Former diplomat guides students through tangle of technology and foreign policy
James Shinn could tell his students about the time he was in Seoul meeting with South Korea’s national security advisers when violent demonstrations broke out in the streets—but he’d rather not.
As assistant secretary of defense for Asia, Shinn was there to negotiate a joint forces agreement but public anger over food safety was threatening to bring down the newly established government. It was 2007 and South Koreans were outraged that their country was resuming imports of U.S. beef despite their fears of mad cow disease.
The scene sets the stage for one of the case studies in Shinn’s course “Technical Innovation and Foreign Policy” offered by the Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering Education. The case demonstrates a clash of scientific information and foreign policy and includes the tale of a diagnostics firm, Bio-Rad Laboratories, that sells a mad cow test and got caught in the middle.
“We talk about how technological innovation ripples through the world and how it creates or solves public policy problems,” Shinn said.
But Shinn, whose background also includes a stint at the Central Intelligence Agency, avoids filling the course with “war stories.”
“It’s the Socratic method; the teacher tries not to inject himself into the dialogue,” Shinn said of his case study method, which draws on the trademark approach of the Harvard Business School and of his Keller Center colleague and mentor Ed Zschau. His teaching method also emphasizes the use of formal “decision trees” to analyze complex decisions that involve both technical and foreign policy choices.
Among other cases in his course: How Internet telephone technology such as Skype causes headaches for authoritarian regimes; how commercially available satellite images have remade global security policy; how genetically modified crops create tensions over trade and the environment.
This intersection of ideas reflects Shinn’s own varied experiences. After graduating from Princeton in 1973 with a degree from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Shinn went to work for Chase Manhattan in Asia, and then joined the State Department for his first period of government service. Then he earned an MBA from Harvard University and spent 15 years in Silicon Valley founding and leading technology firms.
Shinn returned to Princeton and earned his Ph.D. from the Wilson School in 2001 and taught an earlier version of his course at Princeton and at Georgetown University. He then went to work for the CIA in 2003 as the National Intelligence Officer for East Asia and joined the Department of Defense from 2007 to 2008.
Now as a Lecturer at the Keller Center, Shinn draws from his own experiences and from case studies written by previous students.
Learning to navigate technology and policy with insight and nuance is an important skill for students interested in business and public service alike, said Shinn. “Typically, among foreign policy makers, the more senior you get the less technically literate you are.”
“And a lot of business entrepreneurs aren’t use to thinking about how their work plays out across a global terrain,” he added. “Our students have to figure out how to deal with this stuff on an integrated basis, sooner or later.”