Lawrence Rubin, associate professor and director of Graduate Studies in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, returned to the Georgia Institute of Technology campus this fall after a year working in the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy.
Rubin served in the Department of Defense (DOD) through a Council of Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellowship sponsored by the Stanton Foundation. Broadly speaking, the Fellowships place academics, such as Rubin, in public service and policy-oriented settings, while government officials are placed in scholarly settings.
What did you do at the Department of Defense?
I was fortunate to work in two different offices in the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy, Middle East and Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction. In the first, I was Country Director for Egypt, which meant coordinating and managing the military to military relationship with Egypt and advising senior defense leadership. In the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office, among other issues, I served as the DOD lead for the Proliferation Security Initiative. This is a global effort created in 2003 under President George W. Bush to stop the trafficking of weapons of mass destruction, their delivery systems, and related materials.
Was it a culture shock, going from academia to government?
Yes. Lifestyle-wise. The biggest shock was the tempo and time. Meetings started and generally ended on time. You move from one issue to another and a day often feels like a week.
Substantively, what surprised me most was the extent to which process matters. Maybe it’s something that you’ve been told about or read about, but process dominates your time, and to be good at what you’re doing, you have to master the process. Coming from the outside, I think many academics would think, “I have a great idea, I know a lot so here is how it should work and is supposed to work.” But it doesn’t work like that. You need resources, authorities, allies, and luck when it comes to timing.
It also reinforced my understanding that most foreign policy decisions cannot be explained by some model or theory. A bureaucratic process shapes the outcome in many cases. While this process has its critics, it has a certain logic to it even if it’s messy and nonlinear at times. Most importantly, it may not always produce the optimal foreign policy but it may also put checks on impulses.
This was your first experience working in government. What did your experience teach you about government service?
I had the privilege of working with some of the most talented and dedicated people. I think the size and depth of this pool is lost not only on academics but also on the general public. What really inspired me was that the cause or mission was often bigger than just a single-authored paper or some grant—the traditional markers of academic success.
What’s the most valuable lesson you will take away from this experience?
I’m still processing that. It is clear that it will transform my career. First, it will affect the way I look at civil-military relations and society more generally. I came to really appreciate the dedication of the civil servants and the professionalism of the military. I appreciated the sense of mission and the leadership’s attempt to try to steer clear of politics. This sense of mission is often lost on many in academia and the general public.
Related to this, is an observation that the downside of having a professional military is that very few in our society have exposure to military personnel or their families. In other words, for many it’s just a concept or idea and most have no idea what a tour is like for the soldier or the family of the soldier—not to mention those who have suffered losses. As others have said in the past, a small segment of society bears most of the physical burden of wars and this is something we need to discuss.
Practically, this experience has given me a number of tools to understand foreign policy in a more sophisticated manner.
Substantively, it’s exposed me to important issues that were never on my radar. It’s also given me firsthand experience that a good policy should consider the tradeoffs that must be made because resources are finite. Despite having the most powerful military on the planet, the U.S. cannot fight every type of war, all the time, all over the globe. We simply don’t have the resources. Therefore, we have to prioritize our interests and threats to those interests. This is one of the most important and challenging conversations to have, but we, as a nation, must have it.