PhD candidate Chris Clary

In the high stakes world of international relations, particularly when nuclear powers are involved, there is little room for error. At the same time, sorting out causes and effects from the mix of actions and events unfolding between nation states is not trivial.

For this reason, third-year doctoral student Christopher Clary came to MIT after a decade of government work, mostly in Washington, DC, dissecting the politics of South Asia and helping form defense policies. "The dirty secret about Washington, DC is that it is filled with very smart people who have absolutely no time to think," says Clary. "They are too busy reacting to the problems of the day."

Clary's thinking about South Asia began somewhat serendipitously. In 1999, as an undergraduate studying Latin American issues at Wichita State University, he decided to spend a semester in Washington, DC. He applied for internships and by the end of the year was ready to move.

The only thing missing was a job.

The Latin American think tanks were slow getting back to him, so at the last minute, he landed an internship focused halfway around the world on South Asia.

Clary couldn't have made a more fortuitous decision. Just two years earlier, India and Pakistan had both tested their first nuclear weapons (barring a small 1974 test by India). The A.Q. Khan nuclear proliferation network was in full swing. The two countries had also just fought a limited war against one another — the first direct conflict between two nuclear powers. And President Clinton visited India in 2000 with an aim to develop US–India relations. "It was an exciting time," says Clary.

And the region, he realized, was understudied. At the Henry L. Stimson Center, where his internship eventually became a full-time job, experts on China filled the halls. "There weren't nearly as many people working on South Asia," he says.

Clary left Stimson in 2003 to become a research associate and earn a Master's in National Security Affairs at the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He worked to understand how India and Pakistan configured their nuclear arsenals and conventional militaries. After that, he returned to DC for work at the Pentagon to develop US defense policies mainly with India. "I became very interested in India's rise of power," says Clary.

Most intriguing, he found, was the similarity between India's rise and that of the US. "The US had a long gap between it's ability to influence the international scene and its willingness to do so," he says. "India, outside of its immediate neighborhood, shows similar signs of being hesitant to expend resources to influence the global scene." It was this recognition that led Clary to begin wondering when rising powers threaten the status quo. "As both India and China rise and the US declines, the topic has reasserted itself in security studies," says Clary.

Today, Clary wants to understand why rivalries brew, what fills the void when they end, and what causes some rising powers to ascend peacefully and others violently. "South Asia has appeal for people interested in war and peace, because it has challenges with conflict at all stages of the escalation ladder," says Clary.

One confounding factor Clary is facing as he refines his research focus is that politics are played out, he says, "by people with intentions, not particles that behave according to rules," so it's possible to get causes and effects mixed up. Such a mixup, if it influences policy, could be devastating. "There's no pilot phase," says Clary. "You want to be right about these things."

By: Elizabeth Dougherty

Learn more about Chris Clary .