REPORT: Interview with Professor Elizabeth Saunders

Professor Elizabeth N. Saunders. Photo Credit: The Wilson Center

By: Martina Hukel, Reporter

Thank you for being willing to sit down with me. How is your first semester at Georgetown going?

It’s going well! I was a professor for ten years at George Washington University and this is my first semester at Georgetown. It’s been great, very similar in some ways – students in DC love to study politics and national security, which is my area of study. At Georgetown, students have been especially motivated and engaged, which has made it a great first semester.

You were originally at George Washington University Department of Political Science before this, as you mentioned. What made you decide on the change?

It was a very tough call because I enjoyed working at George Washington and loved my colleagues. In the end though, Georgetown is unmatched with the incredible mass of people studying international relations from a variety of backgrounds and I am interested in a multitude of perspectives of international relations, which was a great fit. And it was time for a change and to switch it up a bit.

I noticed your original major was in physics, astronomy, and astrophysics from Harvard College. What prompted the switch to international relations?

I was always very interested in science as a kid growing up and my dad was an electrical and mechanical engineer, so there was always tinkering at home. I was also interested in diplomatic history and the study of war, so my favorite classes were math and European history. So when I got to college, I knew if I wanted to pursue physics, it is a very strict track to follow that you have to start early. I decided to do that to see how I liked it, but I took at my electives in history and government related classes because it would be easier to switch that way than back. By the end of the program, I had done lab work, but I was offered a fellowship for a one-year program in international relations and that was my test-drive of which I would choose. I ended up loving it and went on for my PhD in this field. 

And what made you decide on your research and teaching interests being focused on the domestic politics of international relations and US foreign policy, rather than choosing to focus regionally like many researchers do?

I was always fascinated by elite decision-making, how big decisions, especially for war, get made, and what happens after those decisions are made. So I wrote my dissertation on that, focusing on the president. Since Leaders at War: How Presidents Shape Military Interventions came out, I’ve been increasingly interested in the politics of using force. So now, I’ve been working on a series of projects to try to pin down how the different types of politics affect foreign policy. There is a contradiction in the research that foreign policy is often influenced by domestic politics, yet other research illustrates that most of the public doesn’t know much about foreign policy, so my research has been trying to reconcile those. As for the regional interests, I would say I’m a U.S. foreign policy and international relations generalist. I’m very interested in how democracies make decisions about national security and I’m pretty focused on the United States. The type of archives and data I need for my research are very difficult to obtain in other countries, so I decided to mainly focus on the U.S.

You are working on your second manuscript, The Insiders’ Game: Elites, Democracies, and War. How is that going? Any sneak peaks?

I’ve published some things recently that are related to it actually. I just had a piece come out in the Journal of Conflict Resolution last week in a special issue about what has been discovered regarding leaders’ decision-making in military conflict. My contribution to the issue was my focus not only on the leaders, but their advisors. The piece showed how presidential advisors can serve as really important signalers for the presidents. For example, if you have a Democratic president, but a hawkish advisor, it can be dangerous for the advisor to publicly disagree with the president. Yet if there is a Republican president, it can be better to have a dovish advisor to counterbalance them for the public eye, especially with military use of force.

Do you feel as though this is more common now with a less experienced president possibly being influenced by his advisors?

I think he is uniquely inexperienced for this role, so the Pentagon and the military have had a relatively freehand. It is hard to say though because I think Trump does have several fixed beliefs he came into office with, contrary to popular belief. For example, he doesn’t like alliances or trade and is in favor of authoritarian regimes. There is actually a wonderful piece written by a Brookings scholar, Tom Wright, which states that Trump is not completely neutral in foreign policy, but has these three fixed beliefs. For other matters though, he has been very differential to his advisers and, personally, I think it’s more because he’s not that interested or engaged with any other topics. 

With the current presidential administration being unconventional and increases in partisanship with domestic politics, do you see this heavily impacting America’s reputation in the international community?

One thing that has happened recently is that presidents have been making agreements as executive agreements because polarization makes treaties that much harder to pass. Both Trump and Obama have done this; for example, when Obama made the Iran deal an executive agreement. Yet, that means these engagements aren’t as sticky as they used to be and usually don’t outlast a president. So, after a while, other countries might look at that and be wary about their expectations if these agreements aren’t lasting longer than four years. Even regarding alliances, it appears to depend on who is in the Office, which is a worrying trend. Credibility isn’t everything, but it is important that others believe that we will honor our treaty commitments for more than four years.

Do you think this trend might dissuade countries from working with us as closely as they once might have?

I would imagine so, but that is just a guess because I study conflict, not cooperation!

Besides working at Georgetown, you are also a non-resident Senior Fellow at Brookings Institution and a senior editor at the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage? What is like working there and is it easy to balance it with full-time teaching?

There’s a lot of juggling, especially being a mom too. The Monkey Cage is a wonderful thing because I can do a lot of that from home in thirty-minute chunks. Depending on the current events of the time, it can get hectic, such as before the North Korean Summit. I’ve definitely had to learn to be driven by the news cycle in ways that academics never have to be driven by the news cycle. I also enjoy the opportunity to find new and interesting voices, which also helps me with my research since I’m on top of what people are focused on in the field.

The writing style between the Monkey Cage’s 1000-word pieces and your academic writing must vary greatly. Do you find it difficult to switch back and forth?

It’s definitely a different form because the writing style is different. When I want to work on an article, I have to plug back into the research and work on it consistently for several days. If I take a break, I can’t jump right back in, but I have to acclimate myself to the research before getting started. The Monkey Cage writing is a little more automatic now, but I do need to keep on top of the events and facts. This, again, is very helpful for me to force me to formulate thoughts on these events, especially for my teaching and academic research. Nonetheless, it is definitely a different skill set which graduate and PhD writing did not prepare me for, so I have benefited immensely from my fellow editors. I love to be edited and for people to engage with my work, which students often need to appreciate more when it happens.

You are teaching U.S. National Security Policy this semester and helped make the syllabus, correct? How do you decide where to focus the fourteen weeks to give the best review for students with so much to cover?

I have been teaching a version of this class for a long time at George Washington University for both undergraduate and graduate students. I always try to think of it as inputs and outputs, with a few changes around the edges. The inputs have stayed largely the same, such as the president, Congress, Supreme Court, public opinion, and bureaucracy; only the trends have changed with who has more power. It’s the outputs or applications of these actors where there are more decisions to be made. For example, I didn’t used to have a week on drones and technology because it wasn’t a relevant application of the U.S. national security policy tools. My main goal is to ensure my class is adding a perspective that a student may not receive elsewhere; everything on the syllabus is basically duplicative on some level of another course in the program, so I uniquely focus on offering a U.S. perspective on all of these issues.

What is one piece of advice you give your students?

Edit your drafts for sure! Don’t leave it until the last minute, so you can have time to edit your drafts. A broader piece of advice would be to read widely. Even if you know you want to focus on terrorism, take a class in something else and expand your range. A program like this is for pushing the pause button and allowing yourself to think both deeply and broadly, since it’s very hard to do that when you are engaged in the daily grind of this field. It is important to get the depth, like the program intends, but make sure you get a little breadth too. You never know what the next big topic will be. Furthermore, the best part about engaging in that within this setting is that it is only fourteen weeks. So, if you’re a terrorism person and you take a class on the rise of China, but you’re just not interested, it is only fourteen weeks and then you’re done. It’s a very low-stakes way to get some breadth and try to go outside your personal comfort zone.






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