from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

Ten Whats With...Michael Horowitz

December 14, 2015

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Diplomacy and International Institutions

Michael C. Horowitz is an associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and the associate director of Penn’s Perry World House. His research interests include leadership, military innovation, the future of war, forecasting, and the relationship between religion and international politics. He has published in a wide array of peer-reviewed journals, as well as more popular outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, Politico and Foreign Policy. He is the author of the award-winning book, The Diffusion of Military Power (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010). Professor Horowitz previously worked in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense and is a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He received his PhD in government from Harvard University and his BA in political science from Emory University.

1. What is the most interesting project you are currently working on?

Besides continuing research related to my new book, Why Leaders Fight, my experience working in the Department of Defense really brought me back to the topic that my career started with—military innovation. I am working on several projects related to the proliferation of drones, the consequences of military robotics for the international security environment, and issues surrounding autonomous weapon systems. I am excited to be back working in this area, and right now it is probably the most “interesting” thing I would say that I am working on.

I have never been able to work on just one area at a time, though, so I am also continuing research I have been doing on forecasting and international politics, religion and war, and militant group alliances.

2. What got you started in your career?

In a word, debate. I participated in policy debate in high school and college, an activity that emphasizes in-depth research, critical thinking, and persuasive speaking. To be honest, I spent far more time researching and practicing for debate than preparing for any class or other activity. The research I did on a variety of international security topics to succeed in debate not only sparked my interest in a career in international politics, it also helped me get my first job out of college. After college, I received the William Taylor Internship at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). The Taylor Internship is specifically designated for a college policy debater who wants to work on international policy issues. Receiving the internship was a tremendous break that has shaped my career ever since. I had a number of fantastic mentors at CSIS that helped shape my views of the world, as well as my desire to work at the intersection of academia and public policy. The lessons I learned in my year at CSIS, and the topics I once researched in high school and college debate, have influenced me more times than I can count when thinking through how to approach a range of issues in my career.

3. What person, book, or article has been most influential to your thinking?

So many people and articles have been influential to my thinking that it is hard to narrow it down. David McCullough’s classic biography, Truman (thanks to Mr. Kollen, my high school history teacher in Lexington, MA, for assigning it!), was one of my first introductions to the topic of leadership. That book not only gave me a sense of one of America’s great presidents, it also introduced me to nonfiction writing that was both extensively researched and a real pleasure to read.

The American political philosopher John Dewey is also someone who has significantly influenced how I view the world. It is easy to create theories of how the world works; it is harder, psychologically, to update those theories in response to actual evidence (also showing the influence of Bayes on my thinking), but it is necessary. Dewey’s emphasis on experience, as well as a pragmatic view of the world, has informed how I think about everything from foreign policy strategy to academic research questions.

4. What kind of advice would you give to young people in your field?

I think young people interested in a career in international politics, especially an academic career, should focus on three things. First, try to have a diverse set of experiences. It is easy to get on a single track and stay there. But interests change, especially when you are early in your career (but not only then!). Through diverse travel, and professional and personal experiences, people just starting out can get a better sense of what they really want to do with their careers, and get exposure to options they may never have considered.

Second, people just starting out should develop genuine substantive expertise, as well as a diverse set of skills they can draw on to answer any number of interesting questions that cross their desk. If all you have is a single hammer, whether that hammer is statistical analysis, qualitative case studies, or the study of military power, it really limits what you can do. This is not an argument against in-depth expertise, of course. Some specialization is necessary—and probably inevitable. But broad baseline knowledge in several topics and methods can pay off down the road, since it is hard to predict where your interests and career will lead you.

Third, build real relationships. Investing in people is almost always a smart decision, whether you want to be a political science professor or the Secretary of Defense. It is easy to get caught up in the moment, and in your own personal story, and lose sight of the world around you. Investing in people, wherever you are, helps keep you grounded and builds the relationships you need to succeed, wherever your career takes you.

5. What was the last book you finished reading?

One book I read recently is Phil Tetlock and Dan Gardner’s Superforecasters, which draws extensively on a research project on crowdsourced forecasting I was fortunate to work on over the last few years called the Good Judgment Project. It explains that we can actually get better in our efforts to understand the world around us, but we can only do that if we practice—by actually forecasting and then being accountable for when we are right or wrong in our predictions.

6. What is the most overlooked threat to U.S. national interests?

No country has ever maintained global power over the long run without a vibrant economy. In the short-term, military power can compensate for economic weakness, but over the long run, a weak economy will catch up to any country. That the American economy is a powerful engine of innovation has long been one of the country’s great strengths, and one with both direct and indirect benefits for U.S. national security and national interests writ large. Ensuring that the U.S. economy stays strong—with an emphasis on innovation and creativity—is crucial.

7. What do you believe is the most inflated threat to U.S. national interests?

We live in an interesting and dangerous world, and I am generally confident that the United States is up to the challenge of handling whatever the world throws its way. In that way, I think doomsaying about the future of the United States is generally misplaced, because I fundamentally believe in the vibrancy of the American people and system.

More specifically, there has been a lot of concern recently about the potential development and deployment of autonomous weapons, more popularly called “killer robots.” Luminaries such as Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and others signed a letter last year arguing for a global prohibition on offensive autonomous weapon systems. While no one wants to see “Terminators” stalking the earth, I worry sometimes that the focus on the absolute worst-case scenarios makes real dialogue on the integration of autonomy into weapon systems harder rather than easier. Militaries want weapons they can control, and there are debates right now about what will even be possible over the next few decades. We need to have a real discussion about the role we think humans should play in the use of force as technology continues advancing, but that is a conversation best had when it is grounded in a realistic vision about how military force is used today, and how it is likely to be used in the future.

8. What is the most significant emerging global challenge?

How the United States handles the continuing rise of China remains the single most important long-term issue in global politics. It has implications for the world economy, people and countries around the world, and the security environment. China faces a true choice: whether to continue to integrate itself into the existing global order or attempt to create a new global order.

The consequences of the rise of China for the security environment still seem very much up in the air. Just in the last year, in dealing with China’s construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea, preserving the right to freedom of navigation has required hard conversations between the United States and an increasingly confident China.

Related to this is the necessity of ensuring that the United States remains the world’s leading military power. Many of the new military technologies I referenced above, such as robotics, will be increasingly important underlying elements of military power over the next generation. To stay ahead of rising powers such as China, the U.S. military cannot rest on its laurels. Instead, the United States needs to work hard to continue leveraging both its significant human capital, as well as new technologies, to stay on the cutting edge.

9. What would you research given two years and unlimited resources?

Actually, what jumps to mind is less a single research question and more a broader project. We stand at a real turning point right now when it comes to the relationship between academia and the public policy world, especially but not limited to the international politics arena. From opportunities to work with institutions like the Council on Foreign Relations, to new media venues such as the “Monkey Cage,” War on the Rocks, Defense One, and Political Violence @ a Glance, to projects like Bridging the Gap, TRIP, and the Denver Dialogues, and to platforms such as Twitter, there have never been more ways for international politics scholars to write policy relevant insights about the world. How these types of activities and publishing should connect to how academia values individual scholars for hiring and promotion remains unclear, however.

Additionally, impacting the policy world, however one defines the relevant stakeholders (e.g. governments, NGOs, international institutions, and/or others), is incredibly challenging. And many academic peer-reviewed journals face competing headwinds. They publish scholarship that is genuinely rigorous and innovative. That is what they should do. Yet that work, in its academic form, is often too long for some policymakers to read and considered too jargon-filled and inaccessible by others. Even the academic journals that try hardest to be relevant to the policy world are too infrequently read, and even less frequently genuinely useful to policymakers.

As a community, international politics scholars, including but not limited to those in the policy world, in the think tank community, and in academia, need to continue thinking hard about how to square this circle. The distinguishing characteristic of academic scholarship is and should be precisely its rigor and depth. But there has to be a way to harness the best of academic journals with the best of the opportunities provided by new media venues in order to create a more synergistic environment: one where the most interesting voices, not just the loudest ones, rise to the top, and where people can develop and publish insights with utility both in academia and for relevant policy communities. Moreover, we need to work harder to create forums and mechanisms where these groups can interact through shared activities and meetings. Essentially, we need to lower the barriers to entry for cross-pollination.

There are incredible ongoing efforts, including attempts to create new journals and communities, but more thinking is necessary—and more action on the ground. If I had two years and unlimited resources, I would work to help create and sustain those venues.

10. What can leaders in all fields learn from Why Leaders Fight?

Where you came from has a significant impact on who you are. This is a basic insight about human behavior, and one that is as true of leaders as it is of everyone else. Every few years in the United States, Americans extensively debate about a new field of presidential candidates. In those debates, we rely on the background life experiences of those candidates, such as whether they served in the military, their education, and their prior jobs, to communicate important information to us about how they will behave in office. We seem to instinctively understand this about domestic politics, but it is often overlooked when it comes to foreign policy and military engagement. Why Leaders Fight shows that the backgrounds of our leaders profoundly shape their risk propensity and behavior in office. This has relevance for understanding corporate strategy, investment choices, and other behavior outside the realm of military force. Understanding this basic insight is powerful, and can help us understand leaders, as well as help leaders understand their own biases and improve their decisionmaking.

More on:

United States

Diplomacy and International Institutions