précis Interview: Paul Heer

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  • Spring 2016
Paul Heer

Paul Heer

May 1, 2016

Paul Heer, this year's CIS Robert E. Wilhelm fellow, is relishing his time away from the beltway. A veteran analyst of China, Heer spent much of the last three decades rising through the ranks of the U.S. intelligence community, most recently serving as the National Intelligence Officer for East Asia at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. In an interview with précis, he tells us about George F. Kennan's impact on U.S. policy in Asia (the subject of his PhD dissertation at George Washington University), the thrill of briefing presidents, and geopolitical dynamics in East Asia today. 


précis: What have you enjoyed most about your time at CIS so far?

PH: The stress level. After eight years on the National Intelligence Council, it's nice to have the opportunity to be separated from the pressures of government and policy tasking. I can focus on research.


précis: Tell us about that research.

PH: The main thing I'm trying to accomplish is to publish my dissertation, which is on George F. Kennan's influence on East Asia policy. Everyone knows him as a Russia expert, and I first encountered him on Russia. But there's a lot to talk about in his role on East Asia policy.

In government, I was too busy to stay up on the academic literature. The main thing the fellowship has allowed me to do is to catch up on the archival materials that weren't available then and to catch up on the secondary literature. I spent the fall revising and updating the manuscript and it is now under peer review.


précis: What are the key insights of the book?

PH: Kennan was profoundly influential in the direction of Japan and China policy after World War II. This was thanks to Secretary of State George Marshall. He largely delegated to Kennan policy formulation not just toward the Soviet Union but to the rest of the world. Kennan was the primary driver of the policy of disengagement from the Chinese civil war. He was even more influential on Japan policy. He was instrumental in the redirection of U.S. occupation policy from demilitarization and punishment toward economic reconstruction.

On the other hand, I criticize Kennan for dismissing the strategic importance of China, which he did for the most of the rest of his life. Kennan was also inconsistent and impractical in his application of the defensive perimeter concept in East Asia.

Kennan basically declared that mainland Asia was strategically irrelevant to us. Even if the Soviets did take Asia, it didn't matter because it posed no threat to the U.S.

During the Korea and Indochina conflicts, Kennan was never able to reconcile the conflict between his strategic assessment of the importance of these countries—which he thought was marginal—and his belief that U.S. prestige and credibility could not be compromised.

The most interesting case is Korea. He said we should get out of Korea. But immediately after the invasion in June 1950 he agreed that we had to intervene.

Vietnam was a different case. He excluded it from U.S. interests. He was saying in 1948 and '49: Whatever you do, don't inherit this from the French. And 15 years later, he became a very prominent critic of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.


précis: What are the implications for today's policymakers?

PH: Even though some of his assessments and answers were proven wrong, Kennan was always asking the right questions about the limits of our ability to influence East Asia and the resources we can bring to bear about events there.

Even though he denied that containment was applicable on the mainland of Asia, he did pursue a version of containment on its periphery. I think it is still operative in our approach to the region. He didn’t think we needed to contain Soviet influence in China—to him, containment was exclusively about the Soviets—but he eventually wanted to push back against an extension of Chinese influence in the western Pacific. And that’s what the Chinese today call containment. He was also correct in assessing the challenges of latching ourselves to feckless allies.

Kennan always knew that there would be a dilemma with the Japanese because their interests are not identical to ours and they don’t like to be taken for granted.  They’ve got their own agenda. They’re very ambivalent about us.


précis: You were National Intelligence Officer for East Asia during a critical time. What has surprised you most about regional developments there?

PH: What surprised me most was the complexity of the impact of the rise of China on the way other countries in the region view the relative importance of China and the United States. The conventional wisdom is that China is pushing the envelope and the rest of the region is aligning with the United States against it. The problem is that the rest of the region is ambivalent about the United States—and there's a lot of maneuvering and hedging going on. I think that the regional response to both China and the U.S. rebalance is partly a contest in which the Chinese are trying to exploit the other countries' uncertainties about the rebalance.

I think this is a factor even in the minds of our closest friends and allies in the region.


précis: Do you think U.S. policymakers are aware of this?

PH: Increasingly. But it's the fundamental challenge of U.S. policy in East Asia right now—how to recognize shifting views about the balance of power in the region and align ourselves in a practical way.


précis: Is there appetite in Washington for policy-relevant scholarship?

PH: I think there's a tremendous appetite for it. I think in order for it to get their attention, it has to be very short and concise. It has to be practical and not theoretical. They're not going to absorb a lot of International Relations theory. It has to be operationally useful. And perhaps most importantly, it can't just be bad news that tells them that everything is wrong and all the alternatives are not workable either. 

I should put it this way: Scholars should replicate what we do in the intelligence community, which is what we call opportunity analysis. Specifically, identify the opportunities Washington has to influence foreign actors and the levers that will do that, rather than just something in the abstract. Policy relevant means immediately operationally useful with a chance of success.

I think SSP and CIS are particularly well equipped to be relevant, because they have such an emphasis on real-world policy challenges. Policymakers don't have time to sit around theorizing.


précis: What is it like to brief the president?

PH: It’s both awesome and intimidating. As a personal experience, it’s certainly amazing. But the important thing is that the process occurs because there’s a recognition that people who have expertise can and should be available to the president for conversation and not just written products. The value of it is the interaction.


précis: So there's a give-and-take element to the briefings?

PH: Oh, yes. I used to say the best kinds of policymakers can also be the most challenging to deal with because they only ask hard questions.

I briefed Bush once and Obama twice. The differences in their public personalities came through: Bush was more casual and Obama was more intense. Bush immensely valued his morning intelligence briefing. I presume his father told him you should do that every morning. Obama valued it too, but the meetings were structured differently and he was very practically oriented.


précis: How do leaders differ in the way they consume intelligence?

PH: Some policymakers are very focused on their operational objectives. Others are more intellectually curious. It's not as driven by their inbox as it is to others.


précis: Do you miss your work on the inside of the intelligence community?

PH: I often miss being in the loop. And I certainly miss the professionalism and substance of my former colleagues there. What I don't miss is the pressure to read hundreds of pages of intelligence every day and to be conversant in all of it in case anybody called. 

I thought I would go through withdrawal not having access to all the classified sources. But I was surprised at how quickly that seemed like a relief!


précis: What are the most common myths about the U.S. intelligence community? How do you dispel them?

PH: I think the most common popular myth is that the purpose of intelligence is to be omniscient. And that's not achievable—any more than absolute security is. And people equate the two.

I think there are a lot of myths that come out of the Snowden episode. There’s a myth that the intelligence community is this secretive, autocratic, Big Brother, and that it is trying to listen to all of your phone conversations. I would dispel that by saying that we’re not interested and we don’t have the time. I’m more worried about what online vendors know about me than what the government knows about me. If you’re not doing anything—like breaking laws—that would merit the attention of the intelligence community, you shouldn’t be afraid.

The analytical community within the intelligence community is not that different from the character of an organization like CIS or SSP. The Directorate of Intelligence at the CIA and the National Intelligence Council often function like think tanks. And I think they're the two best think tanks in the world, because of the direct input they have on policy deliberation. Outside academics sometimes go to brief the president. But we do it every day.


précis: Do you have any advice to students at MIT who are considering a career in the U.S. intelligence community?

PH: Go for it. I stumbled into it. When I applied to the CIA, I didn't know exactly what they did. A friend of mine and I said: Who hires people like us?

I would enthusiastically encourage anybody to pursue it. It’s a tremendous combination of immense intellectual stimulation and the gratification of working with high caliber people who are having a major impact on policymakers who are making big decisions. You can’t ask for more impact than that.