Bob Axelrod on the takeaways from his year-long State Department fellowship

August 27, 2015

This summer, Bob Axelrod returned to the Ford School following a year-long Jefferson Science Foundation Fellowship at the U.S. Department of State. In this Q&A, he shares his take on bridging the gap between academics and policymakers, the rise of China's influence in the world, the role of U.S. values in foreign affairs, historical analogies for cyber conflict, teaching and mentoring students with an interest in the Foreign Service, and more. 

One of the programs you worked on at the State Department was the “shared prosperity” initiative. What is that?  

Axelrod: It’s an effort to raise the salience and competence of economic issues in the State Department. In particular, to emphasize that when we help another country’s economy, it tends to help us as well. So if the middle class gets stronger in India, they’re more likely to buy American products, or they’re more likely to use American companies to build infrastructure. The State Department recognizes that it could use more competence in economic analysis.

You made some recommendations?

Axelrod: I made a number of recommendations, like giving preference to job candidates with extensive training in economics. For a variety of reasons, nothing seemed immediately actionable, but they’re continuing to promote the concept to the relevant bureaus and sections.

What makes research actionable for the State Department?

Axelrod:  If you’re an expert in area studies—an expert on Kenya, for example—they’re likely to know who you are. They also follow op-ed pieces in The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and articles in Foreign Affairs. Anything in those, everybody reads and discusses and has an opinion about. Those are the vehicles that bridge conceptual thinking and actionable policy.

Is that important? That bridge?

Axelrod: It struck me that people in the State Department seem to recognize that the United States policy process tends to be pushed by the crisis of the day—whether it’s Ebola, or ISIS, or China, or Ukraine. And there’s a yearning for conceptual direction.

Conceptual direction?

Axelrod:  There’s a nostalgia for something like “containment,” as an example of a policy direction that in the Cold War was useful guidance. They realize that the world is too complicated for something as simple as that to be effective, but still they’re yearning for something. But it’s not easy to translate academic thinking on almost anything into policy guidance or even policy concepts.

Can you give a more concrete example?

Axelrod: There’s wide recognition that when a rising power confronts an established power, as China confronts the United States, that this can be a dangerous situation. So it raises the question, is there anything we can learn from those experiences? From an understanding of the details of, for example, why Britain and the United States never fought after 1812, or why World War I and World War II provide terrible examples.

So, is there anything we can learn that might offer conceptual guidance for U.S. foreign policy?

Axelrod: And the answer is, I’m still working on it (laughs).

You mentioned the experience piquing your interest in the role of U.S. values in foreign policy.

Axelrod: I found that there was a surprisingly wide range of views on the role of U.S. values in foreign policy. From ‘values are what it’s all about—they’re the basis of America’s engagement with the world,’ to ‘we talk about our values like democracy and individual liberty and free markets, but every country has a story.’

Every country has a story?

Axelrod: The extreme view is that our values are just window dressing and that we actually worry much more about, say, deterring Putin than we do about reforming Saudi Arabia. Some think that U.S. values are just talk for our domestic audience, maybe for our own self-respect and maybe somewhat for mobilizing allies, but they don’t necessarily give guidance for American foreign interests.

What else intrigued you?

Axelrod: Possibilities for global order, and the U.S. role in that. Trade negotiations were active last year, and so was the buildup for the climate change conference in Paris, and China’s efforts to develop the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank. The idea that Congress won’t let the United States accept reforms of the IMF and World Bank means that other countries are looking for other mechanisms than those that are part of the heritage of World War II. This opens lots of questions about ‘how can global order be pursued effectively…what would be good outcomes, and what are the methods of getting there?’

Talking about global order, you mentioned China earlier, which seems to be increasingly influential in emerging economies.

Axelrod: Yes, it’s clear that a major goal for China is to secure natural resources, especially energy. Everybody understands that the western world has done that too, but China is more single-minded about it, I suppose. And they are trying to develop a global presence far beyond what they used to have, one that’s commensurate with their economic strength and importance.

Is that troubling?

Axelrod: Well, their style is different from ours. They don’t seem to care as much about promoting political development, or rule of law. And at least historically, they haven’t been active in training local management, to replace themselves with locals, as most western donors have done.

So you’ll continue to explore that?

Axelrod: No, but I’ll be attentive to it. I’ve had an interest in China since college—its culture, civilization, history, and politics. But these days I’m mostly interested in China’s action in the cyber realm.

Did you do any work on cyber issues while you were in DC?

Axelrod: Not really, but I gave a talk on historical analogies relevant to cyber issues at the Council on Foreign Relations. A lot of government people and business leaders came to that and gave me feedback and ideas that I really appreciated. 

Did you talk about China there?

Axelrod: Yes, and here's an example I gave. China cut off rare earth exports in order to punish Japan for holding a captain who came near a disputed island. And I thought that was an error on China’s part, to use up a valuable resource. The rest of the world is going to adapt to cutoffs of rare earths, and once they adapt China won’t have the same leverage again. You can imagine comparable things happening in the cyber realm.

In the past, you’ve said that the Cuban Missile Crisis really inspired your interest in international conflict and cooperation. What was it like to see the normalization of relations with Cuba, which happened while you were at the State Department?

Axelrod: There was so much else going on, but it was an important symbolic move. A lot of things are going to come from it, the effects will be interesting to watch, but it’s going to be gradual. It was nice to see that the backlash in the United States seemed to be modest. It didn’t get the kind of hostility that you would have expected 15, 20 years ago.

So the world is changing…

Axelrod: Yes, and I give the President credit for helping.

Had folks at the State Department heard of your earlier work when you started there?

Axelrod: Quite a number did. A couple of former students, and a couple of others who had taught my work. Others had heard of me one way or another. And when I won the National Medal of Science, they took notice and were delighted about that.

Will you continue to work with any of the people you met?

Axelrod: Yes, I certainly will remain in touch with some of these people. If they send me draft reports, I may provide comments on them. They also have an advanced analytics team that does statistical analysis and applied empirical research in strategic priority areas. Things like conflict prevention, inclusive economic growth, democratic societies, and climate change. The idea is to use data and evidence to inform U.S. policy in these areas. I’ll be a member of that team.

So was it a good experience, overall?

Axelrod: I learned a lot about how the State Department works, about how bureaucracy in general works, and about how foreign policy is formed. I was able to formulate some research questions that are worth thinking about deeply.  And I think it will help both my teaching and mentoring here at Ford. I hope it will make my teaching and mentoring more practical and realistic.