Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

How to Succeed in the Foreign-Policy Blob

| May 15, 2023

Some graduation advice for aspiring members of the foreign-policy establishment in the class of 2023.

It's graduation time at a lot of colleges and universities, and students are collecting their diplomas and heading off to begin their professional lives. Families are kvelling about the graduates' achievements and heaving sighs of relief as tuition payments come to an end. My master's students have been dropping by in recent weeks to ask my advice on how to succeed in the next phase of their careers. Although I'd like to give them an edge over students from other schools, it is fairer to share what I told them with the rest of you.

But first, a caveat. I never had the opportunity to serve in government myself and it's been decades since I spent a year as a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment and another at the Brookings Institution. You are therefore free to discount my suggestions, or rely instead on advice from experienced insiders. That said, I have spent a fair bit of time interacting with current and former government officials and fellows at assorted think tanks, and I've sent a lot of students off to careers in the Blob (or its foreign counterparts). I also spent a fair bit of time over the past few years researching its folkways and habits of mind. Here’s what I think I've learned about succeeding in the Blob.

1. Develop a genuine area of expertise. Academics who complete a Ph.D. tend to specialize in a particular area, but master's students and undergraduates usually don't have time to master a specific policy issue. Once you start working, however, you should try to develop deep expertise in some critical policy domain. You don't have to become the world's foremost authority on it (although that's obviously desirable if you can pull it off), but you do want to be someone whose views on some important issue(s) are respected and sought out by others. It can be a broad topic (e.g., "economic sanctions") or a narrower one (e.g., "nuclear forensics," "human rights conditions in the Horn of Africa"), but ideally it will be an area that some number of people think is important and one in which you become a go-to person.

Developing real expertise serves two purposes. First, it will give you greater confidence: Weighing in on how to address a problem is easier when you have a deep knowledge of the subject matter and aren't simply winging it. Second, and equally important, it will establish you as a serious policy professional, not just as somebody who managed to earn a degree. And you certainly don't want to get a reputation for being a clever bullshitter who doesn't really know what you're talking about. For all these reasons, work hard at mastering at least one important policy domain.

Relatedly, you also need to learn the policy machinery that guides actions in the domain in which you are working so that you can develop "actionable items" that have some chance of being adopted. Is your subject one in which Congress is critical and legislative action is required, or can it be addressed primarily through the executive branch? Are there interest groups whose support will be critical to success? Who are the likely opponents and how can their influence be negated? It's easy to offer lofty prescriptions about "what needs to be done" (I do it all the time in this column), but you'll be more effective (and valuable) if you learn how the machinery of government really works and can translate your good ideas into concrete actions....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“How to Succeed in the Foreign-Policy Blob.” Foreign Policy, May 15, 2023.

The Author

Stephen Walt