Sarah Kreps is a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and an associate professor of government at Cornell University. She is the author of Coalitions of Convenience: Military Interventions after the Cold War and the co-author of Drone Warfare. Additionally, I was fortunate to coauthor a recent CFR report, Limiting Armed Drone Proliferation, with Sarah.
1. What is the most interesting project you are currently working on?
I have been looking at how the United States finances its wars. In the past, Congress levied war taxes. This not only generated revenue, but created accountability linkages among the populace, which was loath to part with its money, and with leaders’ conduct of the war. In the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, legislators other than the anti-war left shunned proposals for a war tax. The result is that we have financed the recent wars through debt. Based on my research, the populace has no idea how much the wars have cost. When queried, people hazard estimates ranging anywhere between $10 million and $50 trillion. The real answer is somewhere around $1 trillion. The point is that these costs are less concrete because of how the wars have been funded, and the shift to borrowing erodes one of the basic features thought to characterize democracies: the populace bears the burden of war and therefore puts pressure on leaders to keep wars short and low cost. It may be no coincidence that two of the longest wars in U.S. history were the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
2. What got you started in your career?
I grew up in the Washington, DC, so I was surrounded by politics from a very young age but thought of it as more of an avocation, thinking that my vocation would be medicine: flight medicine or the “medicins sans frontiers” kind of medicine, but something that involved travel. I was a physics/pre-med major at Harvard, but the classes that I enjoyed the most—and perhaps not coincidentally, did the best in—were the ones involving political science. After college and earning my master’s at Oxford, I spent four years on active duty in the U.S. Air Force, which completed my evolution from the hard sciences to the social sciences. I was on active duty on 9/11 and for the start of the Iraq War, and knew that I wanted a vocation where I could try to be part of the solution to major issues of international security.
3. What person, book, or article has been most influential to your thinking?
Thomas Schelling’s Arms and Influence. It has so many gems, ranging from deterrence theory to the principles of bargaining. He also illustrates all of the principles with accessible examples that have stayed with me more than a decade after first reading it.
4. What kind of advice would you give to young people in your field?
First, do what you like and you will do it well. If you do something out of a sense of inertia or obligation, it is likely to show in your performance. Second, seek out and accept mentorship. People starting out do not have all the answers, so consider the advice of more seasoned people in your field. Third, write. Get your ideas out there. I am amazed at the democratization of media, where clever ideas by relative unknowns can get traction.
5. What was the last book you finished reading?
I’m guilty of reading more articles than books, but recently read Fred Kaplan’s The Wizards of Armageddon. Well researched, well written, and still extremely relevant.
6. What is the most overlooked threat to U.S. national interests?
We hear a lot about how the United States lags in terms of education, but I think there is a more specific problem, which is investment in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The United States is ranked forty-eighth in the world for the quality of its science and math education. This does not befit a global power, and I think it hinders our ability to innovate and thrive in a service-based economy. There are also important national security implications, given that investment in STEM education puts talent into the defense industry pipeline.
7. What do you believe is the most inflated threat to U.S. national interests?
I am still not persuaded by the cybersecurity threat. That it is one of the most lethal threats, as individuals as high ranking as the secretary of defense have suggested, does not seem commensurate with the risk. There is no doubt that there is a considerable threat to our economy and, indeed, security and defense systems are vulnerable given our reliance on networks and satellites. However, this is not the same as saying that a terrorist can do as much damage with a keyboard as a bomb, which some groups have suggested.
8. What is the most significant emerging global challenge?
The United States finding its appropriate global leadership role is an important challenge. For several years there was too much American international involvement, which left the country overextended. But then the pendulum seemed to swing back too far the other way, with major global challenges leaving the United States seeming reactive and flat footed. The Goldilocks strategy seems both elusive but crucial.
9. What would you research given two years and unlimited resources?
I would like to study why countries consistently underestimate the costs of war. Time after time, countries have gone to war expecting quick victories only to be mired in protracted conflict. This is not just the United States, although we have had our share of those experiences, whether the Civil War, which both sides expected would be resolved quickly, or the Korean War, which President Truman expected to be over by Christmas. It also includes World War I, which all sides thought would be short and low cost. I want to understand whether this tendency to underestimate the costs of war is systematic and find an explanation for the pattern. The answer has important implications for why countries go to war—if they think it will be easy and low cost they will be less inclined to resolve differences diplomatically.
10. Why should someone who is not a security specialist read your book?
This book deals with big questions about democratic checks and balances and the rule of law. Yes, it deals with a fundamental question of American foreign policy, which is the use of armed drones for targeting suspected terrorists, but the implications are far more consequential. They speak to the ways that Congress exercises oversight (or does not) in terms of military force issues; how international legal constraints affect (or again, don’t) American behavior; and the precedent that the United States’ uses of force has set for other countries in the future. Citizens thinking about what their government does and how they so it should read this book (as a bonus, they will also better understand the mainstream media’s preoccupation with drones).