Policy Relevance 101: Know your audience


Acting Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Eilene Gottemoeller

Policy relevance is a term that is thrown around in academic communities that thrive on soft money. It is what you have to figure out how to be in order to receive funding–something that fewer and fewer of us who once aspired to the Ivory Tower lifestyle can afford to ignore as even those with tenure-track jobs are asked to bring in grant money. However, what exactly being policy relevant means is not always readily apparently if you believe, as I did, that it is primarily about arguing the merits of different policy options.

When I first arrived in Washington DC a couple years ago, I had my first real conversation about what it meant to be policy relevant. As I recall, I sat down across from Jeffrey Lewis in his cramped office on K Street not sure what we would talk about. Being unsure of what you want out of a conversation in Washington can go very wrong, but with the right person it can quickly turn into a revelatory experience. At the time, Jeffrey and I were working for the same organization, but lived in very different intellectual worlds. I had only recently graduated from the University of Chicago and was still in love with knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Jeffrey had already built his very successful blog, armscontrolwonk.org, where the nuke policy community debates the finer points of what the US should do about the topic du jour and the validity of the intelligence on which those decisions are being made.

In the first few moments of our conversation, it became readily apparent that what I considered policy relevant was painfully naive to a Washington insider. Jeffrey asked me to name the officials who implement US arms control and nonproliferation policy and I couldn’t name a single one. I was still holding onto the mistaken notion that being policy relevant actually meant saying something meaningful about policy. In my case that meant arguing about whether and how the system of deterrence and nonproliferation works. What I learned from Jeffrey is that the process of becoming policy relevant begins with knowing your audience.

Today, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held the nominations for the top three arms control and nonproliferation positions:

The Honorable Rose Eilene Gottemoeller of Virginia, to be Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security

Mr. Frank A. Rose of Massachusetts, to be Assistant Secretary of State for Verification and Compliance

Mr. Adam M. Scheinman of Virginia, to be Special Representative of the President for Nuclear Nonproliferation, with the Rank of Ambassador

These nominations, and the nomination for the top official, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller, in particular have been tied up in partisan politics for some time. As Assistant Secretary of State for Verification and Compliance, Rose Gottemoeller negotiated the New Start treaty with Russia. Not surprisingly, today she was questioned repeatedly about whether or not the Obama administration had any intention of obviating the treaty process and reducing the nuclear stockpile either in concert with the Russian, but without a formal treaty, or unilaterally. Ms. Gottemoeller repeatedly stated that the US intended to move forward with negotiating a treaty with the Russians, but that further reductions outside the treaty process were “not currently on the table.”

You can watch the hearing and read the testimony here: http://www.foreign.senate.gov/hearings/nomination-09-26-2013

There was a lot more to my conversation with Jeffrey that I will save for another post; He was in no way reducing policy relevance to the idea of influencing individual policymakers. Really his question about who holds what position was simply a rhetorical device to prove a larger point about the relationship between policy and politics. I’m still collecting answers to what it means to be policy relevant (or politically relevant, maybe?) from others in Washington. I think this is an important question for the project of nuclear philosophy and am curious what you have to say on this topic.

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