Q&A November 17, 2020

Center Fellow Oriana Skylar Mastro discusses how her scholarship and military career impact one another.

An expert on Chinese military and security issues, Mastro also talks about how her learning style informs her teaching style.
Oriana Skylar Mastro at a conference
Oriana Skylar Mastro speaking at a conference.

Mastro, an FSI Center Fellow with both the Center for International Security and Cooperation and the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center. An expert in Chinese military and security policy, she published her first book, The Costs of Conversation: Obstacles to Peace Talks in Wartime in 2019 which one the 2020 American Political Science Association International Security Section’s Best Book for an Untenured Faculty Member. She is currently working on a second book about how China builds and exercises power in the world.

In a lot of these exchanges, I try to think back on what I know as an academic from the literature. After that war game, I did a little digging and found that there was no good answer. Actually, the question about how to get an adversary to the negotiating table had rarely been asked. International relations focused a lot on how wars start and how they end but not how states get to the negotiating table to begin with. There’s an assumption that states are always talking while they’re fighting but that’s actually never the case. There’s always a period of time in which states are refusing to talk. And political science had no explanation for why they weren’t they talking. This empirical puzzle inspired  the first book. I wanted to know why states would refuse to talk and under what conditions they would agree to engage in diplomacy while they were fighting.

Q: As an academic scholar and a member of the military, can you talk about how these two parts of your career fit together?

The substance of my research is motivated by my real-world experience. I’m a major in the Air Force. My first book was inspired by an experience I had in one of my first war games when I was a second lieutenant.
Maj. Oriana Skylar Mastro
Maj. Oriana Skylar Mastro

It was 4 pm on a Friday and the war had to end. We knew we needed to get the other side to talk so we could engage in negotiations. Some people said, “Let’s use more force. That will get them to the table.” Other people said, “No, no, let’s back off and try to give them face-saving measures to get them to the table.”

In a lot of these exchanges, I try to think back on what I know as an academic from the literature. After that war game, I did a little digging and found that there was no good answer. Actually, the question about how to get an adversary to the negotiating table had rarely been asked. International relations focused a lot on how wars start and how they end but not how states get to the negotiating table to begin with. There’s an assumption that states are always talking while they’re fighting but that’s actually never the case. There’s always a period of time in which states are refusing to talk. And political science had no explanation for why they weren’t they talking. This empirical puzzle inspired  the first book. I wanted to know why states would refuse to talk and under what conditions they would agree to engage in diplomacy while they were fighting.

Q: Do your colleagues in the military and in academia tend to think about China in similar ways?

I often find myself in discussions or meetings, in the military, in policy, even in academia, where people who work in other areas now apply their knowledge to China. As a China specialist, I’m constantly trying to explain to people that that doesn’t always work. China often perceives costs, benefits and risks differently than the US.  

So when the United States is trying to assess threats, or challenges, there’s a tendency to see if China is going to do the things that we do. If China wants to be powerful, the thinking goes, they’re going to have overseas bases. Or China, of course, is going to start engaging in the civil wars of other countries like we do – there is no other way to protect their growing economic interests. What people fail to realize is that history has happened. States learn lessons from what has happened before. There’s this assumption of emulation, that to be a great power states will do what other great powers did to get there. But times change. And so too do effective strategies.

For example, after World War II, the US didn’t build colonies. Did that mean we lacked ambition? No, it was just that the nature of the international system had changed. The best way we thought to consolidate and exercise power was to build international institutions and a network of global alliances. That was new. That was innovative, entrepreneurial. That was revisionist. We in effect revised the international system.

Political scientists love to see patterns but the pattern is that the rising powers which do things differently are successful at overtaking the established hegemon, while the countries that emulate are not.

So the next book looks at China’s strategies for building power, how they are different from those of the US, and how effective they are. While I work mainly on military issues, there will be chapters on China’s approach to foreign policy and economic power as well.

Oriana Skylar Mastro in China
Oriana Skylar Mastro traveling in China

Q: As a China scholar, are there risks you face working with Chinese academics? And how do you overcome them? 

A. It’s important to understand the risks and not be naïve about it. But just because there’s risk doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. People ask me all the time, with my military job, do you still go to China? Yes, that’s how I learn.

A lot of universities right now, especially with COVID, are creating a system in which it’s difficult to work overseas, especially with colleagues from these problematic countries. Some universities only want collaboration with Chinese universities if students are guaranteed full academic freedom while there. You’re not going to get that in China.  Does that mean we don’t want to give students the opportunity to be in a country and see what it’s like? I am much more on the ‘Let’s engage’ side not because I think engagement brings peace and happiness. Sometimes I think the more you talk to someone the more you realize you don’t like them. But to be good scholars and strategists, you have to understand the world.

People ask me all the time, with my military job, do you still go to China? Yes, that’s how I learn.
Oriana Skylar Mastro
FSI Center Fellow at CISAC and APARC

Q. You’ve joined CISAC’s AI and Crisis working group. Can you tell me about your interest in Artificial Intelligence?

When I do research, I really like to know the details. This is one of the reasons that I speak Chinese, lived in China, and joined the military. I read a lot about tech but I have the impression that many people don’t understand the basics of the technology. I don’t either! But moving to Palo Alto, Silicon Valley is an opportunity for me to learn more about it.

Q. Can you tell me about your teaching philosophy?

I have always started everything I’ve done at the bottom and had to catch up.  When I became a CISAC honors student as an undergraduate, I had taken intro to political science. When I joined the military, I didn’t know the difference between the enlisted and officers – I hadn’t really come into contact with anyone in the military before then.  

And then when Georgetown hired me, I was beginning my fourth year of my PhD. I finished my PhD in four and half years, and then started a tenure track job. It wasn’t surprising given where I was in my education that my research was not up to par. So I started by evaluating the top publications in my field and asking myself, “What makes their research so good? What do they do that I am not doing?”

What I try to bring to my students, in addition to my knowledge, are ways and strategies to process and think about that knowledge. I remember what was confusing to me so I try to incorporate that into my explanation so students understand that you can learn anything.
Oriana Skylar Mastro
FSI Center Fellow at CISAC and APARC

I’m very systematic about learning, not only the content but the process. And I think what I try to bring to my students, in addition to my knowledge, are ways and strategies to process and think about that knowledge. I remember what was confusing to me so I try to incorporate that into my explanation so students understand that you can learn anything. It’s not that I was born knowing all this stuff and understanding all this.

I also try to be very accessible and available to my students. I always say to my class, “It’s better to look like an idiot in front a small group of people and brilliant to the rest of the world than the other way around.” The classroom is that safe space where we ask the stupid questions, where we learn the things that we were always supposed to know but never quite learned.

Q. Stanford, FSI and CISAC are all committed to improving Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. How has your experience in predominantly male fields affected your career and your thinking?

My first job at the pentagon, my boss gave me advice—and it was correct—he said, “You are the only woman in this office. The men are going to try to treat you as their girlfriend, their mother or their wife. Don’t let them. Don’t sit there and listen to their problems. Don’t bring in any baked goods. And don’t flirt with anyone. That’s the only way anyone will take you seriously.”

I love baking and I often ask my husband, “Am I important enough now in my job that I can bake stuff?” And he says, no, you’re not there yet. One day!

But the younger generation wants to succeed on their own terms. They don’t want to follow such rules. I think that’s the next step but it’s much harder. So I go back and forth about the best ways to advise female students—do I do them a disservice by providing strategies for how to work with people who are sexually harassing you? Or how to brush off comments about how women aren’t meant for defense?

In the end, I hope that we’re able to make strides so that all these lessons I’ve learned about how to navigate a male dominated defense world become irrelevant for them.  

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