Skip to main content

Alumni Confidential: Kori Schake

August 16, 2022
Lindsay Morgan interviews Kori Schake

Interview, Alumni Confidential

In our latest Alumni Confidential, Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense policy studies at American Enterprise Institute and a past fellow with IGCC, talks about whether America’s ability to influence the rest of the world is declining, how the U.S. can remain faithful to its values, and why she and her sister have been able to stay close despite drastically different political views.

Kori, you are the director of foreign and defense policy studies at American Enterprise Institute, and have a distinguished career servicing in government, including in the State Department, the Department of Defense, and the National Security Council at the White House. You’ve also held a number of different positions in academia, including at Stanford, West Point, Johns Hopkins, National Defense University, and University of Maryland. Where did this all start for you?

There are two threads of an answer. The first is that my dad was a Pan Am airline pilot, and his deal was that he would take me anywhere in the world I wanted to go if I would be his tour guide. I would check books out of the Sonoma County Library and study up on Tokyo and Rome. Then my dad would take me there, and I would show him around the city.

The second is when I was about seven years old, I walked down the hallway one summer afternoon, and my mom was standing at the kitchen counter, one leg propped up on the counter while eating cherry pie filling out of a can, reading the newspaper. She turned to me and said, “Do you think we should be in Vietnam?” As though every seven-year-old in the country should have a view on that.

How did that early exposure and interest get channeled into the start of a career?

I was in dreamy, impractical kid, and graduated from college without a job or a sense of a career path. I had a class with Condi Rice in the spring of my senior year. She hired me as her research assistant the year after I graduated, honestly as a mitzvah because I was at loose ends. I ended up doing research for a book she actually never wrote. It was the 1980s and she was interested in elite selection in the Soviet and American militaries. So I spent a year reading everything the American military writes about trying to discern the fingerprints of the culture. A couple of years later, when I was in graduate school, I talked my way into the joint staff in the summer of 1992, weeks after Iraq invaded Kuwait. That was the professional making of me.

We actually have a young group of scholars here at IGCC right now for the Public Policy and Nuclear Threats Boot Camp and training program. In what ways do you think entering into professional life is different now? Is it harder for this generation?

My inclination is to think it’s always been hard, just hard in different ways. The advice I would give people coming into the field is: don’t try and be a generalist early. Have specific expertise that you can contribute to a general conversation, because that will get you opportunities and have you taken more seriously. The other piece of advice I would give to people just starting the field is to demonstrate you are willing to do whatever you can to help the ballclub. I got to run the joint staff’s response to the NATO command restructuring in 1990, because I was the only person on the team who could work a basic software program to draw a map and show the nationality of the headquarters. It had nothing to do with me knowing anything about the subject, but I demonstrated that I could do something that was helpful, even though it wasn’t my job, even though it was a menial task. It won me the opportunity to do work I wanted to do.

You have written about American power and hegemony, and are the author most recently of America vs the West: Can the Liberal World Order Be Preserved? published in 2018. A lot has happened since then: a pandemic, a worsening climate crisis, the rise of authoritarianism, the threat of democratic backsliding, growing great power competition, Russia at war with Ukraine. Is America’s ability to influence the rest of the world declining?

Yes, our abilities are diminishing. But no, our leadership isn’t threatened. It’s true that American power has diminished somewhat, but that is largely because the power, influence, and vitality of other free societies has increased. John Ikenberry argues that the true proof of the liberal international order will be when it no longer requires the United States to protect and enforce it. We’re not there yet, but I do think the last couple of years have reminded the liberal countries of the value of the order the United States and its friends created out of the ashes of World War II. It has also reminded the illiberal countries of the strength and vitality of liberal societies. I’m actually quite optimistic despite all of the challenges that you rightly put forward.

The United States is an unusual country in lots of ways. Very often, conversations about American exceptionalism sound like the last readout of political idiocy to me. But there are unique characteristics of the United States, and one of those unique characteristics is that we care.

We’re sentimental, and we care about things bigger than our own security. We very often get aggravated with our allies not doing more, but there is also a great privilege associated with being a country that others look to when they’re scared, when bad things are happening. And the United States more often than not, chooses to step forward to try and make things better.

At the Aspen Ideas Festival, you got an interesting comment from one of the audience members. In the context of sanctions against Russia for their war in Ukraine, the audience member said: hasn’t the U.S. done what Russia is doing?—that is, tried to shape the world order through conquest and violence. But because the U.S. is the most powerful, there’s no one to sanction us.

As part of your response, you acknowledged that, to a certain extent, that’s true. The U.S. has tried to shape the global world order, like all great powers do, through conquest. But what makes us marginally better is our values. In our Talking Policy series on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we interviewed Susan Hyde at UC Berkeley, on what Ukraine means for the future of democracy. And she said, “It means something to have values and ideals as a basis for your foreign policy.” But she pointed toward instances where the United States’ commitment to its values was undermined by its actions.

There’s no question in our own personal lives and our collective lives as countries that there are words and there are deeds, and the discrepancy between them is sometimes larger than is generally assumed. How does the U.S. maintain credibility that its values are more than just words?

The United States makes a lot of mistakes in the world. We are going to be dealing with the long shadow that the mistakes of the Iraq War cast and the mistakes of the war in Afghanistan cast over the international order of American credibility for a very long time. But the anchoring of values, the truths we hold to be self-evident—these shape American foreign policy, both in our actions and in our accountability. The difference between the U.S. and China and Russia is that there’s nothing China or Russia can say about the United States that an American citizen isn’t already complaining about and demanding their government do something about.

The vibrancy of free societies is always going to be our destruction or our salvation.

It’s true that we are not accountable to states more powerful than us, but we do establish standards by which we are accountable to ourselves, our friends, and even our enemies. The day we’re recording this, the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is in Taiwan, and the Chinese government is vituperatively insisting that this is dangerous. Plenty of Americans are of that view, and are publishing it in newspapers and trying to affect policy. You couldn’t have that conversation safely in Russia or China. That’s the reason free societies make fewer big mistakes, because you have to win the domestic political argument and be accountable to your citizens.

You’ve worked in government, academia, and the think tank world in Washington, DC. How is working in those communities different, how is it similar, and how has working in one enriched your experience in the other?

I love the way you ended that question, because that very much is my experience. I’m surprised when people meet me when I’m in government jobs, or think tank jobs, and they think I’m either a shameless political hack or a ruthless killer. Because I think it’s so obvious I’m a schoolteacher. That’s actually how I have done all three of those jobs. I’ve never, in government, had the line authority to make people do what I thought needed doing, which means I had to shape how they think about the problem. In the think tank world, successful think tank activism comes from asking the right questions out ahead of when the government asks the question, or out ahead of events so that by the time they need an answer, or journalists start agitating for answers, you’ve already thought your way and researched your way through a problem. In academia, not only do you have the privilege of being a teacher, of helping people understand the nature of problems and how to solve them, but that’s also the time where you do your deepest learning. I write better when I’m teaching. I think better when I’m teaching because students are sparkly smart. So for me the three reinforce each other, and I feel grateful that I’ve had the kind of career where I can hopscotch among them.

IGCC is a university-based think tank that does a combination of research, policy engagement, and training and education. What is the unique value of university-based think tanks?

There aren’t very good connections between scholarship and policy. A lot of academics don’t have the ability to explain how their research might apply in policy circumstances.

University-based think tanks give interdisciplinary cross pollination and teach scholars effective policy work, but also serve as lighthouses for policy people to tap into scholarship.

I was in San Diego last week for the 21st Century China Center conference, and you had top-level government officials, scholars, and businesspeople with varying expertise. UC San Diego brought us together and we learned from each other. That just doesn’t get done very well outside of university-based think tanks.

You and your sister, Kristina Schake, a longtime Democrat who has worked with Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, and many others and is currently senior executive vice president and chief communications officer of The Walt Disney Company, were featured in a Vogue article in 2015. The fact that you two could have both different political persuasions [you are a longtime Republican] and a good relationship was something worth writing an article about in 2015. It might be even more noteworthy now, given how polarized American society has become.

Given how polarized society has become in the U.S. since then, it’s easier to understand why relationships across the political divide are difficult than it is to understand when they work. Why has your relationship with your sister flourished? Is it just because you’re sisters, or is it something to do with the nature of what you believe?

My sister is what I would like the opposition to be like: big-hearted, desperately wanting the good of the country, not a bomb-throwing nihilist. She’s somebody thoughtful and careful who’s trying to navigate difficult issues. She and I have a rich appreciation that the issues that we differ on are actually legitimately difficult issues. People of good faith can have opposing views on them and both may be right. It’s made much easier by the fact that we listen carefully. I’m a better conservative from talking to my sister, because she always points out the weaknesses in my arguments. I’m going to love her whether or not we agree on stuff, so I don’t feel the need to convert her. Nor she me. And that’s fine, because we make each other smarter.

Have your professional relationships become more challenging across the political divide over the last five years? Have you found strategies for reducing those tensions?

Yes, a lot of professional relationships have become more difficult, because this is such a trying time for the country. I navigate them by listening carefully to what other people are saying, trying to give them the benefit of good faith. Then, if we reach points of real friction, I try and understand what’s driving their views. This is also a time when there is legitimate bad faith, dangerous action on the part of important people in the country that is destructive to our democracy. We have to bear witness and call that out when we see it happen. Otherwise, the law of the jungle will prevail.

You have been called a super optimist. What are you most hopeful about right now? And what are you most worried about?

I am hopeful about the response to the dangers we are facing as a country blossoming in civil society. The now disgraced former president tried to threaten the free press and it didn’t do any damage at all. You see civil society groups like Protect Democracy blossoming and mitigating the damage. You see Rotary groups all across the country worried about the international order and talking about what we can do to strengthen it. In my judgment, free societies always succeed or fail based on civil society. And I’m really excited about how carefully Americans are paying attention, and how actively they are organizing.

Governing diversity is really hard to do, and the United States does it in particularly disputatious ways. And yet that disputation is a sign of us solving our problems, finding a new equilibrium.

I see that happening in all sorts of ways right now.

I am worried about my fellow Republicans willfully doing damage to institutions that, if our political adversaries were doing it, we would be screaming bloody murder. What makes democracy function is a set of rules that apply to everyone, so you don’t have to fear transitions of power. There are institutional constraints. I am genuinely worried that so many of my fellow Republicans are being reckless in a way they will regret, and all of us will regret if the guardrails fall away.

/