school, and his deep devotion to the Red Sox.
Students, faculty and alumni listened in rapt attention to the discussion moderated by Richard Shultz, director of the International Studies Program at Fletecher, and one of Dunford’s former professors.
Dunford spoke at length, and in great detail, about security issues related to his job as the nation’s top military leader.
Dunford, appointed to the post by former President Obama in 2015, said it’s his job to counsel the president.
“I’m obligated by law to provide advice, but no one in their job description is obligated to actually listen to my advice,” he said.
Trust is key to advising any president on military policy, he said.
“The only thing I really have is credibility and trust, so in terms of my responsibilities to provide best military advice, the most important thing that I have to be able to do is maintain the trust of leaders who I offer that advice to and that requires remaining apolitical.”
“Believe it or not,” he continued, “I would rather be accused of incompetence than lack of political reliability.”
For nearly 90 minutes, Dunford answered questions from those seated in a lecture hall on campus.
A first-year student from Japan asked Dunford about missile defense systems in Alaska. He noted that the weapons, meant to address nuclear concerns in North Korea, could exacerbate tensions between the U.S. and China.
Dunford responded by referencing a visit he made to China over the summer.
“I’ll tell you exactly what I told my Chinese counterpart when I visited in August,” he said. “I said, ‘Look, these capabilities aren’t directed at you, and if you don’t want us to continue to field ballistic missile defense capabilities in your region, help us deal with North Korea.’”
He went on to say that “responsible leaders” will protect their people when able to do so, and that he is “cautiously optimistic” that China could be part of the solution.
A master’s degree student from South Korea asked about the threat of North Korean cyberattacks.
“While I never would underestimate an adversary,” Dunford said, “I don’t think North Korea is among the most developed offensive cyber threat that we have.”
Dunford said part of his tenure has been focused on developing tools to combat cyber threats, and said he is “somebody who’s never complacent with where we are.”
Smiling, he turned his attention back on the student and said, “I know you probably want me to be more specific in that area, but in terms of cyber, that’s kind of one of those areas that’s hard to talk about publicly.”
Dunford, one of Fletcher’s most distinguished graduates, also recalled his time on the Medford campus, where earned a master’s degree in international politics in 1992.
When Shultz pointed out that Dunford had been ranked first in his class, the general smiled and joked, “It was an off year.”
Born in South Boston and raised in Quincy, Dunford, 61, graduated from Boston College High School in 1973, according to his biography. He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Saint Michael’s College in Vermont in 1977. He went on to earn two master’s degrees, one in government from Georgetown University, and the other from Fletcher.
Throughout his military career, Dunford has held true to this roots.
Schultz noted that Dunford still roots for the Red Sox to win, and “whoever is playing the Yankees.”Martha Schick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @MarthaSchick.