This is a guest post by Sarah Detzner, a Ph.D Candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Her research is focused on international security, particularly post-conflict stabilization/reconstruction and security sector reform. In addition, she serves as Director of the Fletcher Graduate Writing Program, as a Fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies and the Institute for Human Security, and as a consultant for the World Peace Foundation. Previously, she served in the Obama Administration as a speechwriter for former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, campaigned as an Obama 2008 staffer, and worked with the National Democratic Institute in Washington, Lebanon, and Jordan. She is a graduate of Macalester College and originally from the Chicago area.
In his indictment of the training that schools of international affairs offer their graduates, Stephen Walt has an advantage. He’s able to observe from a great height, over a long period, the migration patterns of herds of hopeful students trekking up and wintering a season or two in Boston before starting the return journey southward to the shores of the Potomac in search of warm weather and think tank gigs.
However, from that peak, it’s easy to miss the confusion, the mud, and the constant search for enough forage that day-by-day nudges along those who eventually make it to shore. From a different perspective, as third wildebeest from the back and slightly to the left, I say that the United States’ international affairs programs are churning out graduates with exactly the skills that the United States’ foreign policy establishment rewards, though certainly not those it actually needs.
Simplified, there are two paths into foreign policy, political and career. The first prerequisite for the political track is awareness of its existence and operating procedures. This huge advantage is hoarded largely by the Eastern Establishment whose demise Walt celebrates (I’m sorry to say that it is alive, well, and getting its nephew an internship in your agency). A lot of talent gets lost at this stage, after learning the rules too late, though some fortunate souls, like myself, get lucky and back a dark-horse candidate all the way into a low level appointment.
Walt calls out another open secret when he notes that, especially in the lower ranks, many appointees in every administration are not especially qualified. For certain jobs, this is harmless – as a DOD speechwriter, for instance, my mere BA did no particular harm. The problem here, beyond pipeline issues, is the incentives that the appointee system creates.
Ideally, either low-level appointees will go out and get the specialized training they need to creditably assume more responsibility, or at the middle ranks they will be replaced by new blood from the strongest graduate programs. As Walt highlights, international affairs shouldn’t be learned entirely on the job – that creates peerless crisis managers, but terrible strategists.
Unfortunately, low-level appointees, especially those without connections, know that their best chance of advancement is to stay in DC and stay fresh in the political networks of those making staffing decisions. The most solid of these networks, especially those centered around families, disturbingly resemble stealth feudalism, complete with loyal retainers. In that climate, even a couple of years off the radar – either for a demanding graduate program or to gain substantive experience abroad – is a dangerous career move. Better to do a nine month MA, night school, or online program and avoid the risk. A real doctorate is right out.
But doesn’t expertise enter from the career track, the main group being churned out by the prestigious international affairs programs that Walt critiques? Having made the personally satisfying, if professionally questionable decision, to get a Ph.D. outside the Beltway, I run one of these program’s academic support centers. In this role, I’m a sympathetic ear – better informed than a peer, but much less worth impressing than a professor. Consequently, I’ve listened to years of graduate students discuss their academic choices and career aspirations candidly, pre-elevator pitch gloss.
First, they confirm that the Eastern Establishment is hale and hearty, if less overwhelming dominant, in this pipeline as well. Admission to Fletcher, or SAIS, or Harvard’s Kennedy School, is far more likely with a few years of the type of international affairs experience it is easiest to get through unpaid internships. The challenges of affording one of these schools after that kind of unrenumerative post-college career filters out even more candidates and tends to homogenize those left.
Even for the well off, this investment of time and money needs to lead to a job in short order. These students are smart and driven. They ask around and observe recent alumni. They learn that to break into the policy world, they’ll need the skills the market demands – languages, new data analysis tools, expertise on current conflicts, business risk estimates, cyber-everything. A depressing part of watching this herding process is that many students have a real love for Walt’s priorities, especially theory and history. But they study the big picture wherever they can fit it in at the margins. Perspective won’t get you hired.
These two groups eventually merge in DC to make up the lower and middle ranks of our foreign policy community. More responsible political appointees are aware of their own limited expertise, and thus wary of taking risks (less responsible ones ran ministries in Baghdad). Those on the career side are also not rewarded for innovative thinking. At think tanks, they need to chase the mutable priorities of rainmakers at their various institutions. If and when they do break into the official bureaucracy, they quickly internalize the message that the two acceptable courses of agency action are either: 1) What is decided by political leadership, or 2) (much more commonly) What allows an agency to continue to do what it has always done, hopefully with more funding.
There are many individual exceptions – a simplified model can’t capture every path into the profession. Some people find another way, get lucky, or are too absurdly talented to pass up. Occasionally, a niche specialty or region becomes geo-politically critical. However, the larger incentives structure does a pretty good job of explaining the persistent production of the well-trained cogs Walt decries.
Some don’t see the problem. Walt values critical thinking, but others might reasonably point out that those at the bottom and middle of the policy ranks are not formally supposed to make policy. When it comes to strategy, many high-level political appointees, sometimes brought in from academia, are well qualified, knowledgeable, experienced, and willing to take risks. Shouldn’t these leaders make the decisions? The problem with this is that, as anyone who’s ever worked in a large organization understands, policy is inevitably shaped as much or more by those who implement it as by those who design it.
The negative manifestation of this is memorably illustrated in Robert Komer’s study of U.S. government failure in Vietnam, “Bureaucracy Does Its Thing.” In Komer’s recounting, a flawed but innovative U.S. plan to prop up support for the Vietnamese government by encouraging good governance went effectively unimplemented despite orders, undermined by a bureaucracy that, without consciously intending to, reinterpreted all instructions to mean “keep doing what you’re doing.”
But even if it were achievable, a perfectly obedient bureaucracy is not the answer either. Whether or not we admit it, we count on the career folks to provide a “floor” of expertise and at least strongly discourage inexperienced or incompetent political leaders from making mistakes out of pure ignorance. The sudden erosion of this check is one of most terrifying things about the crony-riddled and chronically understaffed Trump Administration.
In short, our foreign policy system needs qualified bureaucrats and qualified appointees checking each other to truly work well, but the professional incentive structure we’ve created encourages neither. Walt is absolutely right to be concerned that international affairs programs are not encouraging diverse voices, critical thinking, vigorous debate, and sustained intellectual engagement with big questions. But no initiative from academia alone will change that. Until the wider profession is ready to face the access issues that keep the vast majority of bright young students far from careers in foreign policy, and then the structural issues that encourage those that remain to become under-qualified careerists, we’re going to continue to see the behaviors and choices we continue to reward.