Ten Whats With...Michael A. Levi
from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

Ten Whats With...Michael A. Levi

The Power Surge by Michael Levi
The Power Surge by Michael Levi

Michael Levi is the David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and Director of the CFR Program on Energy Security and Climate Change. Michael is the author of the new book The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America’s Future (Oxford University Press, 2013). He holds a Bachelors of Science in mathematical physics from Queen’s University, an MA in physics from Princeton University and a Ph.D. in war studies from the University of London. 

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

I’m finishing a book with a colleague of mine, Elizabeth Economy, on China’s natural resource quest and what it means for economies, international relationships, the environment, and security. I see it, along with the work I’ve been doing in energy and security, as another way to explore the broader interaction of international economics and international security. I think that is one of the most interesting areas to explore right now, both for policy and international relations, and I’ve been trying to get at it from a variety of angles.

2. What got you started in your career?

I grew up very interested in politics and policy but it never occurred to me that you could make that into a career until I went to graduate school at Princeton in physics and was surrounded by students at the Woodrow Wilson School who were actually involved in policy and making it a career. I audited a couple of courses in science and policy and eventually moved to Washington, DC. When I reflect on the critical juncture as an undergraduate in physics, where I decided to stay in physics despite being skeptical, I recall a conference I attended where someone made a presentation on how they were using plutonium from old Soviet weapons to produce nuclear power. I thought that was really cool.  But it took me another five years to figure out that was actually the sort of thing I wanted to be involved in as a career.

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

Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations. It is the best blend of theory and the application of that theory across specific cases. Not as a way to test the theory, but to help flesh it out.

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

The first piece of advice I would give is to take your time. It’s easy to think you need to establish yourself quickly and rush ahead as fast as you can, but you almost always have more time than you think you do and you will regret not taking advantage of opportunities to learn broadly so that you can draw on a breadth of knowledge later in your career. The other advice I would give is learn well beyond your field. The most interesting research, the most creative ideas in the policy world tend to come when people are able to bridge different areas and link different issues, and you can’t do that if you are purely focused in one narrow area.

5. What was the last book you finished reading?

The last book I finished all the way through was Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg. I thought it was a great book. I expected the clips that I read in the media to be the most interesting things, but I got through those in the first chapter, and the rest had all sorts of interesting things, both for understanding how to collaborate and how to make a work place function better but also advice for almost anyone who works with people on a day-to-day basis.

The last book that I almost finished was To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism by Evgeny Morozov, which was brilliantly written. I can only wish I was so sharp in making my points, but it got a  bit repetitive after a while, which is why I didn’t get through the whole thing. I liked it though because it had a theme that is close to my heart, which is that people expect too much from technology as a substitute for politics in society and deliberate action.

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

I don’t know if it’s overlooked, but political dysfunction is certainly overlooked by people who are trying to make us more capable of addressing threats to American national interest. We can pour enormous amounts of efforts and money into coming up with smart ideas in different areas, but if Washington is a mess, it’s not clear how you actually pursue them. People in my world, for good reasons, try to keep our hands out of politics, but ultimately politics is a prime factor in determining what we do.

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

I’m a bit blinkered because I’m going to focus on something that I’ve spent time thinking about. But the threat that a country would deliberately pass a nuclear bomb to a terrorist group is extraordinarily inflated. It’s not something you should write off entirely but there are so many reasons why even Iranian leaders, if they got the bomb, would not want to hand one to a terrorist group.

For more information they should read a Council Special Report, “Deterring State Sponsorship of Nuclear Terrorism,” that I wrote several years ago on how to deter state sponsorship of nuclear terrorism.

8. What is the most significant emerging global challenge?

Broadly the rise of China brings forth a whole complex of global challenges, whether they are environmental, economic, or more traditional security challenges. I think it’s important not to think about this in the abstract, but in terms of concrete challenges. So whether it’s climate change, resource insecurity, or military competition, the rise of China transforms each of these big issues.

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

Energy poverty: roughly 2 billion people in the world don’t have access to modern energy and an even larger number can’t get jobs because industry can’t grow because they don’t have access to reliable energy supplies. This isn’t something that you can figure out by just going to interview a couple of people or sitting up your desk staring out the window and coming up with fancy new ideas for how to do things. You actually have to try different solutions on the ground and see what works and what doesn’t. Since energy is expensive, the unlimited resources would be very valuable in pursuing that. My only hesitance would be that two years is a short time to figure out decent solutions to these sorts of problems.

10. Why should someone who is not an energy specialist read your book?

There are a lot of books out there about the energy industry. What I tried to write was a book about how energy affects the things that people much more broadly care about- the economy, international relations, international security, climate change, the environment. Energy is affecting almost every sphere that we care about and understanding those connections is extraordinarily important- not because energy is the one thing that matters, but because it is a big thing that matters and the amount of hyped misinformation out there is enormous. We’re in a period of extraordinary rapid change in the energy world and they haven’t done much to update our way of thinking about energy, particular as it affects international security since the aftermath of the first oil crisis in 1973. What I hope I’ve done in this book is update this and I think it’s important for people to understand that.

Learn more about or order a copy of Michael Levi’s book, The Power Surge.