The foreign policy ‘hustler’

Van Jackson has gone from advising American Secretaries of Defense to sharing his Asia-Pacific insights with the wider world, including international media.

Dr Van Jackson, School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations

It’s lucky for Victoria University of Wellington that Dr Van Jackson can’t rap.

While the hip hop-obsessed American Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Security Studies would have no doubt made an enthusiastic addition to the music industry, his lack of rhyming ability meant his rapping career was thwarted before it even got off the ground.

In fact, it was his other ambition, to be like James Bond, which set him off in quite a different direction.

“I basically wanted to be 007, but I was 17 years old and had no idea what that actually entailed,” says Dr Jackson. “Coming from pretty modest means, I decided early on that the military was an opportunity for social mobility and to get an education I otherwise might not have had.”

He aced a language aptitude test as part of his military recruitment, and was selected to spend two years at the Defense Language Institute in California, intensively studying the Korean language before relocating to South Korea for his job.

“From there, everything grew—Korea spawned a broader interest in North Asia and eventually in the wider Asia-Pacific. It was all interconnected, and for me it grew into an interest in United States foreign policy toward Asia,” he says. “Curiosity kept taking me through more and more education—that was how I evolved.”

After working as a Korean linguist and intelligence analyst for the US military, Dr Jackson eventually landed a role in Washington working in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD). He was an adviser to four Secretaries over the course of five years: Robert Gates, Leon Panetta, Chuck Hagel and briefly to Ash Carter.

“I got super lucky—that’s the world of high politics, of national security. I was their point man initially on everything Korea, then for the final two years it was for everything relating to Asia strategy. This included policy planning, studies of military innovation, crisis management and direct negotiation with numerous Asian government ministries.”

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In a nutshell

My research matters because … It tells policymakers what types of decisions will help enhance national security, avoid war and maintain a regional peace in Asia.  

One of the inspirations for my research has been … My experience as an adviser to multiple Secretaries of Defense in the United States. I got to see the importance of outside counsel, and how to position research so it can be useful to people who make decisions in government.  

The best thing about my job is … Academic freedom!  I’ve spent so much time working in institutions that, for one reason or another, impede you from pursuing the questions you think are most important.

My career highlight so far has been … Being told that Cabinet level ministers have read something I wrote and it actually changed how they thought about a particular security problem in Asia.

My advice to aspiring researchers is … Write every day, even when you’re not sure where it’s going. Like Albert Einstein said, “If we knew what we were doing it wouldn’t be called research.”