Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Sarah Kendzior’

Chasing the DC Foreign Policy Career Dream

By Taylor Marvin

Are you a student or young graduate hoping to break into the DC foreign policy world? Writing in Foreign Policy, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Eric Trager shares advice for those hoping for careers focused on the Middle East. Trager’s points are intuitive, and reasonable. If you want to work on Middle Eastern policy issues, regional skills are vital. This is particularly true in the current job market, where a huge number of highly-qualified candidates competing for a limited number of entry-level foreign policy positions (a small number undoubtably made smaller by the gradual trend towards unpaid internships replacing what were once entry-level paid work, which is more pronounced in but not limited to prestige niches) means that employers can be as selective as they want. Trager recognizes this, warning applicants that “there is simply too much talent for too few paying jobs.”

So what makes a successful entry-level applicant? Regional language skills, or better yet fluency, is a minimum requirement, and the Arabic dialects many first-generation Americans may have learned at home isn’t enough. Applicants should also have spent time in the Middle East. It isn’t enough to just simply study abroad in highly-trafficked regional centers, Trager writes, noting that job applicants “who stray from well-traveled paths within the region — studying in Haifa, rather than Jerusalem, for example — always stand out.” It’s also valuable for candidates who write senior theses in college to conduct actual research in the Middle East. Finally, a DC internship is vital. American foreign policy jobs outside of academia are overwhelmingly centered around Washington, and “the best applicants for entry-level positions will have spent at least one summer working in D.C. getting to know its ways,” in Trager’s words.

All of these points are reasonable. In an age where American foreign policy in and outside of government suffers from a lack of hands-on regional skills among its practitioners, language ability and study experience in the Middle East should be vital for graduates hoping to spend their careers studying the region. Yes, this trend towards language fluency and extensive study abroad requirements for entry-level applicants is partially driven by an oversupply of hopefuls and an undersupply of actual paying jobs, but it also has real value, as anyone who remembers Fred Kaplan’s anecdote in The Insurgents relaying that roughly one percent of US embassy officials in Baghdad in 2006 spoke fluent Arabic knows. These requirements are also driven by the simple selectivity that makes it difficult to distinguish valuable knowledge from arms-racing “credential creep,” as Faris Alikhan terms it. As Adam Elkus (a qualified FP watcher if there ever was one) noted on Twitter, a post 9/11 foreign policy career bubble is now popping — particularly for those focused on the Middle East, I’d guess — and the jobs that many students expect simply aren’t there.

But value aside, there’s another obvious takeaway from Trager’s advice — that the foreign policy world is limited to those from wealthy backgrounds. Or more pithily, it means that “building a career in policy often means not only living on little income, but paying your way around the world,” in Sarah Kendzior’s words. Think about what these requirements practically signify from a student’s perspective. Assuming they achieve admission into an elite college at all, taking three years of language courses as a four-year undergraduate means that a student must decide that they’d like to focus on the Middle East as a freshman, at the latest. In other words, a career in Middle Eastern policy requires many students to make decisions about the rest of their lives when they’re nineteen years old. Study abroad is open to all students on paper, but in reality studying for one or two semesters in a foreign country requires significant amounts of money for visa expenses, food, travel, and so on. If these expenses are covered by scholarships and grants great, but for many they are not. Since most students who study abroad tend to do so in their junior year, conducting senior thesis research in the Middle East implies many students studying abroad not only once, but twice.

Unpaid DC internships are great resume builders for students who attend universities in the Washington area. But for those in other parts of the country — so the vast majority of university students — it’s much harder. An unpaid DC summer internship requires moving across the country, finding housing in an unknown city, and covering living expenses for a summer. Many summer internships are full time, so unless interns have the energy to work a night job they either have to take out a loan or have their parents cover their expenses. Given that an unpaid internship only maybe leads to future paid employment, borrowing money to fund one is not unreasonably too much for many.

Similarly, this is all assuming that students have the opportunity to move across the country for a summer at all. For working students this may not be possible, either because they need the money or they’ll simply lose their job back home if they do. If “at least one summer” at a DC internship is the bare minimum, now we’re talking about blocking off two summers, or possibly three if a fall semester study abroad stint conflicts with a full-length summer internship. Again, this isn’t to say that on-the-ground regional experience isn’t important, or that cultural immersion isn’t vital to those learning Arabic or Farsi. (Immersion is instrumental to learning Romance languages, much easier for English speakers to acquire than Arabic.) But we should be realistic about what Trager’s guidance practically means for students. Foreign policy driven by a knowledge elite will tend to be staffed by, well, the elite.

There really isn’t a good answer here. American foreign policy is best served by practitioners with deep knowledge of both their region of focus and Washington, DC. But restricting foreign policy jobs to only those lucky enough to meet a steep criteria of experience and internship requirements is bad for everyone. If Trager’s advice really is the minimum necessary to be competitive for an entry-level DC policy job, we’re selling students a lie. International Studies majors are at least in theory benchmarked around the assumption that there are jobs for graduates, an assumption strengthened by the entire world of consumer foreign policy media fed to students. Perhaps we should be telling International Studies majors that jobs in their field are restricted only to the elite (and to an extent all liberal arts and social science majors are now told that), but the message doesn’t seem to be sinking in — particularly for students who succeed above expectations in their International Studies majors at the expense of extracurricular internships and experience focused on later out-of-major employment. Of course everyone knows that International Studies isn’t Petroleum Engineering or Computer Science (or even Economics for that matter), but at least in my experience IS classes are not presented as a fun four-year course of study its students are never going to need in their professional lives, even if that is true for most.

Again, there’s nothing unreasonable about Trager’s advice from the perspective of an employer seeking quality work. Ultimately the lesson to Middle Eastern policy hopefuls boils down to what prospective law students are just beginning to hear: unless you are already firmly in the elite, don’t try.

Advertisements

Foreign News As Entertainment

By Taylor Marvin

Photo by Mstyslav Chernov, via Wikimedia.

Photo by Mstyslav Chernov, via Wikimedia.

Under the provocative title “The Day We Pretended to Care About Ukraine,” Sarah Kendzior writes that much of American mass media coverage of the ongoing political conflict in the Eastern European country is “disaster porn,” that favors page views over responsible, informative reporting. Most readers do not know how the conflict is affecting Ukrainians because “few apocalypsticle authors pose the question, because the only relevant question is what it means for them: traffic,” Kendzior writes, mourning that coverages ‘looks, but does not listen’ to the protesters themselves. Separated from the pain and loss of violence and any impetus to understand it, “we seem to get off on destruction as a visual experience, removed from participation and consequence.”

It is certainly true that much of the coverage of the violence in Ukraine has been lacking. But is it really so surprising that so much coverage is, as Kendzior terms it, disaster porn? After all, another inconsiderate but appropriate description for “fire and blood” is dramatic, as so many of the photos coming out of Kiev are. As Emily L. Hauser notes:

The vast majority of Americans do not know a single thing about Ukraine, or indeed consume international news in any depth at all. For them, international reporting is an entertainment product, and while it is unpleasant to admit, conflict — particularly when dramatically photographed, framing which intersects with the valuation of whose suffering matters — is entertaining to those safely separated from it.

It is unsurprising that news coverage, particularly in a world where quick publishing is more lucrative than accuracy and depth, and where foreign bureaus are closing, pander to this audience. After all, even those who do closely watch foreign affairs similarly, for all practical purposes, view it as an entertainment good. It is often noted that highly-trafficked bloggers like the Washington Post’s Max Fisher — who caustically commented on Kendzior’s piece — occasionally get things wrong (Kendzior herself recently highlighted a piece that chided a Fisher post on Kazakhstan). But Fisher is a generalist, and I imagine that the bulk of his audience, spending ten minutes a day reading about foreign affairs, appreciate a similarly general, breezy style — which is why Fisher has an audience, and academic bloggers with the tight focus, on-the-ground experience, and language skills to really understand a specific place or time generally do not. Readers may like to pretend that their interest in foreign news is in pursuit of learning or global awareness — I certainly do! — but for most it’s entertainment. Fisher produces entertainment, which is why he has a large audience and is paid by the Post, and most esoteric bloggers are not.

This isn’t to single out Fisher or Buzzfeed, or say that entertainment is not informative. Many international affairs bloggers certainly are, and a skillful writer can teach a wide audience something while not boring them. But the simple truth is that the economics of expensive to produce 5,000 word pieces on Ukrainian history and political dynamics only a few will read are not promising.

Anyway, there’s a reason porn is one of the most prolific forms of media in existence.