The foreign policy ‘hustler’

An expert in politics and security in the Asia-Pacific, Van Jackson has been an advisor to the US government and now shares his insights with the world.

Van Jackson stands in a white corridor
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.”

During his time in the OSD, Dr Jackson represented it in negotiations with North Korea, addressing its nuclear programme.

“There were two crises in 2010 where on the US side it felt like we were in a new Cuban Missile Crisis,” he says. “We really thought there could be war, mostly because of what South Korea might do—they were not willing to just be attacked by North Korea without retaliating. So we were trying to figure out ways to strengthen our alliance with South Korea, enhance deterrence and keep South Korea from taking actions that would bring us all into war. Now, of course, we have the same problem, but with Donald Trump!”

Dr Jackson says it is “terrifying” to watch what is currently unfolding between the US and North Korea.

“As security studies scholars, we know what conditions make situations like this more combustible; we know what the leading indicators are ahead of wars. And we know that wars happen even though nobody wants them to,” he says. “We see that the Trump administration is ignoring all the best practices and throwing out reason and the rule book, and just blustering into this. It’s pretty bad.”

As for New Zealand’s involvement in any future war with North Korea, it depends on the terms of the conflict, says Dr Jackson.

“It really matters who started it. If Trump launches a first strike, America will lose its moral superiority as well as all of the goodwill toward it. So I think if military action on the Korean peninsula is viewed as an issue for the international community to help resolve then New Zealand, with its obligation to be a good global citizen, would try to be part of that. But if it’s just Trump the madman taking wildly irresponsible actions and starting World War III, who’s going to back that? So the answer’s not clear cut for New Zealand.”

Viewing the tensions from afar has given Dr Jackson an enhanced point of view. “While in some ways I wish I was there in the thick of it, from a research and policy perspective I’m in a pretty advantageous position being removed from it all—I’m able to see things more clearly and can spend more time analysing the situation.”

In a recent radio interview, Dr Jackson controversially described Trump as a “flaming asshole”—and he remains unequivocal about his choice of terminology.

“Every Western liberal democracy has this latent potential to normalise behaviour that is fundamentally destabilising to democracy,” he says. “Trump stands as a threat to Western liberalism if people don’t check him or refute what he says when he says it. There’s a risk of normalising his rhetoric—that’s almost a pathway to authoritarianism. So you’ve got to call him what he is otherwise you’ll help create more assholes.”

For Dr Jackson, Trump’s ascendancy to the presidency meant it was a good time to leave the US, even though that was not his primary motivation. He joined Victoria University of Wellington in May 2017 after spending two years at a think tank in Honolulu.

“Victoria’s a pretty fantastic university—it compares favourably with most of the public universities in the US, and I was amazed to find how many of my research interests crossed over with what’s happening here,” he says. “It’s been great to still be able to do policy work through the Centre for Strategic Studies and balance that with my teaching in the School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations.”

He is writing a book for Cambridge University Press about the US-North Korea nuclear standoff, and is keeping a blog diary about the process called Nuke Your Darlings, which he hopes will provide useful insights for other writers.

Since he was a child growing up in California and Florida, Dr Jackson has been captivated by hip hop. And although there aren’t a lot of apparent links between that musical genre and his day job, he manages to combine the two in his unique podcast series, Pacific Pundit.

“It’s aimed at making young people aware of what’s happening. You might know on a gut level that you oppose Trump, but could you actually articulate why something specific he did is wrong? So being able to achieve that and make it digestible has been my goal—that’s why I couch it in hip hop references.”

Dr Jackson describes himself as a foreign policy hustler.

“Working in policy, you have to get smart very quickly on issues, but you can’t specialise too much—you also have to be incredibly flexible because that’s the nature of policymaking work: the world tells you what’s important. That to me is hustling—a continual learning process. The only way you can survive and be good at your job is to be constantly growing intellectually.”