Fall 2019
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A Watershed

Interveiw by Brett McCabe

Photography by Howard Korn
As Johns Hopkins SAIS celebrates its 75th anniversary, the magazine sat down with Dean Eliot A. Cohen and Student Government Association President Shamaila Ashraf for a wide-ranging conversation about our changing world, the school’s future, and curricular changes that will be nothing short of transformational.
The school really is at a watershed in a number of ways. First and foremost, the world has changed and is changing, and so we [Johns Hopkins SAIS], for a whole bunch of reasons, actually have an opportunity to change.
Do you see any echoes in the world from when Johns Hopkins SAIS was founded to today?

Cohen: Christian Herter and Paul Nitze, two brilliant young men, could see even in 1943 that the world was going to be changed and that the United States was going to play a role that it had never played before. The European system was shattered, and the international economic system had to be rebuilt. That’s why they created the school. As the school looks at its 75th anniversary, the world is facing a similar watershed, where we know that geopolitics has been transformed by the arrival of China. We know that powerful transnational forces, like climate change and artificial intelligence (AI), are accelerating. Liberal democracy in the larger sense is facing challenges that it hasn’t encountered at least since the 1960s and maybe since the 1930s. The history of the school is in many ways tied up with global politics, and that’s part of what makes it such a special place.

Ashraf: I would definitely agree. The reason in my mind that students choose Johns Hopkins SAIS and the reason that the school plays such a vital role in how international affairs is shaped is that it brings a group of passionate and intelligent people together into one space. I touch on this when I talk to students. Of course, our courses do this too, but when you sit in a room and you talk to others, I truly believe those conversations, those informal interactions, shape how we go out into the world and how we interact. When you come here, you’re going to be pushed, because people aren’t always going to be like-minded, but they’re going to be passionate, and you engage in that way.

Where we are right now, especially in the United States, it’s very hard for young people to get out of their comfort zones and interact. And for me, that’s where the real education comes from.

The school brought together the study of economics, political science, diplomacy, and policy to address the problems of its day. How important is the study of these subjects to evaluating and dealing with problems international affairs face today?

Cohen: The school is about to go through some major transformations. However, we’re going to be true to our history and to some enduring features of the education we offer. One of those is very much a belief in the importance of studying history. With the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs, we have integrated several eminent historians into our faculty.

Part of the uniqueness of Johns Hopkins SAIS is that the school believes that, on the one hand, you need deep knowledge of the past and of subjects like economics, political science, and certainly history, and on the other hand, you bring that to bear on the real world and the problems of today. We’re not simply a school of public administration, and we’re not simply an ivory tower that feels no connection to the world as it is.

What we’re about is the intersection of the two. Each of the disciplines at the school brings different things to bear. Economics gives our students a certain logic of how to think about the world and how to think about problems. Political science is particularly good at helping people think about structural elements in international relations. What history gives you is an awareness of the importance of personality and contingency — that things can go differently.

Ashraf: And at the end of the day, the intersections of those disciplines teach our students how to consider multiple factors that are shaping what is happening. It’s about taking all these different factors that you may not think are working in conjunction and understanding that they play different roles. There’s no putting economics off to the side when considering something.

I study international development, and when we’re thinking about a humanitarian crisis and how to respond, you are also considering what is the history of the government here? What is the history of us as American policymakers working with that government? What is the economic structure? It’s never just one factor.

You mentioned the school is going through some major transformations at the moment. Can you speak about a few of those?

Cohen: The school really is at a watershed in a number of ways. First and foremost, the world has changed and is changing, and so we [Johns Hopkins SAIS], for a whole bunch of reasons, actually have an opportunity to change. Our move to 555 Pennsylvania Ave. will transform us as well. Churchill once said, “First we shape our buildings, and then our buildings shape us.” I believe that’s true.

We’re going to change the mix of degrees that we offer to respond to the changing world. We’re already in the middle of doing that, which involves offering very innovative programs while keeping our core two-year master’s degree intact. We’re expanding the demographics that we touch by offering more hybrid education options, where you might take some coursework online and some coursework in person. We will be offering more part-time options.

We have a terrific faculty, which is really the legacy of my predecessor. We’re going to make sure that they’re producing first-rate research. We want to make sure that their research is heard. The ideal faculty member is a first-rate scholar, a first-rate teacher, and one who is present in the public square. I believe those three things can be synergistic: one contributes to the others.

We’re also going to take a hard look at our curriculum and say, “Is this the right curriculum for the world that we’re in?” I’m going to lead the faculty in a broader discussion, with students engaged as well, to ask what it is that somebody graduating from Johns Hopkins SAIS in the 2020s, 2030s, and 2040s really needs.

Ashraf: The Student Government Association has been thinking about this year and the upcoming years and what role students can play. The day that Dean Cohen came into his new role, he emailed us saying we’re really excited to work with you, and that to me said we have an opportunity now to shape this transition too.

Cohen: And indeed, you do. I always used to tell my students, over the 29 years that I was a professor, that we hereby give you a lifetime warranty. That’s how I feel about it. The truth is, not a week goes by without engaging the alumni, sometimes from 20 or 25 years ago. We’re helping them out in various ways, and they’re helping us out in various ways. That should be the great joy of being part of an institution like this. [The relationship] does not end when graduates cross the stage.

One thing that every student walks out of here with is the ability to take complex ideas, issues, and theories, and understand them, and then be able to present them to the audience they’re working with.
What makes up the graduate skill set that enables alumni to wrestle with complex challenges?

Cohen: There are deep understanding skills and there are practical skills, and I think some of the best courses are those that try to combine the two. Alas, I can’t teach this year, but I used to teach a course on strategic decision-making. Part of what I was trying to do in that course was both to help students understand the kinds of things that go into making large military decisions but also to develop skills by having them write short memoranda that were the kind I wrote for the secretary of state for a couple of years. So often there’s that fusion in classes.

One of the advantages that students come away with from Johns Hopkins SAIS is the ability to look at a problem from a holistic point of view and in a deep and sustained way. We live in an age of distraction, but we teach people how to focus and be disciplined in a kind of linear analysis. That is, I think, a very useful skill.

And students learn about how the world really works. An awful lot of that comes down to reading, writing, and speaking. Yes, there’s learning how to wield an Excel spreadsheet and learning about geospatial imagery analysis and how it can be put to use. We offer those things. But I also think we teach people how to read large amounts of material at different speeds, how to write different kinds of things — because to be successful in the world, you need to write differently for different audiences clearly and effectively — and how to speak. If you have only five minutes to talk about a complicated problem (which is the way the world works), well, how do you do that?

Ashraf: One thing that every student walks out of here with is the ability to take complex ideas, issues, and theories, and understand them, and then be able to present them to the audience they’re working with.

Cohen: And bring them to bear on real things. Yes, Shamaila, that’s a wonderful way of describing it.

You talked about faculty members needing to be good scholars, good teachers, and play a role in the public square, and you’ve been quite prolific in all of that over the course of your career. How is your own professional experience informing your role as dean?

Cohen: The overwhelming bulk of my professional life has been spent here — three decades, just about. This place took a chance on making me a full professor when I was pretty young, in my early 30s, so the first and most important thing is that I have a very deep commitment to this place. Second, I would like to think that in my own career, I was able to balance scholarship, teaching, and presence in the public square. The third thing is a commitment to our students: our commitment to creating a professional school that is imbued with some very traditional values of scholarship, while also preparing students for the work of the world and making sure that we deliver the absolute best for them.

My last question resides at this intersection of deep understanding of this world of distraction that we live in. Scholars tend to have deeper knowledge about things than what we read in the news. What issues do you think need to be brought forward and discussed more fully?

Cohen: I think there are three big issues: climate change, AI, and liberal democracy.

With climate change, my feeling has been that the partisan debate over it has been so fierce, and the sense of alarm, which is understandable, is so intense that we haven’t said, “OK, well, let’s be realistic about what we think will happen. What does this mean? What are the consequences?” That means being a little bit cold-blooded and looking at it without leaping into the “ought” before you know what the “is” is.

Part of the challenge we have with any of these powerful transnational forces, which no single state can control, is that we tend to get two kinds of reactions. One is, “Oh, my God, look what’s happening!” and to be struck by the overwhelming magnitude of it. The second impulse is the activist impulse — we have to stop it or contain it or change it. What we don’t have as much of — which I believe we need and this is where the school comes in — is, “Let’s first understand how this actually affects the world as it is. And then let’s talk about what, exactly, it is that we can do about it.”

Ashraf: With a lot of these big transnational issues that are coming up, discussions are changing every day. I’m in a geo-economic strategy class right now, and we’re looking at cybersecurity, economic statecraft, and the emerging roles of cybersecurity and bitcoin and all these transactional things. It’s taught by an adjunct professor, and on our first day of class, he said he’s working on these issues right now, and the reason he teaches this class at Johns Hopkins SAIS is because it’s those of us in that classroom who are going to come up with some of the solutions.

One of the advantages that students come away with from Johns Hopkins SAIS is the ability to look at a problem from a holistic point of view and in a deep and sustained way. We live in an age of distraction, but we teach people how to focus and be disciplined in a kind of linear analysis. That is, I think, a very useful skill.

Cohen: AI is an issue that, as scholars of international affairs, we’re not as used to thinking systematically about: how technology shifts can affect international relations. We all have some general notions that robots are replacing things and there will be more self-driving vehicles. But how do we think this will shape international relations? Will it make some countries more powerful and others less? How does it affect globalization?

And then liberal democracy, oddly enough, may be the biggest leap for a lot of us because we are so used to thinking about those sorts of issues as purely domestic and internal. Moreover, we’re coming off a period, particularly from the 1980s to the present, with the fall of the Soviet Union and “the end of history,” in which liberal democracy and free enterprise as we understand all those things were on the march. Now I think we’re seeing that they may not necessarily be on the march. And we are not used to thinking about this in a global way. That is going to be something that’s very important for us. This reflects my own curiosity, but also where I want to see the school focus some of its energies.

Ashraf: I work with people who are in groups of blockchain and all these new technologies, and they’re using it in emerging markets and in development. And I think that’s something that is going to become more and more important. The question of data security for every country is going to become a really important question. How are governments and big technology companies protecting and using our data? What does it mean? And then also one step further: How does someone who isn’t in this niche academic circle or this highly educated Western society [deal with] what it all means? What does that look like?

I’m so excited that curricula are being updated. It’s really important to think about the future of development, policy issues, and policy questions, and how private-sector companies play into it. I know from a development standpoint, often it’s either that you go the government route or you go the private sector route. But we have PPPs [public-private partnerships], we have these new spaces, and what can the future of development look like when we as policymakers partner with the private sector? I think that will become more and more the norm of what we’re seeing. Those are some issues that I want to start grappling with and I want our students to start thinking about.

Dean Cohen, if you were to share a message with your students, what would that be?

Cohen: As you do all the things that we ask you to do and as you do the things that you feel you need to do because of what you study, remember to be playful and curious. Take advantage of the opportunities to learn about the things that may not seem directly relevant but that are going to open up new worlds for you.

I think that’s a critical thing. It’s easy when you’re a professional school to say, “OK, follow this narrow path,” but that’s not our way. The Johns Hopkins SAIS way is to say, “I’m going to do all the things I need for my path, but I’m going to have a wide-open, curious mind. I’m going to explore some things that don’t actually seem particularly relevant now — and then, who knows?”