precis Interview: Erik Lin-Greenberg

  • Fall 2020
precis Interview: Erik Lin-Greenberg

Erik Lin-Greenberg joined MIT in fall of 2020 as assistant professor in the Department of Political Science. He received his PhD from Columbia University, and his MS and BS in political science from MIT. His research examines how emerging military technology affects conflict dynamics and the regulation and use of force. His current book project leverages experimental methods, archival research, elite interviews, and surveys to study how remote warfighting technologies–like drones and cyber warfare–shape crisis escalation. In other ongoing projects, he explores how technology influences alliance relationships and public attitudes toward the use of force. He is also interested in the role of food in international politics.

FALL 20/WINTER 21: précis Interview: Erik Lin-Greenberg
Erik Lin-Greenberg headshot and a rendering of a drone
January 21, 2021

précis: Tell us about your journey from and back to MIT.  How did your undergraduate experience here inform the work you are now doing as a faculty member?

ELG: One of the greatest things about being a MIT political science undergraduate student is that the class size is incredibly small. I received a lot of attention from faculty that I probably wouldn't have gotten at a university where hundreds of students majored in political science. This enabled me to sample what it was like to be a graduate student as an undergrad and made me interested in pursuing political science in an academic sense. 

However, I had a commitment to the Air Force since I did ROTC. As part of my military service, I became an intelligence officer where I leveraged lessons learned at MIT, especially from the Security Studies Program (SSP). Intelligence training discussed concepts like counterinsurgency, US military capabilities and the different services. I had already been exposed to these concepts from courses taught by Barry Posen, Taylor Fravel, and Fotini Christia.

While serving on active duty, I worked with systems—like remotely piloted aircraft or drones--and saw them used in an operational setting. This experience started triggering questions about what happens if we're using these systems, not against groups like the Taliban and Al Qaeda, but against peer competitors. Also, during my deployment to the Middle East, I had the opportunity to meet Jason Lyall, an academic who was working on research related to air power and airstrikes. Jason and I had great conversations about political science in a more formal sense. I thought, okay, this is really cool! I want to go back to graduate school. 

I initially thought I would stay in the Air Force and it would sponsor my PhD. I would then have three years to finish and then return to duty. I applied and was accepted to graduate schools but was picked up as an alternate for the Air Force program. I made the decision to transfer into the reserve and go to graduate school full time. I think that was the right decision for me. I don't think I would have been able to finish a dissertation in three years. And it  allowed me to explore and do field work that I wouldn't have been able to do on a compressed schedule.  

I finished my PhD at Columbia and spent some time as a pre-doc and a post-doc before joining MIT. It is very humbling to be back. With the exception of Vipin Narang, I think most of the faculty members in SSP were faculty members when I was an undergraduate. I am still learning from everyone and having an absolute blast! 

précis: You began teaching during the Covid-19 pandemic. How has that been for you? 

ELG: Students, faculty, administrators, and staff have just been absolutely wonderful. Although, I wish these were normal times. The best and most exciting part about being a professor is working with graduate students and especially the graduate students at MIT and SSP. The students here are interested in a set of important policy relevant topics and doing work in innovative and robust ways. So not getting the opportunity to see graduate students and colleagues in the hallway is unfortunate, and there's a real barrier to having a conversation on Zoom. 

That being said, our graduate students are doing an impressive job and watching them excel is rewarding for me. The senior students are either planning or working on their dissertations and figuring out ways to do their research in an era of Covid.

précis: In regard to your research on emerging technologies’ effect on conflict, how do you see remote escalation changing the nature of war? 

ELG: Whether it be cyber warfare or acquiring drones, we're seeing more and more states developing these capabilities. These systems have the potential to shift conflict dynamics. In most cases, IR theories tell us that technologies capable of making offensive activity cheaper, and more likely to succeed will result in a less stable and more dangerous world. To a certain extent, parts of that argument may be true. Especially when you consider remote warfighting technologies that allow states to initiate activity they might not have otherwise. 

But these technologies also have the potential to create unique off-ramps and ways to control escalation dynamics. Imagine a manned aircraft versus a drone is shot down. You're probably not going to have the same type of pressures, whether it is from military leaders or from the domestic public, to escalate after a drone is lost as opposed to a manned aircraft. There are elements in escalation dynamics that are overlooked by theories that we've learned in graduate school and are pretty dominant in our field. 

I am also interested how the notion or the nature of escalation changes. If we think about all of the datasets political scientists use to measure escalation as a dependent variable, they're often not very nuanced. They don't necessarily take into account the type of military technology used. They make distinctions between conventional and nuclear weapons, but we need to rethink how we measure escalation. That's something I'm hoping to do down the road. 

At the end of the day, any military technology is a tool of policymakers. It’s an intervening variable. You essentially are increasing the menu of options that policymakers have when they ask whether we are going to carry out military operations against a rival. It creates new ways of war fighting. If we look at the recent conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, you see drones being used in conflicts between state actors. Bottom line, I think this has the potential to fundamentally reshape how and, in some cases, when conflicts escalate. 

précis: You are using innovative methods to study these topics, such as wargaming. You are also one of the advisors to the MIT Wargaming Group formed in Fall 2019. Could you explain the methodology and the developments in the field? 

ELG: There’s been a shift in IR over the past few decades to broaden our scope beyond traditional observational methods. I think of research as trying to complete a puzzle by answering different parts of the question. Observational research can tell us a lot of really great information. But in many cases, when you're dealing with emerging technologies, information isn't publicly available. So what I've done in some of my work is to recruit national security practitioners and military officers to essentially simulate crisis decision-making settings with a bit of experimental methodology added.

This allows me to do a few things. It creates a venue where we can create rare events. It allows us to see the interaction between players and how this interaction ends up shaping decision outcomes and behavior. You don't get this information from other methods--even survey experiments. 

There's disagreement as to whether or not my wargames are actual experiments because their sample size is pretty small. But I manipulate the variable of interest and see how the presence or absence of that variable changes behavior across teams. I try to repeat these games as many times as possible to identify trends. 

I am working with Reid Pauly, who is a recent MIT PhD and now a faculty member at Brown University, and another good friend and colleague of ours, Jackie Schneider. Schneider was a fellow Air Force officer and is now a fellow at the Hoover Institute. We are trying to expand the use of wargaming as a method and working on a paper that is under review.  We also hope to write a methods book on wargaming. 

précis: You are also working on a project regarding food and food in diplomacy. Could you tell us a little bit about that? 

ELG: As many people know, I'm an aspiring foodie. Every time I go do archival work or sometimes interview work, I'll try to find additional documents on the role of food and international politics and international security. Food obviously plays an enormously important part in our lives from a cultural standpoint. It is also a requirement to live. It shouldn't be surprising that it also plays an enormous role in international politics.

I view food through three lenses. First, it is something that states fight over – as a resource that one seeks to control. Second, as a bargaining chip – a literal carrot or stick to win friends and punish adversaries. And, finally, as an instrument of soft power. 

There are a lot of very fun examples, such as this great story about kimchi being used by the US to help convince South Korea to provide additional troops to the war effort in Vietnam. The US also delivered food boxes to East Berliners during the Cold War as a means of generating soft power and a token of goodwill. This led to tensions between the US, British and French. The British and French essentially said, “Hey, you’ve got to stop distributing chocolate, lard, and butter. You're going to cause World War III.” 

This project is a back-burner fun thing that I do whenever I need a break from my main research. 

précis: Speaking of back-burner fun things, what is your most fun quarantine activity? Runs count!

ELG: Runs are fun, but runs come as the result of me doing a lot of cooking. My spouse and I really, really enjoy cooking. Since we're not able to go to restaurants as frequently as we would in the past, I’m doing a ton of cooking at home and also buying one too many cookbooks!