Alumnae Spotlight: Sharon K. Weiner

Sharon Weiner

Degree: PhD in Political Science, 1998
Dissertation: “Defending Congress: The Politics of Defense Reorganization”
Current Position: Associate Professor, School of International Service, American University
Recent Publications: 

On 21 September, 2010, SSP interviewed alumnus Sharon Weiner. Sharon’s research at American University focuses on how institutional preferences, processes, and politics influence U.S. national security policy.  She is just finishing a project that investigates the impact of domestic politics and institutions on U.S. nonproliferation policy, especially with regard to the former Soviet Union.

1. Your forthcoming book looks at joint U.S.-Russian efforts to control the dissemination of knowledge about nuclear and biological weapons from experts in the former Soviet Union. What have you discovered about the effectiveness of those programs?

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the United States became very concerned about the proliferation of weapons, materials and expertise from the Soviet WMD complex.  This concern led to a set of programs known informally as Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR).  Throughout the 1990s, there were horror stories about lax security at facilities that stored weapons and materials, and of scientists who made $20 a month from the Russian government, but answered “physics questions” posted from Iranian email accounts for $500 a pop.  My research was the first attempt to systematically look at the impact of the part of CTR aimed at the proliferation of weapons knowledge. 

Many policy experts argued that these programs were limited because of the difficulty of cooperating on nuclear weapons issues with a former Cold War enemy.  Certainly those in charge of implementing the programs argue they needed bigger budgets to do more.  In contrast, my research shows that the design and implementation of these nonproliferation programs were the most significant cause of their limited impact. 

My book looks at the three different agencies – the Departments of Energy, State, and Defense – that were tasked with implementing programs aimed at this problem.  I argue that each department attempted to make their program “fit in” with the routine missions and preferences of that department.  But there was also pressure to demonstrate program success in a way that responded to the demands of Congress and concerns from the Russian government.  So departments also had to make sure their programs responded to these external demands.  In the process, each department adopted assumptions, selected implementation strategies, and came to measure goals that were removed from the original goals of their programs.

2. Your PhD dissertation challenged some widely held views about efforts to reorganize the Defense Department and especially congressional oversight of the military.  What role do you see today’s organizational structures playing in the delivery of national security to Americans?

My dissertation focused on an issue that has become increasingly salient in U.S. defense policy:  the notion of “jointness.”  The ability of civilians, and especially Congress, to influence defense policy is directly related to their ability to get competing advice and perspectives from the military services.  In my dissertation, I argue that changes in the mid-1980s (most specifically, the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act) provided incentives for the military to reduce the already limited amount of public disagreement among the services.  By providing more power to the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Combatant Commanders, Goldwater-Nichols intended to temper service parochialism by enhancing the power and authority of multi-service or “joint” advice and recommendations.  If such jointness results from a prioritization of contending service perspectives, then national security benefits.  I argue, however, that jointness can also be used to disguise service parochialism and logrolling.

When I wrote my dissertation, Goldwater-Nichols was still in the process of being implemented.  Since that time, the political power of labeling military advice as “joint” has only increased.  Unfortunately, there is also plenty of evidence to suggest that labeling a decision or recommendation as “joint” serves to insulate military decision making from civilian and especially congressional oversight.  I’m now in the process of revisiting the ideas developed in my dissertation and using cases from the last decade to gain a better understanding of the political power of “jointness,” whether Goldwater-Nichols has accomplished its original goals, and the degree to which that law has resulted in unintended consequences for civilian control of defense policy.

3. You worked on Capitol Hill for several years before coming to SSP to study for your PhD. Do you find that such hands-on experience helped you to understand the role of organizational politics and institutional interests in the making of policy? What advice would you give to our students regarding internships and other opportunities to learn from inside the system?

For several years I was a pretty low-level staffer in the House Armed Services Committee.  But that experience proved invaluable in a variety of ways.  First, it gave me an intuitive feeling for the politics both within Congress and between Congress and the executive branch.  Policy makers usually prefer to justify their decisions by rational analysis, not parochialism.  Working in Congress gave me a feel for where to look to uncover the institutional preferences that are often more influential.  Plus, working with Congress in particular helped me appreciate congressional power.  In contrast to the president, Congress often influences policy by saying “no” or by structuring preferences before legislation is ever considered.  During my years on the Hill, I spent a lot of time trying to communicate the preferences of my Committee to the Defense Department and to compel them to see those preferences as their own. 

Working in the policy world also provides a wealth of anecdotes for illustrating points in class lectures!  Plus, many of the connections I made over twenty years ago during my time on the Hill have opened doors for my research or provided me with opportunities to focus on policy specific issues. 

Students often seek internships with government agencies as a means of securing future jobs.  I think this wastes an opportunity.  Get an internship with an agency or office so you can understand how it works.  Then, take a job with a competing agency or organization and use your internship-gained knowledge to do your job well.

4.You have been teaching and conducting research at the university level now for several years. In retrospect, which SSP experiences do you think were helpful in preparing you for your current work?

A few semesters ago I taught a graduate course on US foreign policy decision making. One of my students, commenting on the class to a potential student, explained that every week we would focus on a book and then, like piranhas in the water, tear it limb from limb.  “The process was sometimes brutal,” she said.  “But now I sure understand how to make a good argument.”  Although I certainly don’t think of my former professors and colleagues as piranhas, my experience at SSP did teach me to explain my arguments clearly and be prepared to defend them. 

SSP also provided multiple opportunities to interact with people from the policy community, including military fellows and scientists who came from abroad to analyze nuclear policy.  The latter connections proved especially valuable for my research on U.S.-Russian nonproliferation cooperation.  SSP also was always supportive of research aimed at solving policy problems in the real world.

Unfortunately, none of my SSP professors ever alerted me to the amount of time I would spend in faculty meetings and on other administrative tasks once I, too, became a professor somewhere…