Sagan honored by ISA as Distinguished Security Scholar


1 Sagan teaching
Scott Sagan teaches Ethics and Law of War class.
Photo credit: 
Rod Searcey

Scott Sagan has several pieces of advice for young scholars coming up in the field of international security: pick worthy opponents, pick and invest in worthy friends, recruit and promote independent-minded students. And always be open to debate.

“You remember your jobs, your tenure, you remember your first book when it comes out and you hold it in your hands,” Sagan told some 300 scholars and former CISAC honors students and fellows as he was named the 2013 Distinguished Scholar in International Security Studies by the International Studies Association.

“You remember the times when sometimes, remarkably, you feel like you’ve had some policy impact. But among the things that I will always remember is tonight, because getting this award is wonderful,” Sagan said during the ceremony in San Francisco.

Sagan, a political science professor and senior fellow at CISAC and FSI, was praised during the ISA event for his contributions to the study of nuclear nonproliferation and his mentorship of many students who count him as a pivotal person in their professional lives.

“Scott is a truly outstanding and remarkably unusual mentor,” said George Perkovich, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “One of the greatest ways for a scholar to affect the world is to mentor very talented young people. They may go on to be scholars or go into government or business or the news media – all of these enterprises that combine, in messy ways, to produce real-world action.”

Sagan – who founded the CISAC Honors Program in 2000 when he was co-director – is known on campus for his simulation classes and field trips to American battlefields. He has written nine books, dozens of articles and has been cited in thousands of publications related to nuclear nonproliferation and weapons of mass destruction, the development of first-use norms and the management of hazardous technology and South Asia.

  Scott literally changed my professional life." - Vipin NarangA panel discussion at the ISA’s annual convention – the largest gathering of security scholars in the world – was convened to give an overview of Sagan’s contributions to scholarship and teaching. It was at times political, at times moving – and at times felt like a roast, with plenty of ribbing about Sagan’s seemingly perfect hair and owl-eyed glasses.

“He has the most perfect hair of any senior scholar,” said Vipin Narang, a former CISAC honors student. “He used to have these round glasses, such that when I first saw him in 2000, I thought, `This is what Harry Pottery will look like in 40 years.’”

Peter D. Feaver, a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, recalled the first time he met Sagan. He was a poor graduate student living on macaroni and cheese, flying back from a research trip when he passed Sagan in first class.

“As I walked down the aisle, I see out of the corner of my eye this very distinguished guy with flecks of gray hair, probably a movie star, sitting up in first class,” Feaver said. “I was feeling a bit sorry for myself, but then I said to myself, `But I’m pursuing the life of the mind and those people up there, they are crass materialists who are working in Hollywood or whatever.’”

Feaver, who worked in both the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, said it finally came to him that the distinguished gentleman in first class was Sagan.

“He graciously came back for a little while to give me some words of encouragement – and he’s been giving me words of encouragement from first class ever since.”

Past winners of the annual prize have included such notable scholars as Jack Snyder, Robert Jervis, Thomas Schelling and Sagan’s renown writing partner, Kenneth Waltz. Sagan and Waltz argue for and against nuclear nonproliferation, respectively, in their landmark book, “The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate.”

     We’re all involved in the same enterprise: trying to find truth and trying to make an impact.” - SaganNina Tannenwald, a senior lecturer in political science at Brown University whose work focuses on international institutions, norms and global security issues, said she and Sagan don’t always agree on policy, but that she rarely disagrees with his methods. She credits Sagan with making great contributions to nuclear nonproliferation norms.

“Scott’s interest in norms is reflected in his policy work and I want to talk here about his article, “The Case for No First Use,” which was published in Survival in 2009,” said Tannenwald, author of “The Nuclear Taboo” and currently a Franklin Fellow in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation in the U.S. State Department.

“His argument about no first-use has been made in the past by others, but Scott’s contribution is to make a very sophisticated case that declaratory policy matters,” Tannenwald said. “Now realists of course think that declaratory policy is cheap talk. But Scott makes the very constructivist argument that declaratory policy matters for both military planning domestically and internationally.”

Other scholars who spoke in praise of Sagan included Charles Perrow, a professor emeritus in sociology at Yale University and Todd Sechser, an assistant professor of politics at University of Virginia, as well as handful of former Stanford students.

Narang, a Stanton nuclear fellow at CISAC this academic year, gave a a moving tribute to Scott’s role as mentor. He was a Stanford senior in 2000, majoring in chemical engineering and bored by his lab work, when he took one of Sagan’s classes.

The proverbial light bulb went off in his head.

“Scott literally changed my professional life,” said Narang, recruited by Sagan for the first CISAC honors class. He recalled how Sagan taught him how to write his thesis about India’s chemical weapons program using the classic social science method: find a puzzle, come up with a theory to solve it, establish alternative explanations – and then test it.

“I would have been an unhappy researcher in rural Pennsylvania playing with bacteria if not for Scott’s vision to found the honors programs and to take undergraduates and train them in a hands-on way about the social science process,” Narang said.

Today, Narang is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison focused on nuclear nonproliferation and South Asian security.

He said Sagan is know as “Scott Singh Sagan” in South Asia due to his pioneering book, “Inside Nuclear South Asia,” which is widely cited by Pakistani and Indian scholars.

“It has been probably the most foundational work in the study of South Asia nuclear weapons in the field,” Narang said. “And in addition to the scholarship and the influence he’s had on young scholars such as myself in this area, he has been responsible for bringing Indian and Pakistani military fellows to CISAC for sort of his own Track II discussions that have helped Indians and Pakistanis understand each other’s doctrines.”

Sagan, drawing the event to a close with his advice to young security scholars, said that choosing the right professional opponents and personal friends would impact their lives.

“Pick worthy opponents. Argue with them. Ken Waltz; what more worthy opponent to have?” Sagan said. “Pick and invest in worthy friends and some of the people who are the opponents intellectually will become the friends personally, because we’re all involved in the same enterprise: trying to find truth and trying to make an impact.”