The Value and Responsibilities of an Elliott School Degree

photo: David Shambaugh

Commencement Speech
Elliott School of International Affairs
May 16, 2014
by Professor David Shambaugh


Thank you Dean Brown—not only for that overly generous introduction, but particularly for the invitation to be this year’s Elliott School Commencement speaker. There are few greater privileges than to be asked to address one’s alma mater at Commencement, and I am deeply honored to be invited to do so today.  As Dean Brown just noted, much of my life (one-third to be exact) has been connected to the Elliott School and GW, and it has been a wonderfully rewarding association.

Thirty-seven years ago I sat in my black cap and gown down there on the floor while my parents watched the commencement ceremonies up there. Never did I imagine in my wildest dreams that I would one day stand here in a more colorful gown and address the graduating class of 2014.  I still vividly recall that day back in 1977, when then-President of GW Lloyd Elliott (for whom, with his wife Betty, the Elliott School is appropriately named) conferred the degrees and the commencement speaker was the Ambassador from Bangladesh. The speaker implored us to look beyond the East-West Cold War (then at its height) and to pay attention to the developing world and particularly to Asia.

This was music to my ears as I was graduating with a B.A. in East Asian Studies (second graduating class, so this degree now also has a pedigree of 38 years!), but I wasn’t sure what exactly I was going to do with the degree. Many of you are probably wondering exactly the same thing right now: what am I going to do with my International Affairs degree from the Elliott School? You wonder: what can it get me in today’s hyper-competitive job market and complex world? I can assure you that you parents and relatives are wondering the same thing!

Relax. I have good news for you. In my opinion, an International Affairs degree—Bachelor’s or Master’s—is one of the most flexible yet practical degrees you can have in today’s world. This was true back when I received my degree and it is still true today. Let me illustrate this by noting the career paths of seven of my classmates whom I knew well.  I am not going to give you their names (save one), but I will tell you what they went on to do. 

One went on for his PhD at Harvard and is now one of the leading Security specialists at one of Washington’s elite think tanks for international affairs (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace). One went on for a law degree (and a PhD!), opened the law offices of a major American firm in Beijing  before becoming one of the leading academic experts on Chinese law in the world at the University of British Columbia.  Another went into poverty alleviation work with Catholic Relief Services in Cambodia, Nepal, and Uganda, before becoming a successful businessman in Southeast Asia and philanthropist. Another went into investment banking in New York and Bangkok and is now a senior partner in a London-based international equity firm that manages billions of dollars in pension funds, sovereign wealth funds, and institutional endowments.  This person is certainly one of the more financially successful members of my Elliott School class! Another became a Governor and is now a Senator (you can probably guess who—Mark Warner of Virginia). Mark and I took an American politics class together—which obviously had more of a lasting impact on him than me! Another joined the CIA and became one of the Agency’s top Middle East experts. And then there was a classmate in my Chinese language class, who went on to become an art historian of Chinese art and work for the Smithsonian’s Freer & Sackler Galleries of Asian Art… and become my wife of now 32 years!

I tell you about my peer group and classmates in the class of 1977 precisely to illustrate the flexibility, practicality, and diversity of the Elliott School degree in International Affairs.  Seven people, seven different professions: a think tanker, a corporate attorney and now law professor, a businessman and philanthropist, an international banker, a politician, an intelligence analyst, and an art historian. But every one of the seven is involved in international affairs in one way or another.  And these are just people I knew well in my class (and still keep up with).

Look around you and think about several members in your peer group and graduating class: I guarantee you that they will have just as diverse career paths—but the common denominator will be something connected to international affairs.   So, gradates and parents, be confident about your futures!  And, who knows: maybe, like me, you might find a spouse in the class of 2014. Take a look around you....

Your Elliott School degree is a versatile and practical one because we have trained you in:

--the theory and practice of international affairs;

--you have taken courses on international history and contemporary affairs;

--many of you have concentrated in one of our excellent regional studies programs or our functional studies programs (or a combination thereof);

--you have learned to write long research papers as well as short policy memos, intelligence briefs, or future scenario forecasts;

--you have participated in group projects (including the CAPSTONE courses);

--you have had to orally present in front of audiences;

--and you have taken some of our professional skills courses.

In all of these ways, you have been trained to see the complexities, interconnectedness, and interdependencies of today’s world—and have acquired a practical skill set that should serve you well in a variety of workplace environments.  I regularly run into my former students, who work in a variety of institutions, but all tell me how useful the written, oral, and forecasting skills associated with the simulated National Intelligence Estimate projects I use in my own classes has been to them after graduation.  So these are the reasons why I say you have a flexible and practical degree—now go forth and make good use of it!

That is the first message I wish to convey to you. The other one has to do with the responsibilities associated with your degree.  What I mean about the responsibility associated with your degree is this: all of us in the field of international affairs—no matter which specific career path we pursue—have, I believe, the civic responsibility to contribute to society by being a public educator and educating our fellow citizens in international affairs. One does not have to go on and get a PhD (although some of you will), to become an international affairs educator.  You can all be teachers!

Every nation’s foreign policy is only as effective as its citizens are informed about international affairs and have an understanding of other societies and governments.  As I just noted, you have been trained at the Elliott School to try and understand the extraordinary complexities of the world today—there are countless variables that one must take into consideration when analyzing or practicing international affairs. But if I can give you some advice, it is to focus on one variable above all: PERCEPTION.

One can measure all the so-called “objective” factors in international affairs—GNPs, ships and planes, trade and financial flows, demographics, and so on—but, at the end of the day, it is how human beings in various societies and governments subjectively perceive  these so-called “objective factors.” One country’s defense is seen by another country as potentially threatening—thus creating what we call a “security dilemma.”  One country’s culture can be seen as subversive to another. One country’s economic policies can be seen as competitive by one side but an unfair advantage by another. And so on.

The history of international affairs—from the rivalry between ancient Greek city states Athens and Sparta (if you go back and read Thucydides) to the present day—provides a clear record that misperception is the most frequent contributor to conflict among nations.  In the US-China relationship today, for example, there is widespread recognition that there is a significant and growing deficit of mutual trust and rising bilateral suspicions—which are directly contributing to a strategically competitive relationship between the world’s two leading powers (referred to by some as the “Thucydides Trap”).  In both the United States and China—but in other nations as well—insularity, nationalism, parochialism, prejudice, ignorance, propaganda, stereotypes, lack of basic information about other societies, and an inability to view oneself as other’s view you are THE greatest dangers to global peace and security, I would argue.  

Despite the globalization process that connects societies together as never before in history, the sad (but dangerous!) reality is that global publics remain woefully ill-informed of other nations and the world at large. Just look at the data provided by the Pew Global Attitudes Survey if you don’t believe me.

Whatever country you come from or will work in during your lifetimes, YOU have an opportunity and a responsibility to do something about this!!  Your Elliott School degree has already qualified you to become a public educator in the global classroom. Whether in the workplace, in your neighborhood, in a community organization, at a party, on a train or airplane, in an international organization, at a university, wherever—engage others in conversation about international affairs. You are better educated in international affairs than most of the public—now go to work and share that knowledge!    This is one of the life-long responsibilities that possessing a degree in international affairs carries with it.

So these are the twin messages that I wish to leave you with today as you look to the future and graduate from the Elliott School—(1) be optimistic that your degree is one of the most flexible and practical ones you could possess in today’s globalized world, but (2) remember that with it comes a civic responsibility to constantly contribute to reducing misperceptions and improving public awareness about world affairs.

Thank you for your attention, congratulations again, and best of luck to you all!