Hijacking the Pipeline

By Sam Ratner

In January 2017, I was one of four students who founded the Progressive Security Working Group (PSWG) at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. PSWG is a student group that serves as an institutional home for students interested in approaching international security policy from the left of the “Beltway consensus,” connecting them with each other, with professors, and with an external network of professionals who wish to see a new, progressive approach to security policy. Nearly two years on, PSWG is in the hands of a new cohort of students and is only getting stronger. This Wednesday PSWG will host its first conference, entitled “Towards a Progressive US Security Strategy”, bringing students together with leaders in the field like Matt Duss and Heather Hurlburt to discuss the future of left security thought in the wake of the midterm elections. PSWG’s success underlines the large, mostly untapped potential for left-wing organizing at the institutions that train most of America’s foreign policy practitioners: policy schools.

Policy schools, like so many other foreign policy-related institutions, are caught in a constant chase for policy relevance. The purpose of policy schools is to train students to play key roles in the bureaucracies that exercise outsized influence in the world order, but the schools struggle to keep pace with the institutions they serve to populate because they cannot control what political leadership will direct those institutions to do. As a result, policy schools are always pursuing trends, hoping that the skills they teach will be the ones necessary for graduates to rise to the top of their fields.

In many cases, this chase is positive. Public servants trained in statistical analysis, for example, are simply more likely to be effective in a policy environment dominated by quantitative program evaluation than those who are not. Yet the pursuit of policy relevance has real costs. Schools tend to drift toward the ideologies of the institutions they hope their students will work within as part of an effort to socialize students into the bureaucratic discipline. In security policy, due to a long period of those institutions exiling themselves from democratic influence, institutional ideologies are broadly unfriendly to left ideals. Many national security bureaucracies insist on devotion to a supposedly apolitical conception of American national interest that privileges stability over justice, while some–like Immigrations and Customs Enforcement–have embraced the politics of the ethnonationalist right. The socialization process creates a convergence between policy skills and dominant policy ideologies: in order to use the former, you must subscribe to the latter.

The role of left-wing organizing at policy schools is to break that convergence. PSWG seeks to provide an opportunity for people to think about how they can apply the tools of policymaking to policy priorities outside the mainstream debate over how to modulate the forever war. The emerging wave of young progressive political leaders will need a core of competent wonks for them to draw on to implement and execute progressive foreign policy priorities, like repealing the Authorization for the Use of Military Force and abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Beyond that, policy analysts trained to think outside existing policy orthodoxies can do the crucial work of generating new progressive policy ideas that expand the menu of options available to policymaking institutions and give progressive candidates platforms they can rally behind.

PSWG’s experience shows that demand for new thinking exists in policy schools. The Trump administration demonstrates daily the inability of existing institutions to deal with pressing challenges and to respond to popular demands for reform. Like everyone else, policy students are looking for new frameworks for understanding the current crisis, and the left offers a uniquely powerful framework to unpack the institutional failures that have enabled the rise of Trump. PSWG has been able to pack rooms for discussions of non-traditional perspectives for understanding policy challenges, ranging from rape culture in the American security sector to women’s agency in civil wars.

PSWG is at its best when it facilitates those discussions–welcoming a broad range of left perspectives while proactively centering the work that goes beyond the white, Christian, and male perspectives so often privileged in foreign policy discourse, and building networks among people who share progressive values yet have felt pressured to conform to conservative institutional ideologies. There is strength in numbers and creativity in collaboration, and the next step should be to expand those discussions by growing similar organizations in other policy schools.

For better or worse, policy schools produce a massive proportion of the people who draw up policy options in the American system. As the left pursues a more democratic policymaking structure, our goal must be to get left-of-center policies people demand on the menu. One of the best ways to accomplish that is to bring the left to policy schools, where bureaucrats learn their craft, and PSWG can be a model for left student organizing in policy schools across the country.

For tickets to the PSWG conference “Toward a Progressive US Security Strategy”, taking place Wednesday November 7, 12:00pm-3:00pm at Columbia University’s International Affairs Building, click here.


Sam Ratner is a contributing editor at Zitamar News, where he covers security issues in southeast Africa, and an editor at Fellow Travelers Blog.

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