Setting Up the Chessboard: How States Shape the Interests of Potential Partners
It was my first time in Washington, DC in more than a year and much had changed. The president, of course, and the political environment more generally. But, more importantly for my research, the willingness of my contacts (mostly former Obama Administration officials) to speak candidly about their experiences in government.
I left the Bay Area for the muggy Northeast to do what modern political scientists too frequently neglect to do — leave the ivory tower and explicitly interrogate the plausibility of theoretical ideas by sharing them with and interviewing practitioners.
My dissertation evolves out of work I did at the State Department prior to coming to Stanford. As special assistant to the Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources, I was responsible for advising the Deputy Secretary of State on policy issues around U.S. military transfers. I was struck by 1) the degree to which military transfers — including, arms sales, security assistance and military training — were used as a solution to a wide range of problems; and 2) the challenges that the U.S. faces in ensuring that transfers are used in ways that advance U.S. interests, or, at least, are not used in ways that threaten them. My dissertation seeks to make sense of patterns of military transfers by applying a logic to these issues; that is, by understanding the reasons states transfer military capability to other state and non-state actors; and the strategies they use to shape the military behavior of recipients.
Over the course of three days in Washington, I interviewed eleven former senior policymakers and numerous mid-level analysts from across the executive branch and congress. I spoke to a former State Department official responsible for military transfers, two former senior White House national security officials, two deputy secretaries of defense with responsibility for geographic regions that receive the majority of U.S. military transfers, a former ambassador, the national security advisor to a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and analysts from the State and Defense Departments responsible for the minutiae of U.S. military transfer policy and implementation.
The interviews were illuminating, affirming some of the assumptions I had drawn from my own experiences, while challenging others. I gained a new understanding of the decision-making and implementation process and a clearer sense of the complexities around tough cases, like Pakistan and Egypt. I approached the interviews in a semi-structured manner, beginning with open-ended questions but letting the conversation go wherever the interviewee took it. This turned out to be an effective technique. Several new ideas that I will be exploring in my dissertation developed out of discussions that initially appeared (to both me and the interviewee) to be veering off course but that ended up being quite insightful.
Practitioner interviews are an important tool for theoretical and empirical political scientific research and I am appreciative of the FSI Small Research Grant for helping me to leverage them in my dissertation work.
Written by Marc Grinberg, Ph.D. candidate in Political Science, FSI Small Research Grant recipient for summer 2017.