April/May 2009

Faculty Focus: Henry Nau

Professor of Politics and International Affairs Henry Nau has worked with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Ronald Reagan
but says he’d rather be in a classroom.

By Julia Parmley

As a lieutenant in the 82nd Airborne Division of the U.S. Army in Fort Bragg, N.C., in the mid-1960s, Henry Nau had limited down time. But with the free moments he had, Dr. Nau lost himself in historical books and discovered a love for “the broader aspects” of world history and economics. Although he had earned a Bachelor of Science degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. Nau knew he had to pursue his newfound passion for the social sciences. The realization led him to a career in national and international politics, economics, and science that has spanned more than 40 years.

Dr. Nau, GW professor of politics and international affairs, came to the University in 1973 as an assistant professor in the former School of Public and International Affairs. He served on the University commission that established GW’s Elliott School of International Affairs and became the school’s first associate dean from 1988 to 1993, developing curriculum, recruiting students and growing faculty. “When I started at the Elliott School, we had one dean, one associate dean, and two professional staff members,” says Dr. Nau. “Now every time I walk into 1957 E Street I can appreciate how far the school has come. It has succeeded beyond what anyone imagined.”

Dr. Nau’s leadership continues at the school. At GW’s Sigur Center for Asian Studies, he directs the U.S.-Japan-South Korea Legislative Exchange Program, which brings together legislators from the three countries for policy discussions. He has taught a wide variety of classes that reflect his research interests, including introduction to international affairs, U.S. foreign policy, international political economy, and theories of international politics.Dr. Nau also has published eight books, including an introductory
textbook on international affairs, and authored myriad articles and book chapters on topics ranging from identity and power in U.S. foreign policy to the effect of technology on national and international power.

His current research focuses on different theoretical perspectives on foreign policy and the ways in which they have played out in policy debates. “There are traditional classifications of political thought such as liberals and realists, but I am looking at more subtle distinctions,” he says. “For example, former President George Bush was an ardent advocate of spreading democracy, especially in the Middle East, a traditional liberal position, while President Obama seems more interested in achieving security and withdrawing American forces rather than promoting democracy, a traditional realist position. Yet Bush is considered a realist and Obama a liberal. One has to dig deeper to understand these differences.”

After he received a master’s degree in 1967 and doctorate in 1973 from John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, Dr. Nau began his teaching career as an assistant professor of political science at Williams College. He has been a fellow at the Smithsonian Institution’s Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and at Johns Hopkins University’s Foreign Policy Institute, a visiting scholar at the University of Miami’s Law and Economics Center, and a visiting professor at Columbia University and Stanford University.

Dr. Nau’s research interests have also led him into government. In the mid-1970s, he was awarded an international affairs fellowship from the Council on Foreign Relations and served as a special assistant to the undersecretary for economic affairs in
the U.S. Department of State. In 1976, he worked directly with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to develop technology programs for developing countries. “It was an interesting time, because the 1970s represented the coming of age of science and technology as a component of foreign affairs and U.S. politics, and I was there when it happened,” says Dr. Nau.

Dr. Nau’s next foray into government came from 1981 to 1983 as a senior staff member
of the National Security Council, director of the Division for International Economic Affairs, and personal representative for the White House at presidential economic summits. “I helped President Reagan prepare for G-7 economic summits and other
foreign meetings dealing with international trade, currency issues, and foreign aid,” says Dr. Nau. “The whole experience broadened my knowledge of American foreign policy and influenced my subsequent scholarship which turned from technological to economic issues. Working with President Reagan was unforgettable, but in the end I knew I had to return to the academic world and a more contemplative life.”

Despite his teaching and research responsibilities, Dr. Nau carves out time to pursue his hobbies. He enjoys watching and playing sports and walking along the Potomac River with his wife, Marion, a chemist at the National Institutes of Health, near their home in Potomac, Md. They are avid horse racing fans and visit the racetrack in Del Mar, Calif., every summer. “We rent a condo on the hillside across from the race track and sit in the beautiful weather to watch the races,” says Dr. Nau. “It’s a great way to while away an afternoon and lose $20.”

From his studies in the natural and social sciences, Dr. Nau has become interested in the question of “how we know something.” He says he encourages his students to understand certain concepts and facts but cautions against calling them “absolute truths.”

“In the social sciences, unlike the natural sciences, we are part of what we study, so it can be hard to stay objective about what we see and evaluate in the world,” he says. “We should always test the relationship between theory and fact and find out if there
is evidence that is consistent with our theory. But we can never really know if our theory or idea is actually the way the world is. There may be other ideas that fit the same facts just as well.”

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