YJIA: Professor Kolditz, our Journal seeks to bridge the gap between international relations (IR) scholars and practitioners and to help inform policy. As both a career Army officer and as a professor at two top U.S. universities, what do you think are some ways in which IR scholars and practitioners can benefit each other?
Kolditz: What scholars really bring to the table is a depth of understanding. What they can do for practitioners is to define the space in which practitioners work in terms of its depth, in terms of its granularity, in terms of the multitude of variables that are going to affect international relations going forward. What practitioners can do are, I think, two things. The first is to develop relationships. Often the success or failure of these kinds of international endeavors is really built on personal relationships as much as solid policy, and so practitioners can bring the experience and skills to create these relationships. The other thing that practitioners bring is intuitive judgment.
What scholars can do is set up the variables and an interpretation of the variables in a rational way, in an evidence-based way that leads to certain conclusions. But people who work in international relations and do that kind of work all the time also develop some intuitive judgment and intuitive processes that are non-linear and non-logical but that nonetheless tremendously influence outcomes. So I think that’s really what practitioners bring is the artful aspect to international relations, which might seem a bit less purely rational and sterile than that coming from a researcher’s perspective.
YJIA: You taught at West Point for twelve years, and you have had a long relationship with Yale as well. Are there differences in the ways that members of the military approach IR problems compared to professionals in other fields?
Kolditz: I think so. I think the military approach IR problems in far too conservative a fashion, with way too much emphasis on security. I’ll give an example. We at West Point did a significant amount of work with Chinese scholars and leadership and management practitioners. But the military limited our ability to interact with those other scholars based on security concerns that, at our level and for our purposes, seem to be quite extreme. So I think that the military approaches international relations in a very conservative way, with a “security first” mentality, and that gets in the way of being able to advance relationships and eventually influence policies.
YJIA: In your time overseas, what kinds of international relations policies did you see that you think were effective, and which ones do you believe needed improvement?
Kolditz: Some policies that I felt were particularly effective were Status of Forces Agreements (SOFAs). These agreements opened up opportunities for Americans, military or diplomatic, or even expatriate businesspeople who are abroad [and] can really enumerate ways in which interactions can occur between members of the two countries. So, I thought those were very well crafted, they served both sides very well. The principles upon which SOFAs were built could really be good guiding examples of how mutually beneficial policies can be improved. I think that many of the trade policies we have with other countries are ineffective and create animosity and prevent the right kind of business relationships from developing. So those are the two things I think can be improved.
YJIA: A book chapter you co-authored in 2009 was titled, “Leadership in Dangerous Multinational Contexts.” How can IR scholars best help practitioners prepare for operating in a “dangerous, multinational” world?
Kolditz: So the first thing that scholars can do is acknowledge that when lives are on the line, there are significant pressures that tend to influence the way people negotiate, develop policies, and develop relations, and they need to formally study that dynamic. What we found in the leadership arena was that that dynamic was not studied. When we did the research we found that leadership in dangerous contexts does have some unique characteristics that can be studied empirically and can be articulated. I think in the international relations realm, if people studied negotiations and policy discussions that were done with the backdrop of people dying, that they would see some unique character to that. And to be able to articulate that and teach people about it would be a tremendous contribution that I don’t think has been made yet.
YJIA: Two of the major fields within IR are security and development. In your experience, are these fields complementary or competitive? Do they work together well, or are they often at cross purposes?
Kolditz: Well, they should be complementary. In their best form, they really are. Development can’t really occur except under the blanket of security, and countries are less stable and not secure when development does not occur. Two different groups of people are often charged with those processes, and when they try to prosecute their interests in the absence of the other, it can appear competitive or dysfunctional. But in its purest form and when done properly, they are complementary. So when people see conflict, they should go after that pretty aggressively to try to resolve it because it is going to make everyone’s job easier in the end.
YJIA: As someone who moves freely between the academic and practitioner worlds, what traits or abilities do you find in successful practitioners of IR?
Kolditz: Two things that I think are very important. First is flexibility to find solutions they weren’t seeking in the first place but that will satisfy the national interest. And then secondly, the most important trait is to project respect as a matter of their personal character. So it’s not just something they do; it comes naturally to them. Because once you connect with other people, they sense that authentic projection of respect, [and] I think a lot more can be accomplished.
YJIA: One of your major areas of expertise is in the field of leadership. As President Obama enters his second term, what advice might you offer him with regards to maintaining or improving our relationships with other nations, particularly nations like North Korea or Iran, where historically there has been great tension?
Kolditz: I would advise him to do two things. He needs to be more aggressive about personal relationships and he needs to become personally familiar and close with every national leader who is important to our country. The second thing I think he should do is to gain trust by exceeding the expectations of other leaders. So if the national leader expects him to provide a certain amount of aid, then I think he should exceed that expectation. If the national leader expects him to make a positive statement about U.S. relations with their country, that statement should go beyond the expectation. So I think he can more rapidly build trust in these relationships if he is unpredictable in a positive way. This has its own dangers, at times he can be accused of giving over to the other side, or otherwise selling out, but I think that it will be tremendously effective. And I think he can take many lessons from his Secretary of State, who is very good at doing both of those things.
YJIA: How can both academics and practitioners of IR help decision makers craft better IR policy?
Kolditz: I think that both need to be in the room, that’s step one. They need to not operate in isolation as they are discussing policy, as they are discussing options and strategies. I think also that both those characteristics need to be represented by key players. What I mean by that is academics should seek to engage in practical matters associated with policy, and practitioners should be willing to study in order to gain a greater academic appreciation for their field. So having both people in the room, and both qualities manifested in each person who is engaged IR policy is the best course of action. I really don’t think someone who only takes one of those perspectives can be as effective as someone with a blended background.
YJIA: Are you working on any projects? Maybe a follow-up to your book, In Extremis Leadership: Leading as if Your Life Depended On It?
Kolditz: Right now I’m working on a book that focuses on how to develop leaders in business schools, which is really the core of my work here at Yale. We have embarked on this process in ways that are significantly different than at other business schools. So I want to capture those practices and the evidence for their effectiveness and share that with other people.
*Thomas Kolditz is a Professor in the Practice of Leadership in the Yale University School of Management. A retired Army brigadier general, Professor Kolditz headed the Department of Behavioral Science and Leadership at West Point for twelve years and held leadership positions on four continents over thirty- four years of military service. He is an internationally recognized expert on crisis leadership.
– Interview conducted by Charles Faint. Transcribed and edited by Charles Faint, Ewa D’Silva, and Lindsey Walters