précis Interview: Frank Gavin, Frank Stanton Chair in nuclear security policy studies and professor of political science at MIT

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  • Fall 2014

Frank Gavin is the Frank Stanton Chair in Nuclear Security Policy Studies and Professor of Political Science at MIT.

November 1, 2014

précis: Why did you become interested in diplomatic history?

FG: I was an undergraduate in international relations at the University of Chicago and I had the extraordinary experience of being John Mearsheimer's research assistant when he was doing a lot of archival work. He was an amazing mentor, who got me interested and passionate about the study of international relations and security. But I graduated right before the fall of the Soviet Union and, after watching this extraordinary event unfold, it struck me that if I really wanted to understand how international politics worked I would need to understand the past. So, I went to Oxford to get a degree in history, after which I was able to work with Marc Trachtenberg while getting my doctorate. Marc was another extraordinary mentor, who in his work and in his mentorship showed how an understanding of the past could be married with international relations. When I entered the field it was assumed that there would continue to be lots of work done in this great field of diplomatic history but, unfortunately, that's not what ended up happening.


précis: Were you disappointed by the decreased emphasis on diplomatic history in the historical world?

FG: Yes, in fact, there is a great story about this. Some years back, Harvey Sapolsky and Michael Desch, two political scientists, put together a conference on the future of diplomatic history, and I was asked to participate. There were a few prominent diplomatic historians involved, and all of them talked about how the future of the field was bright, and argued that there were good prospects for people doing diplomatic history. But I disagreed with them. In fact, as I pointed out, it was a political science department that had sponsored the conference on the future of diplomatic history. I have since tried to find ways to revive, support, and encourage the sort of international history that people like Marc Trachtenberg, Walter McDougall, and Bruce Kuklick taught me to do, but it is difficult. That’s why I am so happy to be at MIT, where there is the historical work being done on topics of substance that have, unfortunately, fallen out of favor elsewhere.


précis: What led you to become involved in the policymaking community and environment?

FG: Teaching and working at the LBJ School of Policy at the University of Texas was a great experience because most of the students there were interested in public service broadly, including government, the private sector, NGOs, etc., and they wanted to understand how things worked. They weren't interested in history for its own sake, so I was forced to think about how history could be used to help better understand contemporary policy. And given the subjects that I worked on—international monetary relations and foreign policy—I found a natural audience in the policy and international relations community. Being at the LBJ School, I also had the good fortune of working with great leadership, who showed a deep commitment to national security issues. For example, Jim Steinberg, the former deputy national security advisor and deputy secretary of state under President Clinton, was very interested in history and thought it had great advantages in understanding policy. Jim gave historical study a platform, which is somewhat rare in a policy school. There was also a variety of other projects that I got involved in, like the Next Generation Project, which consciously set out to shape the future policy agenda and to seek ideas from nontraditional sources, and got me actively engaged in the policy process.


précis: What do you think historians can add to the study of political science? And what can historians learn from political scientists?

FG: Political scientists are very helpful to historians in that they are explicit about their assumptions, they are very rigorous about research design, they are very clear about what methods they use and how they select evidence, and what theories are animating their narrative. Historians are good at not just uncovering and revealing the facts of the past, but also at increasing the sense of complexity, unintended consequences, interactive effects, and uniqueness in the study of past, and they are clear about the challenges of generalizing. So, a good historian can add some humility and caution to the social scientist looking to predict and generalize, whereas the social scientists can help the historian leave the particulars of their subject and make an effort to establish larger connections. In that way, I think it is a mutually beneficial relationship.


précis: Substantively, you have done a lot of work on nuclear proliferation and the Cold War. What lessons can the world take from studying this history?

FG: I think that a lot of the earlier work on proliferation was done either through deductive theorizing or with an absence of any evidence about what was actually going on, which is understandable given that the documents involved in these decisions are some of the most difficult to get declassified. But, as archives have opened, we’ve found that the proliferation story was far more complicated and interesting than previously known. We now see more nuance. We see that the decision to go nuclear is a lot more complicated for many states, and that the U.S. was very interested in halting proliferation. While a primary concern in political science has been whether nuclear weapons are stabilizing, we have seen that the United States often didn’t care about general stability, but was more focused on its own interests. History complicates things, generates new puzzles, challenges some of our assumptions, and certainly doesn’t make things easier. But these are hard questions, and answering them shouldn’t be easy.


précis: What do you think are the biggest holes in the study of nuclear weapons today? Where is there future research to be done?

FG: Scholars need to think about nuclear weapons both in terms of deterring war and with regard to questions of proliferation. For many reasons, during the Cold War we spent a lot of time studying nuclear strategy, but not a lot of time studying proliferation. Since the end of the cold war, we have spent a lot time studying proliferation and far less studying strategy. But, if you look at the historical record, there are deep linkages between strategy and proliferation, which are only just being uncovered. Also, I think we had a stylized narrative of nuclear weapons in the Cold War that has become less certain over time. Great international relations theorists like Robert Jervis, Bernard Brodie, and some of our own analysts like Steve Van Evera, argued that nuclear weapons and mutual vulnerability created, in certain circumstances, mutually assured destruction, which was impossible to escape. But we have found in documents that the United States went to extraordinary lengths to escape it. We don't have good theoretical explanations of why the U.S. pursued policies that are puzzling from a strategic standpoint, and what the implications of these policies were.


précis: We have seen a resurgence of nuclear studies here at MIT—what do you think accounts for this shift? What do you see as the dividends of returning to this type of work?

FG: MIT and CIS are wonderful environments because they drive scholarship on important policy issues in a way that is inherently interdisciplinary, so that people can come together and cross–fertilize their knowledge. As a result, MIT is the ideal place to do nuclear work. To understand nuclear weapons, a scholar has to understand the science and history of the weapons, as well as their policy implications. For example, we recently brought R. Scott Kemp from the Nuclear Science and Engineering department over to speak to the Political Science audience, which generated a great discussion. In addition, we have great PhD students who have terrific contributions to make to this field. More generally, as long as we have nuclear weapons, the study of them will be a critical question because the consequences of getting it wrong are catastrophic. The study of these weapons is very worthwhile even at times when we think we have the right answers, because we don't know what circumstances could arise that might change the equation. We have a duty and an obligation to think about the consequences of nuclear weapons, and MIT has always been a leader on thinking about this from the beginning of the nuclear age.


précis: You recently received a major grant from the Carnegie Foundation to bridge the gap between students of political science and policymakers. What are the main goals of this initiative? What do you see as the major challenges?

FG: Importantly, this project is not just geared toward political science. In general, it is our sense that young people who are interested in international affairs start their graduate education not seeing a divide between the world of ideas and the world of action. These students want to contribute in many ways—through teaching, public service, research, etc.—and they don't see why it wouldn't be helpful to their career to do all of these things. But, increasingly, we see students getting discouraged because they feel forced to make a choice between the world of ideas and the world of practice. Though some of this is simply a natural and healthy division of labor, some of it is also suboptimal. So, the grant was given in order to assess the extent to which the curricula used to train graduate students match the skills necessary to make policy contributions. We have no preordained view of what is the best method of training, but we also don't see prima facie evidence that the current curriculum is the best way to train graduate students interested in international affairs. We would like to start a broad conversation about what we are doing right and where there is room for change.


précis: How do you see your work evolving here at MIT? What are some of your future projects?

FG: I am especially interested in the intellectual history of international relations and security studies, particularly since 1945. I am very interested in how the study of war and great power politics, nuclear weapons, etc. evolved in the way it did, and how we arrived at where we are now. In addition, I am also interested in thinking about, in a more rigorous way, how historical analysis can be used in political science and policymaking. Most people recognize that using the past is useful, but historians have not been explicit about their tools and methods. I'd like to think about how we can explicitly make the case for historical methods and their application to policy. And finally, I'd like to explore how the United States has thought about nuclear weapons and grand strategy since the end of World War II. The U.S. has made many policy choices that few people predicted, and I think the nuclear threat has driven a lot more of grand strategy then we have realized.