Q&A with Dr. Victor D. Cha, MSFS Professor, Founder of SFS Asian Studies Program

by Jessica Kosmider, MSFS '19

Professor Victor D. Cha, founder and former director of the Asian Studies program within the Georgetown Walsh School of Foreign Service (SFS), has a long career working in academia as well as the public and private sectors. He spent time at the National Security Council during the administration of President George W. Bush, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), and the Fulbright Association. The Master of Science in Foreign Service (MSFS) program sat down with Dr. Cha to discuss his career trajectory, different opportunities working in international affairs, and pressing foreign policy challenges.


How did you first become interested in international affairs and U.S. foreign policy?

I was an economics major in college and really did not think much about international affairs.  However, after a year working in New York City, I decided to go to Oxford to pursue a degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE). I did a tutorial there on "International Relations since 1945" and remember reading one evening after crew practice in the Bodleian Library the famous "Mr. X" article in Foreign Affairs. That's when I first became interested in how nation-states interact.


What was the most challenging issue you faced during your time in the U.S. government (USG) and how did you respond to it?

Obviously for me this was North Korea and the nuclear negotiations. We reached agreements in 2005 and 2007 that have long since fallen apart. It's easy to think that all of that work was for naught, but I learned a great deal about the "can-do" spirit of our government when we become focused on solving a problem, the support that comes from our allies in the region, and, most importantly, the dedication of our public servants who work tirelessly to secure our interests.


What are the biggest differences - both benefits and potential challenges - between working for the USG and outside of it, especially when working on the same regional issues? 

In the U.S. government, you are trying to solve problems, advance alliances, and secure U.S. interests. Outside of government, you are commenting on whether the government in office is doing any or all of these things well. The biggest difference is that in academia, we tend to talk about a problem, observe its difficulties, and criticize efforts by others to fix it. In government, you need to figure out what long-term objective best serves our interests and then offer immediate, pragmatic, implementable steps to get there. There's no time to sit around over coffee and criticize the policy.


How important was mentorship to you in your professional trajectory?

It was important and I was fortunate to have great mentors. In academia, my advisor at Columbia, Bob Jervis, remains a close friend. At Georgetown, Bob Gallucci was my first Dean in SFS back in 1996 and has been a close friend and mentor. Among faculty, Jim Reardon Anderson (SFS Chair) and Bob Lieber (Government Department Chair) provided an environment supportive of tenure-track faculty. Of course, Jack DeGioia took the time to get to know his faculty and I have been fortunate to travel with him on University business to Asia for some pretty interesting times. In government, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and National Security Advisor Steve Hadley have been always been kind with their time and advice.


What do you view as the most potentially destabilizing and/or biggest national security issue facing the world today?

Russia, but I would defer to my colleague Angela Stent on this one!


As MSFS students head out into the real world to become foreign policy practitioners, what is the best advice you could give them to succeed in their respective fields?

This is a hard question for me to answer because my career goal was never to be a foreign policy "practitioner." It has been to be a scholar. When I came to Georgetown in 1995, I did so not because I wanted to be inside policy in Washington, DC, but because of Georgetown's academic reputation. That I ended up doing policy was, in that sense, unexpected. My advice, based on this experience, is: 1) Be good at what you do. Networking is important, but there is no substitute for good work; 2) Expect change. Life never goes just as you plan it. And when that change comes, make the best of it; and 3) Never forget your Hoya roots. Georgetown4Ever!