Wonkish Ambitions

Update that résumé—with a shift of power in Washington, it’s time for some new faces in foreign policy. Let the clawing begin.

Ambassador Richard Holbrooke has had a busy election season. He was an early and enthusiastic backer of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. He was so enthusiastic, in fact, that press reports suggested he was pressuring younger foreign-policy wonks not to work for other Democrats. After Clinton lost, Holbrooke glommed onto the Obama campaign as a senior adviser; some Democrats are advancing his name as the next secretary of state. This was quite a deft move on Holbrooke's part; earlier this spring, I was told by some of John McCain's foreign-policy team that Holbrooke thought he'd have a high-ranking position in the government if the Republican had won the election!

It is easy to mock Holbrooke for his ambition and his political flexibility. At the same time, however, Holbrooke's dilemma is simply a more public version of the aspiration dance that a thousand foreign-policy wonks conduct below the radar. This is because Election Day profoundly affects the lives, hopes and dreams of D.C. policy people-in the form of what they might be doing for the next four years. For foreign-policy analysts, there are really only two states of being-being in charge of American foreign policy and desperately wanting to be in charge of American foreign policy.

A change in government brings the possibility of a rotation of those positions. For one set of partisans, losing means at least four years of exile in think tanks and foundations; for another set, the next four years are fat with possibility.

For most, however, the goal is simply to serve at the pleasure of the president. This is for several reasons. The first is short-term pragmatism. While good foreign policy people work in the private sector and in Congress, almost all of the interesting action takes place inside the executive branch. The second reason is careerist. Members of the foreign policy community only get to move up the career ladder after punching their ticket in government. Individuals only graduate to the much-ballyhooed "heavyweight" status after putting in serious time in a principal or deputy position.

The third reason is more altruistic. Most foreign policy professionals choose their career because they care about the subject matter more than they care about making money. These are the kind of people who happily spend their twenties to get through graduate school, intern and/or work overseas. They are committed to the idea of public service, because for all the talk about non-polarity, the United States government remains the epicenter of international relations.

Mock Holbrooke if you want, but understand that he is merely the most public face of the foreign-policy community-an entire class of individuals who desperately want to chart the course of American foreign policy. Presidential transitions are signal moments in their career trajectories. Let the scrambling for jobs begin.


Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a senior editor at The National Interest.