NEWPORT, R.I. - International Law Department
(ILD) Chairman Michael Schmitt
may have only been on the job for a month and a half, but he’s no stranger to the U.S. Naval War College (NWC).
He graduated first in class from the senior course in 1996 and stayed on as an Air Force officer in the Law Department for the next two years. Following retirement, he later returned as the Charles H. Stockton Visiting Chair of International Law in 2007-08.
Schmitt specializes in the law of armed conflict, a field of ever-growing importance in light of recent conflicts, especially those involving terrorists and other non-state actors.
While on active duty, he served nearly two and a half years as the staff judge advocate (JAG) for the no-fly zone operations over northern Iraq following the first Gulf War.
“The number one legal question was when to pull the trigger…and when not to,” Schmitt said, responding to a question about the primary legal concerns of international armed conflict. But, he quickly added that the legal complexities he dealt with in those operations pale beside those the active duty JAGs he presently serves with in the Law Department have faced in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. And it is the opportunity to work with these officers that drew him back to Newport.
In addition to a master’s degree from NWC, Schmitt holds a master’s degree in political science from Texas State University, a law degree from the University of Texas, and a Master’s of Law from Yale, which is a specialty degree lawyers may earn after completing law school. This year he was awarded a Doctor of Letters degree from Durham University in the United Kingdom for his life’s work in the field.
His military career began as a U.S. Air Force (USAF) targeting intelligence officer. He was picked to become a Judge Advocate by the USAF Funded Legal Education Program, which sends officers to law school, with follow-on service as a JAG.
Like many judge advocates, he started as a trial lawyer, first as a prosecutor, then as a defense attorney. In 1990, Schmitt was selected to attend Yale as one of five Americans in his class of 25, all of whom had been accepted into the LL.M program based on their potential for leadership in legal education. Schmitt recalls being the only student who didn’t graduate number one in his law school class before attending Yale. He quickly adds that as a Texan he was nevertheless not intimidated.
Following his stint at Yale, he was sent to Greece in the wake of military base closures. “All the former Greek workers were suing us for unlawful [employment] termination,” he said, and an international lawyer was desperately needed to handle the hundreds of cases. He was then sent to Turkey to serve as staff judge advocate for Operations Provide Comfort and Northern Watch.
Schmitt has spent many years teaching. He was twice on the faculty of the Air Force Academy in Colorado, and later served over a decade at the Marshall Center in Germany, where he eventually went on to become Dean, replacing Ambassador Mary Ann Peters (ret.) when she was selected as the Provost of the Naval War College.
Eventually, Schmitt found himself as Chair of Public International Law at Durham University, an Ivy League equivalent law school in northern England.
For Schmitt, returning to ILD is the capstone of his career as an international lawyer. The Naval War College has a global reputation for international law stretching back over a century.
Adm. Charles Stockton wrote the Naval Law Code while here and later became President of NWC; John Basset Moore, who was the U.S. Judge on the Permanent Court of International Justice, wrote the first International Law Studies “Blue Book,” the Department’s famous book series, in 1901; Manley Hudson, first U.S. Judge on the International Court of Justice, taught here in the 1950s; Howard S. Levie wrote the Korean War armistice and later served at the college as Stockton Professor; Yoram Dinstein, one of Schmitt’s mentors and President Emeritus of Tel Aviv University, was twice the Stockton Professor.
“If you work in the field of the law of armed conflict, I don’t think there’s a better position in the world,” Schmitt said.
Schmitt said the interdisciplinary mix at the War College offers a legal scholar an extraordinarily fertile environment in which to work. “Virtually every member of the faculty is an expert in some topic that bears in some way on my own work. And the student body consists of those individuals tasked with applying the law I examine. In this place, all the pieces of the puzzle come together like they can nowhere else in the world.”
Schmitt hopes to enhance the already noteworthy research produced by the department, focus its international engagement activities on those subjects of greatest importance to the United States and create opportunities for the department to serve as a bridge between government and academia.
Among some of his pilot projects, ILD is launching research projects involving cyber warfare, unmanned maritime vessels, the legal geography of war and the AirSea Battle Concept.