Stepen D. Biddle Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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Steve, welcome to Berkeley.
Thanks for having me.
Where were you born and raised?
I grew up in Wilmington, Delaware.
Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?
I grew up in a household where policy debates and political discussion were a favorite recreation from almost as far back as I can remember. My dad was extraordinarily tolerant of ill-formed, wacky political ideas from nine-year-olds, and partly because he encouraged this, I grew up talking about policy and debating policy choices. It just seemed like the right thing to spend the rest of my life doing, too, I guess.
Was it inevitable that you would become a student of public policy and military policy?
I wouldn't say it was inevitable. I thought I was going to grow up to be a lawyer, a long life as an unhappy attorney doing torts, I suppose. No, it wasn't actually until I was an undergraduate in college. When I was a kid, in addition to debating policy with my father, I also spent a lot of time reading military history and reading about foreign affairs. My friends knew I was interested in that, and one of them took me aside and said, "Look, you really don't want to do law. You ought to stick your neck out and try getting involved in defense policy." So, I started spending summers in Washington, doing internships -- I was a college undergraduate -- to try and figure out, in part, [whether] you can actually make a living and pay the rent and eat regularly while doing this.
Where did you do your undergraduate work?
At Harvard College.
You majored in political science, right?
No, I majored in what Harvard euphemistically calls fine arts, which sort of implies that you can actually draw, which I can't. Essentially, I studied art history for my bachelor's degree.
What was your thinking there, in choosing that major?
I figured that at the end of the day, I was going to need some sort of trade school in order to do something useful and earn a living, but that this wasn't the right time to do it. I could figure out everything I needed to know in order to be a lawyer when I got to law school; on the other hand, I probably could not learn how to see, learn how to look [at] and appreciate visual art without some formal instruction. It seemed to me that this was an opportunity that I wasn't going to get later, to pick up a perspective on life that would be valuable later on. And so, I did that.
Then you went on to graduate school. What was your graduate school work in?
In public policy.
This was where?
Also at Harvard. I got to know every bad restaurant in Harvard Square very well by the time I was done!
In comparison to California, I'm sure there are a lot of bad restaurants!
But that's just the way we, here at Berkeley, perceive Harvard. So, what was the focus of your work in public policy at Harvard?
I wanted to do defense and national security. As a result of those summer internships and some time between college and graduate school, I had, by then, a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do, and I sought out graduate training to prepare me to do that.
Who were your mentors at Harvard? Any professors in particular at Harvard, or even before Harvard, who helped shape your thinking?
Probably the two most influential people at Harvard were Al Carnesale and Michael Nacht, neither of whom are still at Harvard.
Yes, both in California now.
Both in California, and Mike Nacht here at Berkeley, in fact. Aside from the fact that they are brilliant people and thoroughly knowledgeable in the subject matter, they're also wonderfully approachable individuals and they clearly enjoy what they're doing. They became role models for a life of the mind in this field -- [what it] should look like and how apparently fun it could be.
What do you call yourself, actually? Are you an IR specialist who focuses on military strategy? I want to get at what it is you do as an intellectual.
When I sort of parachuted accidentally into a political science department fairly late in my career, I initially thought IR stood for infrared!
That was your art background!
That must've been it.
Intellectually, I study strategy. I study the conduct of war, the outcomes of wars, the role of technology in war, recent combat experience. The difficulty for me is that unlike the workings of an economy, for example, or elections, or other complicated social phenomena that have disciplines to study them, war does not have a discipline to study it. It lies on the seams of the way academia is organized. If you want to study war, you have to become either a political scientist or a historian, or do public policy, and then pick this up as your particular subject-matter interest. There are very few people who approach the study of war as their primary interest. For whatever reason, I have.
What are the skills required to do this kind of work? What kind of temperament does it take?
The best skill set is diverse and multidisciplinary. War is a complicated social phenomenon and to understand it, it helps to be able to approach it from different directions. One of the things I liked about public policy training, for example, is that rather than teaching you to be good at anything in particular, it teaches you to know a little bit of a lot of different things. It helps to have a solid grounding in political science, of course, but it also helps to have an ability to handle mathematical modeling so that you can represent your ideas formally and think at a higher level of abstraction when you need to.
It helps to have enough interest in the subject matter to have mastered the historical record involved. It amazes me, the number of people in this field who have no idea of the past record of military events that in many ways resemble those of today. So, some combination of mathematics, statistics, political science, history, a certain amount of economics, a very eclectic background enables you to understand a complex, multidimensional phenomenon better by looking at it from different sides.
What about temperament? I guess we can say that you're something of a scientist, [studying] human phenomena that are very difficult to grapple with for all kinds of reasons.
Certainly an analytical temperament helps. This is a deeply emotional subject matter. How can it be otherwise when it involves human suffering on the scale that this subject does? So, part of just surviving in this job description very long is an ability to take a subject matter that's riven with human emotion and approach it in a relatively objective, relatively detached way.
There was a series of clichés during the Cold War about the bloodless way in which strategists looked at nuclear war in counting megadeaths and talking casually about the extinction of societies. So, this obviously can be taken too far, and one of the great challenges of this field is being objective and analytical without being so bloodless that you lose track of the enormous scale of human suffering associated with the undertaking. But some ability to be simultaneously detached and objective enough to function, and yet not so bloodless as to be inhumane, is important to doing the right thing, as well as reaching the correct findings in a field like this one.
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