1. What is your degree and your dissertation title?
I did not finish my Ph.D. degree, but my dissertation title was “Domestic Constraints on U.S. military operation.”
2. What is your current position/title?
I am currently the director of research at the European Council on Foreign Relations. This is a pan-European think tank with offices in seven European countries. I am in the London office.
3. As is often the case for SSP alums, when you finished your dissertation you had an important choice to make between a position in the policy world and an academic career. What inclined you toward the option you chose? Do you have any advice to share with current SSP students as they weigh their career choices?
I was always intending to go into the policy world. I went to MIT so I could wrestle with the big academic questions, study the history, and learn the fundamentals of research and statistics. For those purposes, it was extremely useful and my SSP education has served me well in both think tanks and government. It is notable in policy circles how few people have done this, and how exposure to history and research techniques can improve one’s capacity to understand policy dilemmas and to make convincing arguments.
For current students, there is no wrong choice in this regard. Both types of careers offer great opportunities and neither is an irrevocable choice—it simply depends on personal preference. My only caution would be for students to make sure that they are indeed following their personal preference. I saw many students seduced by the culture at MIT that holds that a professorship at a research university is the most valuable career. Being ambitious people by nature and formation, they sometimes chose achievement over preference. They generally ended up sorry for having done so.
4. Would you say that your experience at SSP has continued to influence your current position. What key concepts or values from SSP have served you well in your current position?
SSP has had an enormous influence on my subsequent career. Every time I write an article or even make a decision, I imagine the fearsome critique of professors like Barry Posen and Harvey Sapolsky. This is usually frightening and sometimes paralyzing, but always helpful. I don’t always follow their phantom voices (or any of the other voices in my head), but I always have explanation as to why I did not (in case it is later on the final exam.) This process, I like to think, has improved my work greatly.
Beyond that existential fear, though it is hard to point to specific concepts that have served me well. Political science literature, then as now, is mostly a noxious mixture of the irrelevant and the incomprehensible. Certain broad concepts, such as Mancur Olsen’s ideas of collective action and Robert Jervis’ work on misperception, are helpful for organizing one’s thought but only rarely does a work of political science determine or even alter how I feel about an issue. That said, for me, the education at SSP was more important for instilling a mode of thought, which recognized the value of evidence, of skepticism, and of research for addressing policy questions. These values have been enormously influential on my subsequent work.
5. One of the primary premises of the MIT SSP is “War is an extension of politics. Politics causes wars. Policy must be the governing force.” Can you explain how, in your experience, this has been true or false? What has been your own experience?
I have certainly found it to be true, but perhaps trivially so (even if it was something of insight in 1832.) From a policy perspective, this dictum hardly requires an extensive education to derive. To the contrary, to me this is a classic example, of academia mostly talking to itself. It starts with a self-evidently absurd structural proposition (say, “war is the result of some specific power structure”) and then through a rigorous, painstaking program of research reduces it back to the realm of common sense. A good outcome, but hardly worth the journey.
My policy problem is nearly the opposite one. In the policy world, there is an extraordinary reluctance to acknowledge the impact of structural forces—everything is about the politics of the moment, the personalities, or the tactics. These elements are obviously important, but I would argue that in the long-term structural forces will tell and we lack the habits of mind to inject those forces into policymaking. So Russia policy, for example, contains no sense of the fact that Russian power is declining and that one should approach an aggressive declining power differently than one approaches an aggressive rising power.
I think MIT SSP, despite its trivial motto, did serve to help me understand how those forces would matter in the long-term, even as policy governs. So maybe it just needs a new premise.
6. What is the part of your current position that you think allows you the most satisfaction and/or dissatisfaction and why?
I have been in my current position for less than a year, but so far, it is clearly the opportunity to see foreign policy and the United States from an outside perspective. I’ve really enjoyed and profited from the opportunity to travel throughout Europe and to discuss U.S. foreign policy with interested outsiders. They often share many common values and goals, but who haven’t been overwhelmed by some of the more parochial concerns that dominate Washington. (They have their own parochial concerns, but at least they are different ones). Overall, I have found that getting outside your comfort zone in your career path is very important for maintaining intellectual edge and independence.
7. What in your career are you most proud of and has SSP been a part of that?
Mostly, I am just happy I am not unemployed. But if I have to choose, I suppose I have been most proud of my ability to maintain independent thought and avoid groupthink in environments, like the U.S. government and the think tank community, that are extremely effective at suppressing deviance. SSP, with its emphasis on independent thought and its attention to the power of groupthink, has certainly been helpful with this. Of course, this attitude, whatever my pride in maintaining it, has also been incredibly damaging to my career, so I’m not sure I should thank SSP for this.
8. What, outside of SSP and your work here, has been the factor that has most influenced who you are now, and what your current research interests are?
I was surprised to find that my time in government was enormously influential on my thinking. Working in the U.S. government is not pleasant and one only very rarely feels that one is accomplishing anything. But it is enormously educational. I learned a lot about how government works and how policy is made that, in combination with more formal educational opportunities, has greatly informed how I do my current job.
9. Looking back, what, if anything would you do differently?
10. What is the key piece of advice that you would pass along to current SSP graduate students, or those just beginning their careers?
Also, graduate. But more precisely, recognize that a Ph.D. is an extremely valuable degree in any career pursuit, less because of what you learn, than because it instills and demonstrates that the discipline, the focus, and the sheer bloody-minded perseverance to conceive of and finish a multi-year project. It is wrestling alone in a dark room with an idea for years and emerging (mostly) sane. Most people cannot do this, much less demonstrate that they have done so on a CV. It is an extremely valuable skill. It should help get you through to know that your potential employers will recognize this achievement.
Jeremy Shapiro is the Director of Research at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London. Prior to ECFR, he was a Fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution. From 2009-2013, he was a member of the U.S. State Department’s Policy Planning Staff and the Senior Advisor to Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs. Before joining the State Department, Mr. Shapiro was Director of Research at the Center of the United States and Europe (CUSE) at the Brookings Institution and a fellow in foreign policy studies from 2002-2009. He has been an adjunct professor at both Columbia University and Georgetown University and an advisor to the NATO International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. He also has published several books and monographs including, with Nick Witney, Towards a Post-American Europe: A Power Audit of US-EU Relations (ECFR, 2009), with Michael O’Hanlon, Protecting the Homeland 2006/7 (Brookings Press, 2006) and with Philip Gordon, Allies at War: America, Europe, and the Crisis over Iraq (McGraw-Hill, 2004).