Wednesday, 11 April 2012

The interdisciplinary way: "It all matters"

Most SAIS Bologna students spend their second year studying at SAIS Washington. But not all.

Geoffrey Levin, a current SAIS Bologna student, will go from Bologna to the main Johns Hopkins University campus in Baltimore where he'll take courses in the Political Science Department while benefiting from a generous scholarship. He hopes to transition into a Ph.D program.

Earlier this month Geoffrey won first prize in a competition organized by the Atlantic Community and sponsored by NATO and the U.S. mission in Germany.
Geoffrey Levin
Geoffrey wrote an editorial for the competition entitled, “Endowing the Arab Spring Generation with the Skills to Govern”, which landed him among the five finalists. They then collaborated on a policy paper.

Geoffrey’s contributions won him the top honor, a 500-euro prize and a chance to present the paper to a conference in Berlin next month.

A native of Chicago and a 2011 graduate of Michigan State University in the United States, Geoffrey studied Hebrew and Arabic in Israel before coming to SAIS. While in Bologna he has interned at the Center for Constitutional Studies and Democratic Development (CCSDD), which employs a number of SAIS students each year to do research. There, Geoffrey has worked on the Arab Spring.

I spoke to Geoffrey before the spring break at SAIS Bologna.

Q: How did you get involved with this competition?
Levin: I saw some emails about it. A couple of people said this might be something you might be interested in doing. The competition has three components: the first one focuses on NATO values, the second one on partnerships after the Arab Spring and the third one on smart defense. I've been working for CCSDD all year on their Arab Spring project. Over last summer I wrote articles for an internship in Australia, a lot about the Arab Spring. It's something I've been following in my course work as well.

Q: What happened then?
Levin: A few nights before, I decided "I should probably do this." So I went into the computer lab and typed something up. The first part of it was an 800-word editorial on NATO building partnerships after the Arab Spring, bringing new regimes into the region, addressing new security challenges. I emphasized the importance of the youth in terms of forging long-term partnerships, in part because if anything, the Arab Spring showed that building relationships only with the state is very limited in its real true sense of partnership. So I talked about the importance of building stable state institutions, about getting used to both strengthening democracy and the policy and internal security apparatus. The security situation is very fragile and the state is now fragile. I found out a little while later that I was one of five finalists. This is open to anyone from any NATO country under age 35. I think there were 75, 76 people who submitted, the five of us were from from North America and Europe. Some had been doing Ph.Dstudies, one was the head of a think tank.

Q: You were named a winner before teaming up with the other four?
Levin: Two thirds of it was based on the initial editorial. Then the last third is based on the online discussion. We commentated on each other's debating, because we had some underlying similarities but there were many differences, as you would assume. The third stage was to prepare a 25,000-word policy memo that integrated the best of our suggestions. This policy memo will be presented at the Atlantic Community's conference in Berlin. The Atlantic Community organizes it but the actual competition is sponsored by both NATO and the U.S. mission to Germany.

We worked together online, a wiki-type thing, to integrate our suggestions. I tried to see what was our underlying interconnectedness. A lot of the focus was on training and state-building. I ended up writing the introduction, and I emphasized the key threat of institutional collapse. Obviously it's very important for us to build partnerships with these new democratic regimes, but for Europe the idea of a state collapse in North Africa or in Syria, and the refugees, is the biggest threat to emerge from the Arab Spring. The policy memo addressed both the threats and the opportunities with this new democratic movement. So it did emphasize partnerships with the youths in the context of training, in terms of military, the police and civil society as well. Because if you ever are going to end this process and build stable governments, you need government that is in some way or another democratically accountable to its people.

Q: To write your editorial, did you have to do research or had you done your work ahead of time?
Levin: Throughout this process, I did not know that much about NATO. I came with a very strong Middle East background, Arab Spring background, so for that I did not need to do any research.

Q: Have you lived in the Middle East?
Levin: Yes, I spent four months in Israel last year learning Hebrew and Arabic, and I'll be studying Arabic in Morocco this summer on a Critical Language Scholarship.

Q: The multidisciplinary approach of SAIS helped?
Levin: International policy-making is inherently an interdisciplinary field. Some of the other finalists, who might be very, very smart, may have focused more on one aspect, and I was able, partly because of SAIS, to focus on multiple aspects, not just on the institution of NATO, not just on the Middle East, but also on the culture, the politics, the institutions, the relations -- it all matters. You can't make policy toward the Middle East without taking culture into account.

The memo required a very comprehensive approach. It wasn't just in my Middle East classes where I learned to emphasize this. I took Prof. Kuhne's class on war, conflict and state failure in sub-Saharan Africa. So the threat of state failure, the ways of countering that through institution-building and the magnitude of the threats that can emerge from that -- that's something I learned from a class that had nothing to do with the Middle East. And of course the economics component was small but very relevant.

Q: You'll be in Washington next year. What do you hope to do after that?
Levin: I will not be in Washington next year. I was awarded the Bologna Fellowship to study in Baltimore (at Johns Hopkins -- eds). They offer one to two students in Bologna the opportunity to study in the Political Science Department. So technically I'll be a visiting student in the Political Science Department. I think from there most likely I'll transition either to the Ph.D program there -- I'll be taking courses with all of the Ph.D students -- or apply elsewhere if Johns Hopkins is not the right fit.

Q: So you want to go into teaching?
Levin: Teaching, and maybe some other stuff on the side, policy, research. All of it sounds interesting to me.

Q: I take it you don't regret coming to the Bologna Center?
Levin: No. The biggest downside is the cash, but that's not going to be a problem next year.

The Bologna Center makes you think so much. I had never studied Europe before, but now I can speak pretty intelligently about it and I like to think about the issues in Europe. I know people from every region of the world. It forces you to think differently, and it gives you this interdisciplinary policy perspective which I don't think enough people in academia have. Maybe I shouldn't say that! I'll find out.

Nelson Graves