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CISAC goes to Washington

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White House

Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation may be far from Washington, D.C., but its influence inside the Beltway has been underscored by five scholars tapped to serve in the Obama administration. Paul Stockton, Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, Michael McFaul, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall and Jeremy Weinstein have all been closely affiliated with the center, known by its acronym CISAC, in the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI).

"I just can't tell you how often I've been in government meetings where the connection I have to people is CISAC," said McFaul, who was FSI's deputy director until he was named special assistant to President Barack Obama and senior director for Russian and Eurasian affairs at the National Security Council (NSC). McFaul, who also served as director of FSI's Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL), is a former CISAC scholar. "You know, CISAC is thick in the U.S. government," he said.

CISAC is an interdisciplinary research center that focuses on tackling some of the world's toughest security issues through developing innovative, policy relevant research and providing independent advice to governments. It also trains the next generation of security specialists through its undergraduate honors program and by offering fellowships for graduate students and mid-career experts.

Sherwood-Randall, a special assistant to Obama and the NSC's senior director for European affairs, works closely with McFaul. At Stanford, she participated in the Preventive Defense Project (PDP), which former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry jointly heads at CISAC. "When I wrote my doctoral dissertation in the early 1980s, one of my conclusions was that relationships among the key players made a decisive difference in the practice and outcomes of statecraft," Sherwood-Randall said. "Nothing could be truer today. At the NSC, I work for National Security Advisor James L. Jones, whom I initially met while working on a PDP project."

Longstanding relationships continue with Weinstein, an associate professor of political science and CISAC and CDDRL faculty member working as the NSC's director for democracy. They also continue with Stockton, a CISAC senior research scholar and now assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and Americas' security affairs. "The brain drain of Stanford scholars to Washington hurts CISAC from a narrow perspective," Stockton said. "On the other hand, it populates D.C. with people who are committed to serve in the administration and make a difference in U.S. security." Stockton said he looks forward to working with Cuéllar, another CISAC faculty member and Stanford Law School professor serving as special assistant to Obama on the White House Domestic Policy Council. "To be able to know someone of such terrific academic caliber but also a wonderful person who cares deeply about the challenges the United States faces is a gift," Stockton said.

In addition to colleagues, the five scholars said they bring the center's interdisciplinary intellectual rigor with them to Washington. "Working on CISAC projects and in the classroom, one learns the value of listening to different viewpoints and different ways of thinking," Cuéllar said. "You see what an anthropologist has to learn from and teach a physicist. That's profoundly relevant in this context, as lawyers, press secretaries, economists and policy analysts can sometimes cultivate - despite their best intentions - an enormous capacity to talk past one another." Cuéllar said doing CISAC policy-related work, law school research and teaching, and pro bono projects was good practice for the demands of his new job. "It helps prepare one for Washington," he said.

CISAC as a lab

For almost two decades, Lynn Eden, CISAC's associate director for research, has served as a mentor to scores of scholars, including those now in Washington. "I once asked Tino [Cuéllar], ‘Why are you here [at CISAC], spreading yourself thin?'" Eden recalled. "He said he just found it enormously stimulating."

According to Eden, CISAC aims to provide a stimulating academic environment. "But, we don't want to kid ourselves," she said about the Obama administration staffers. "They are terribly competent, exceedingly bright people. We have been thrilled to have them at CISAC. They would have been tremendously successful without being here. But it doesn't mean that their experience here hasn't enriched them."

Eden recalls that when McFaul returned from Oxford University in 1991 with a doctorate earned as a Rhodes scholar, he had to retool himself for U.S. academia. "I remember sitting with him in what was called the Annex, in Galvez House, which was a trailer," she said, referring to CISAC's former digs on Galvez Street. "We had a white board in the back. He went up to the board and I just peppered him. ‘What is your question? What is your argument? Do you mean this or this?'" Eden said. "I basically grilled him in an extremely friendly way so his argument made sense." Such conversations, a regular feature at CISAC, helped McFaul grow intellectually, Eden said. "In some ways, Mike is sui generis, but you do need a place to blossom," she added. "I think it was the right amount of support and challenge for him and it worked very well."

CISAC's value, according to those who move between the worlds of policymaking and academia, is that it allows people to accumulate intellectual capital. "There is no time to do policy development and intellectual exploration in D.C.," McFaul said. "Condi [Rice] told me two decades ago that you build up intellectual capital [in academia] and you spend it down in Washington."

Upon arrival at the NSC, McFaul said he was surprised at the role good analytical and scientific work plays in policy deliberations. "I've encountered CISAC's work in my job," he said. Big ideas, such as the Getting to Zero project to eliminate nuclear weapons that Perry jointly heads, have had a "profound influence" on the president, McFaul noted. "That's where the rubber hits the road."

Relevance in a changing world

Looking to the future, Washington's new residents said CISAC should continue to encourage scholars to think in innovative ways to help tackle complicated problems. "Doing that successfully is invaluable both for universities and for the policy world, and it's all too rare," Cuéllar said.

Stockton, who participated in CISAC's 25th anniversary celebration on May 29, said the center must remain committed to its three-part mission of producing policy-relevant research, influencing policymaking, and training the next generation of security specialists. "I hope that not just for the next 25 years but for many years beyond CISAC will maintain its leading role in combining those three initiatives," he said. "It also needs to look over the horizon to understand the emerging challenges to security and then attract the very best people to address them."

Sherwood-Randall, who previously served in the Clinton administration, said CISAC also should create more incentives for policy-oriented scholars to get real-world experience. "Nothing really prepares you for the first time you enter the Oval Office to brief the president of the United States," she said. "It is a bracing experience - and one that instills in you the keenest appreciation of the fact that there are no dress rehearsals in these jobs. You have to get it right the first time."

A version of this article first appeared in "Encina Columns," published by FSI in Summer 2009