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Political science PhD candidate Christopher Clary helping to shape U.S. defense policy

MIT political science PhD candidate Christoper Clary
MIT political science PhD candidate Christoper Clary
Photo: Adriane Cesa

In the high stakes world of international relations, particularly when nuclear powers are involved, there is little room for error. At the same time, sorting out causes and effects from the mix of actions and events unfolding between nation states is not trivial.

For this reason, third-year doctoral student Christopher Clary came to MIT after a decade of government work, mostly in Washington, spent dissecting the politics of South Asia and helping form defense policies. “The dirty secret about Washington, D.C., is that it is filled with very smart people who have absolutely no time to think,” Clary says. “They are too busy reacting to the problems of the day.”

Clary’s thinking about South Asia began somewhat serendipitously. In 1999, as an undergraduate studying Latin American issues at Wichita State University, he decided to spend a semester in Washington. He applied for internships, and by the end of the year was ready to move.

The only thing missing was a job.

The Latin American think tanks were slow getting back to him, so at the last minute, he landed an internship focused halfway around the world on South Asia.

Clary couldn’t have made a more fortuitous decision. Just two years earlier, India and Pakistan had both tested their first nuclear weapons (barring a small 1974 test by India). The A.Q. Khan nuclear proliferation network was in full swing. The two countries had also just fought a limited war against one another — the first direct conflict between two nuclear powers. And President Bill Clinton visited India in 2000 with an aim to develop U.S.-India relations. “It was an exciting time,” Clary says.

And the region, he realized, was understudied. At the Henry L. Stimson Center, where his internship eventually became a full-time job, experts on China filled the halls. “There weren’t nearly as many people working on South Asia,” he says.

Clary left Stimson in 2003 to become a research associate and earn a Master’s in National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. He worked to understand how India and Pakistan configured their nuclear arsenals and conventional militaries. After that, he returned to Washington for work at the Pentagon to develop U.S. defense policies, mainly with India. “I became very interested in India’s rise of power,” Clary says.

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