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Featured Scholar: Iskander Rehman

What are your current research interests?

I have two main research interests—the first is more defense policy-oriented and contemporary in nature, and involves tracking and analyzing various emergent aspects of Asian geopolitics and Sino-US military rivalry in Asia. The second is somewhat more academic, and centers on the history of warfare, strategy, and political thought, with a preferred focus on the classical, late medieval and early modern eras—each of these periods remaining, in my mind, woefully underexamined by the broader strategic studies community. Even though this aspect of my work is more scholarly, I always strive, in accordance with my staunch belief in the value of applied history for policymakers, to tie these historically-derived insights to contemporary challenges.
Finally, having emigrated to the United States from France twelve years ago and become an American, I retain a deep and personal interest in advancing Franco-US defense ties. During the transatlantic turbulence of the Trump years, I founded a new Franco-American Track 1.5 on defense issues, held every September in Newport, Rhode Island, and generously supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Over the course of its existence, we’ve convened over seventy think-tank experts, officials, and academics from both France and the United States.

What project(s) are you currently working on, and what work are you most excited about?

In terms of actual writing projects, I’m currently working on two main deliverables. The first is a defense policy monograph on the past, present and future of protracted warfare, with the aim of more clearly delineating the challenges Washington would face in the unfortunate event of a protracted Sino-US war. The second is a work of narrative non-fiction which examines the evolution of French grand strategy vis-à-vis Spain from the late sixteenth to mid seventeenth century. The story of this epic struggle for dominance is told over the course of several decades, and through the lives and actions of three titans of French statecraft: Sully, Richelieu, and Mazarin, all of whom served as powerful ministers under three successive French monarchs: Henri IV, Louis XIII, and Louis XIV (with Mazarin also serving as chief minister during the regency of Anne of Austria, from1643 to 1651.) Both projects are labors of love, and very much reflect my somewhat hybrid identity—as a strategic historian with a longstanding interest and involvement in contemporary policy discussions.

How and when did you develop this interest? How did it evolve?

For the first decade of my career, I primarily self-identified—and was viewed—as an Asia specialist. My PhD was on the evolution of the Indian Navy since independence, and blended military and diplomatic history with in-depth fieldwork, interviews, and contemporary defense analysis. Over the course of those years, I lived and worked in India, traveled and lectured in a number of Asian countries, and produced a series of studies or articles on Indo-Pacific defense issues ranging from Taiwan’s asymmetric defense, to Australian defense strategy or the Sino-Indian military balance along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). I also spent a year as a Stanton Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where I had the opportunity to delve more deeply into nuclear issues, publishing a monograph on naval nuclearization in the Indo-Pacific. Then, while at Brookings, I produced a study comparing and contrasting India and China’s attitudes toward the law of the sea.
Over time, however, I began to feel an urge to write about broader strategic issues in addition to commenting on day-to-day military trends in Asia. I have long harbored a deep passion for intellectual history and the history of warfare, along with a certain frustration at the oft-superficial or synecdochic manner in which DC policy pundits engage with the past, and engage in analogical reasoning. By temperament and training, I am very much a historian—even though I may have a Ph.D. in Political Science. Indeed, I earned my degrees at Sciences Po Paris, which has historically taken a very different, and far more multidisciplinary approach, to the study of what they refer to as the political sciences (emphasis on the plural), than American academic institutions. At Sciences Po we were thus encouraged to combine the study of diverse disciplines—ranging from history to comparative politics, political philosophy, anthropology, and sociology—in our analyses, rather than drilled into viewing Political Science as a neatly self-contained source of truth on international politics.
For the past six years, therefore, I have been writing on issues pertaining to the history of grand strategy and warfare, all while retaining a deep interest in contemporary Asian defense issues. Some of this time has been spent at think-tanks, and some of it has been spent consulting for the U.S. Department of Defense. The decision to somewhat modify my intellectual focus was not necessarily an easy one—I was initially concerned that as I was primarily known as an Asia specialist it would be difficult for me to transition toward being recognized as a strategic historian. I soon realized, however, that those concerns were largely unwarranted—I just needed to demonstrate a sufficient level of professional seriousness and humility by convincing fellow historians that my work was both rigorous and grounded in the relevant scholarship.
When queried on my career path by younger think tankers and scholars, I always tell them that, while my professional trajectory has been somewhat unorthodox and is therefore difficultly replicable, I remain convinced that it is much better to develop an ability to “zoom in” before trying to “zoom out”. In short—work toward becoming a recognized expert— whether on a select issue, specific period, or key region—before spouting on broader strategic issues. Not only is this approach more sensible and marketable in today’s hyper-competitive job market, it also highlights an ability and willingness to “put in the work,” master detail, and get into the policy weeds. You can then hopefully carry that appreciation for detail, love of nuance, and respect for multicausality—all seasoned by a few more years of experience in the foreign policy trenches—into later, more wide-ranging, analyses.

What drew you to the Kissinger Center and your current fellowship?

First of all the quality of the faculty, and the raw intellectual firepower of my colleagues—many of whom I already knew as friends—across the Ax:son Johnson Institute for Statecraft and Diplomacy (AJI). Second, the welcome opportunity to spend two years working on long-gestating book projects. Anyone having spent time in the think-tank world knows how rare and valuable that is. And last, but most definitely not least, the fact that the center’s intellectual mission aligns so neatly with my own conviction of the importance of applied history for policymaking, a belief I have previously articulated in this essay for Engelsberg Ideas: