Professor Charles Kupchan: Shaping Public Policy, from the White House to the ICC

Professor Charles Kupchan (at right) with President Obama, former Press Secretary Josh Earnest, and former National Security Advisor Susan Rice at Schloss Herrenhausen in Germany, April 2016 (Photo credit: Pete Souza)

March 24, 2017
by Aislinn McNiece

One of the most salient features of an SFS education is access to renowned scholars alongside professors who actively work in government and public policy. What is more rare to find in a professor, however, is one who combines both academic scholarship and the active practice of international affairs. Professor Charles Kupchan is one of the select group that fits this bill.

Kupchan returns to the SFS this semester from former President Obama’s National Security Council (NSC), where he served as Special Assistant to the President and  Senior Director for European Affairs since 2014. This was his second stint in the NSC, as he previously worked on former President Clinton’s NSC before coming to Georgetown.

“When you’re in the White House, you’re shaping policy on matters of war and peace and you’re writing memos that end up on the desks of the National Security Adviser and the President. So you have this unbelievable ability to directly affect U.S. foreign policy and help shape the thinking of some of most influential people in the world – and that’s extremely exciting and sobering,” says Kupchan.

Kupchan served on the NSC during two quite different periods.  He explains that the world today is much more turbulent than it was in the 1990s, adding an additional degree of stress to working in the White House on national security. But Kupchan sees the ongoing importance of the transatlantic link as one of the greatest points of continuity between the Clinton and Obama administrations. As the Senior Director for European Affairs, he was charged with overseeing the European-American relationship while managing key challenges, including Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.

“Now, you go into your office in the morning, and Russia has just invaded Ukraine, Ebola is spreading in Africa, China is building a new airbase on some island in the South China Sea, the British have just decided to leave the European Union – and it’s like ‘what is going on here?’ So the day was just much more worrying and difficult in 2016 than it was in 1994…There were challenges and national security issues [during Clinton’s presidency], but the scale and scope of serious challenges to stability is much more magnified now,” Kupchan says.

Kupchan’s experience as both a scholar and practitioner of international affairs directly positioned him to address those challenges. He has followed a route that has enabled him to straddle the world of academia and public policy.

Road to Academic Scholarship and Public Service

After finishing his undergraduate degree at Harvard in East Asian Studies, Kupchan received a fellowship to pursue graduate studies at Oxford. There, he focused on politics and international relations. After completing his two-year M.Phil. degree at Oxford, he stayed for one more year to earn his doctorate – what Kupchan called a “sweet deal” compared to lengthy doctoral programs in the United States.  He then found his way back to Harvard as a postdoctoral fellow, which set him on track to become an academic.  But all in all, he made these choices as they became available; he “did not have a grand strategy.”

It was during Kupchan’s first teaching position at Princeton that he “felt a calling to get involved in shaping public policy.” Through a fellowship offered by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), which sends academics into the government, Kupchan worked at the State Department before migrating into Clinton’s White House.

But he did not stay in government long. “There’s a saying that it’s very hard to get a job with the NSC, and it’s even harder to leave a job at the NSC – but I did make that tough choice, really for strategic reasons. I got to a point where I needed to make a strategic decision about whether I was going to be a government person or whether I was going to be an academic, because I was still relatively early in my career, and if I had spent four or eight years in the White House or somewhere in the U.S. government, it would have been very hard to come out and then build an academic career,” says Kupchan.

So Kupchan found an academic home at SFS, and for the next 20 years, he taught courses like Introduction to International Relations, “trying to balance being an academic and at the same time keeping a foot in foreign policy.” And, although that balance is not easy to strike, Kupchan notes that the SFS is one of the few places that makes possible that synthesis of academia and policy.

“[Georgetown] is a university that enables one to span these different worlds of public policy and academia. There are places where this marriage of scholarship and public policy takes place, but there are not a lot of places, and Georgetown, precisely because it is in Washington, is a very attractive place to do it,” says Kupchan.

And, at the SFS and in the White House, whether in academia, policy, or both, he finds that people have the opportunity to make a difference.

“The best part of the [NSC] job is, as President Obama would say on occasion, the ability to bend the arc of history and to change the world – even if in little baby steps. Here, we change the world, I hope, by teaching,” Kupchan reflects.

The “Second Bite of the Apple”: Navigating Obama’s National Security Council

Kupchan had a second chance at government service when, in early 2014, he got a call from the White House inquiring about his interest in joining Obama’s national security team.  He then interviewed with Susan Rice, then the National Security Advisor, and was soon offered the job – or, as he likes to call it, his “second bite of the apple.”

Despite the move from the ICC, Kupchan found that his academic interests remained pertinent in the White House. Before he left SFS in 2014, he had been teaching courses on grand strategy – the enterprise of developing a strategic framework for achieving overarching national interests. In the White House Situation Room, conversations addressing grand strategy and long-term goals did occur, but more often than not, Kupchan found the NSC was, by necessity, immersed in the shorter-term issues of the day.

“We at times had conversations that were pitched at the big questions of the day: what are the responsibilities of the United States as the only real superpower in the world? What are some of the constraints or limits on those responsibilities? How do we understand American exceptionalism? What role should the United States be playing in Iraq and Syria, or in managing the global immigration crisis? Oftentimes you’d come at it from the larger architectural issues, but those conversations were not the norm. Your average meeting in the Situation Room is fairly fine grain, where you’re making decisions about the next step in negotiations with Russia and Ukraine over the Donbass or the next turn in the counter-ISIL campaign,” Kupchan says.

Those moments that decide the course of history, or at least the course of foreign policy for the next several hours or days, were an everyday fact of life on the NSC. Yet, despite the stress, difficult decisions, and immense amount of pressure that came with an NSC job, there were moments of exhilaration when Kupchan found himself in situations of which many SFS students dream.

“After the first few months, it starts to feel normal, because it’s your day job. And then you pinch yourself, because you’re sitting in the Oval Office and the President of the United States and the Chancellor of Germany are sitting there having a conversation. Or, on trips, you would be flying on Air Force One or riding in the presidential limousine.  You go back and forth between feeling a certain normalcy and sort of stepping back and saying ‘wow – this is pretty crazy,’” says Kupchan.

As a political appointee, however, Kupchan’s time in the NSC ended when Obama left office. He accepted his departure from the NSC with a measure of relief to be leaving behind the pressure that accompanied the job.

“It was an enormous privilege and opportunity to work for President Obama, but on the other hand there is a certain relief that comes with walking out the door on January 20th and having one’s autonomy and relative freedom back,” says Kupchan.

Return to the SFS and Academia

Kupchan’s departure from the White House brought him back to the SFS to meet his newest cohort of Grand Strategy students, move into a new office in the ICC, and begin to settle back into his regular routine as an academic and professor. Kupchan will be taking a break from practicing foreign policy for the time being, although he plans to stay engaged in the policy community, continue to write op-eds for outlets like Foreign Policy magazine, and serve as a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. For now, Kupchan plans to “think long” in a way that he did not have the luxury of doing at the NSC, where thinking came in short intervals.

“It’s kind of like rushing from one issue to the next – you don’t have time to spend two and a half hours in a class talking about the Mongol Empire, or months to write a new book. Given that that’s what I’ve been doing for most of my professional life, there’s a certain comfort and pleasure that comes with returning to that sort of contemplative life,” Kupchan says.

But, before taking on any new research or books, Kupchan is taking some time to settle into life as a private citizen with a desire to travel outside of the luxury and bubble of Air Force One. First on his list? Venice, Italy, where he went for spring break.