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From the new energy revolution to complex negotiations, Meghan O’Sullivan brings the messiness of real-world problems to the classroom and the imagination of academia to the world of practice.

Less than 10 years ago, the United States was still wallowing in the depths of a long decline in oil and gas production. Today, as technological breakthroughs have opened up newly accessible supplies of shale gas and oil, the country is seemingly awash with black gold. From the long-tapped fields of Alaska and Texas, to the more recently procurable reserves in the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota, production is booming. Indeed, according to the Federal Energy Information Administration, the fall of 2013 marked a major turning point; in September, the United States produced more oil than it had in any one month in the previous 24 years, and in October, that amount exceeded the amount of oil the country imported, for the first time in 20 years. Transformation in the gas sector has been equally, or even more, dramatic.

The implications of this boom are many, for the United States and for its allies and rivals around the world. Since the 1970s, the political discussion about America’s energy profile has centered around shortages, reliance on other countries, and the complex relation-ships demanded by oil imports. But as evidence of a new possibility of energy independence—or significantly less dependence—emerges, that discourse is expanding to include the wide-reaching geopolitical consequences of such a shift. Meghan O’Sullivan, Jeane Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs and director of the Geopolitics of Energy Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, is at the forefront of this debate, helping policymakers respond to the new realities of an unexpected energy revolution.

As the former deputy national security advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan, O’Sullivan is no stranger to the world of statecraft and high stakes diplomacy, nor is she a rarified academic who shies away from the messiness of real life. Instead, she seems to revel in complex situations, whether they be in the hotbed of global energy markets or in flash points of international conflict, like the Middle East or Northern Ireland. A dedicated scholar, she is also an avid practitioner who jumps with both feet into the challenges of soliciting input from all sides of a conflict, critically analyzing the issues, employing shrewd negotiation skills, and strategizing effective resolutions.

Behind the desk in her small, nondescript office at the Kennedy School, O’Sullivan reflects on the connections between her current life in academia and her forays into the world of policymaking and international relations. She is soft-spoken but self-assured, enthusiastically endorsing the value of being able to move confidently between the worlds of theory and practice.

“One of the things that I really appreciate about being here at the Kennedy School is the opportunity to still do things in the real world,” she says. For O’Sullivan, that real-world work has involved, and continues to involve, playing an influential role in understanding and shaping the impact of international crises and moments of significant historical change.

When she first arrived at Harvard, as an Institute of Politics fellow in the fall of 2007, she had just days before stepped off a flight from Baghdad, bringing to an end her role in Iraq as a special advisor to President George W. Bush and her almost six years in a number of Iraq-related posts within the administration. The following September, she stepped away from the Kennedy School to return to Iraq to aid in the negotiation of the Status of Forces Agreement. More recently, the riots that paralyzed Belfast in the summer of 2013 pulled her back to Northern Ireland, where, more than a decade earlier, she helped implement the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

O’Sullivan’s ongoing work in the energy sector has the potential to be as highly influential in global politics as her work in foreign relations. Much of her current research focuses on the foreign policy implications of the change in the United States’ energy profile, due in large part to the commercial viability of shale gas and tight oil production. Together with Amy Myers Jaffe of UC Davis and Ken Medlock of Rice University, she has overseen a multi-year study on the geopolitics of natural gas, which has involved inputs and interaction with more than a dozen country and energy experts. The purpose of the study is to identify the political and economic forces that could affect production and consumption of natural gas over the next few decades, anticipate how global markets will be affected, and assess how market changes might influence political realities. The study’s preliminary results will be released at Rice University in February, and its final results at Harvard this coming fall.

Energy has, of course, always been a huge determinant of foreign affairs and policy. But, as O’Sullivan explains, two major events are going on in the energy world today to make this period exceptional and more intense: a slow revolution, whereby we would like to go from being highly dependent on fossil fuels to having a more diverse energy base, and a fast revolution, in which new technologies are allowing for the extraction of more oil and gas at commercial prices than we ever thought possible. Shale gas and tight oil—resources retrieved from shale formations by hydraulic fracturing and horizontal-drilling methods, also known as fracking—has, according to a Foreign Affairs article written by O’Sullivan and American diplomat and former Kennedy School faculty member Robert Blackwill, reversed the long-standing decline in U.S. production and added more than 2.5 million barrels a day in just two years; that incremental amount “is nearly what Kuwait and the UAE produce every day,” O’Sullivan points out.

O’Sullivan and Blackwill note that in 2013, the United States surpassed Russia as the leading energy producer, and projections by the International Energy Agency indicate that, by 2015, it will overtake Saudi Arabia as the top producer of crude oil. “Thanks to these developments,” O’Sullivan and Blackwill write, “the United States is now poised to become an energy superpower.”

As U.S. domestic production goes up and consumption stabilizes, imports will continue to go down. And as the energy supply diversifies, and oil from other countries becomes less important, this will sharpen instruments of statecraft like sanctions and trade deals. David Yergen, Pulitzer Prize winning author, former Kennedy School lecturer, and a leading authority on energy matters, has suggested that the oil sanctions on Iran would not have worked without the coinciding increase in U.S. production. O’Sullivan and Blackwill agree, noting that the steadily increasing supply of light tight oil in the United States helped to convince other countries that a lack of Iranian oil on the international market would not cause a price spike, thereby allowing for the more comprehensive sanctions that eventually drove Tehran to the negotiating table.

Academic Freedom

O’Sullivan is a true practitioner-professor, and her experience is an asset she brings to her academic post. The time she spent in government, in particular, adds both credibility and interest for her students, who benefit from her behind-the-scenes insights and her extensive knowledge about most issues related to foreign policy and energy. For her first two years at the Kennedy School, O’Sullivan co-taught with Graham Allison, Douglas Dillon Professor of Government and director of the Belfer Center, in his course Central Challenges of American Foreign Policy. She then began offering her own course, Decision Making in Recent Crises, initially basing it solely on Iraq and then, as the political landscape changed, including Afghanistan and Pakistan as well.

Students praise her well-prepared lectures, describing them as “rich in analysis and personal anecdote.” Lauren Harrison MPP 2013, currently a German Chancellor Fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, notes how O’Sullivan’s connections to high-level government officials made for fascinating guest lectures. “Who wouldn’t want to ask L. Paul Bremer a question, after spending the first part of the class studying Iraq and the Coalition Provisional Authority?” Harrison says.

A former student in O’Sullivan’s Decision Making course, Harrison describes the simulation exercises that O’Sullivan conducts in her classes—designed to simulate the experience of being a government official in a decision-making role—as “a particularly innovative way to incorporate her own experience into her pedagogy.” Students are divided into teams and asked to study the context of a major decision (such as invading Iraq), adopt the persona and perspective of one of the key participants (such as the former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld or the former secretary of state and national security advisor Condoleezza Rice), and then conduct a cabinet meeting in which the decision is debated. The purpose is to demonstrate how different assumptions and perspectives affect the way information is presented and decisions are reached, thereby reinforcing the importance of subjecting every assumption to strenuous testing.

But just as O’Sullivan knows that keeping at least one foot in the world of practice allows her to connect students’ learning to contemporary issues in a more dynamic way, she believes that her work in the academy informs her work in areas of global impact. Having been on the front lines of policymaking, she is especially conscious of the value of research time. As she explores the ripple effects around the world of the increased production of shale oil and gas in North America, and considers how those effects will play into changing U.S. foreign relations, she knows that current policymakers need answers to these questions. “One of the reasons I’m working on this topic,” she claims, “is because I’ve had policymakers tell me, ‘We know this is important, we know this has big implications for how we conduct ourselves, but given time and other constraints and the complex nature of this issue, we need assistance in translating these changes into strategy.’” Being able to paint a broader picture of how the global footprint of the United States might shift because of changing energy needs is, in O’Sullivan’s view, part of her responsibility as a scholar.

She speaks just as passionately about the creative space of the classroom, where one has the ability to see a problem in its many dimensions, and look back on it from many perspectives. She offers an example: “At an abstract but important level, I think there is a real need for creativity in negotiations. Both times I’ve stepped away from my role here at Harvard, I’ve stepped into pretty hard-core negotiations. If you’re trying to get multiple groups of people to a common place, you need to find many creative ways to get those people to see their interests differently, to find potential areas of compromise. You can’t always come up with something that nobody else has thought of, but it’s often useful to ‘complexify’ an issue to create tradeoffs.”

To explain that coinage, O’Sullivan recounts the challenges she faced in Northern Ireland, where she spent the last five months of 2013 (cutting back her teaching at the Kennedy School). At the behest of the Northern Ireland Executive, O’Sullivan joined Richard Haass, the former U.S. envoy for Northern Ireland and currently the president of the Council on Foreign Affairs, in facilitating all-party talks convened to resolve the divisive issues that continued to thwart the country’s desire for lasting peace. The Good Friday Agreement established new political institutions in the country and resolved major issues relating to the British military presence and the decommissioning of paramilitary organizations. But their ability to achieve an agreement in 1998, O’Sullivan explains, required that they park certain issues.

“This is true in every peace negotiation,” she says. “You can’t take on everything at once. I was very conscious of this in my involvement with the Iraqis, when they were authoring their constitution; there were certain issues that couldn’t immediately be resolved.” O’Sullivan admits that some might see that as a failure. “But I firmly believe,” she argues, “that sometimes, if you don’t do that, you prevent progress on all fronts because one issue seems unresolvable at the time. So you park it, you create a mechanism for returning to it, and you hope that when people come back to that issue, the environment will be such that it can be taken on in a way that doesn’t lead to violence or backsliding. It’s a gamble, but I think it’s one you have to take in certain circumstances. Sometimes, the best option is still a distasteful one with serious drawbacks.”

Policy Influence

O’Sullivan doesn’t come across as a gambler, at least not in a flamboyant, bet-the-farm kind of way. She is measured in tone and speaks with the purposeful, concise manner of someone well practiced at briefing senior-level officials. A former Brookings Institution scholar with a master’s in economics and a doctorate in politics from Oxford, O’Sullivan is sharp, thoughtful, and articulate as she expounds on her experiences in Iraq and Northern Ireland. She’s also a pragmatist, perhaps even more so now that she is a few years removed from her time in Iraq, and readily acknowledges that societies coming out of the type of sectarian conflict experienced in Northern Ireland have a long road ahead of them. “Things don’t get resolved overnight,” she says, “no matter how comprehensive your agreement is.”

Chairing the negotiations of political parties trying to agree on a way forward, Haass and O’Sullivan sorted the issues put aside in the Good Friday Agreement into three categories—flags and emblems, parades and protests, and how to contend with the past. Addressing the past is, of course, a particularly sensitive matter but the other issues might seem to be minor points of contention. O’Sullivan can understand an outsider’s incredulity. “At first we wondered, ‘Why are we going over to conduct high-profile negotiations on parades?!’” she says with a hint of a laugh. “But when you appreciate that a country with 1.8 million people ends up having almost 4,500 parades a year, you realize this is a major issue of identity. And whether or not the Union flag flies over the city hall might seem like a black-and-white issue, but that, too, is wrapped in aspects of identity and sovereignty.”

Here O’Sullivan returns to the matter of “complexifying an issue, and how the creative practices she employs in a classroom can shape negotiating tactics. “You have to be able to take that supposedly black-and-white issue and make it so complicated that there are enough tradeoffs that everyone feels like they can get something out of the solution,” she says, only partly joking. When issues are shown to be multiple shades of gray, all parties involved have at least some core principles in common. From there, theoretically at any rate, compromises can be made and agreements reached.

That was not the case in Northern Ireland, at least not by the end of the team’s negotiation period. “I would have loved it had everyone looked at that final document and thought, ‘This is the best outcome I can get, knowing what I know are other people’s constraints,’” says O’Sullivan. “But I hope that we have helped move the debate along, in a way that will lead to some real political progress.”

The desire to change mind-sets and influence policy in areas of conflict is what drives O’Sullivan. This is as evident in her current research into how America’s changed energy profile will affect foreign policy and national security as it is in the nation-building exercises she has participated in. “When you look at what is happening in the energy world and appreciate that energy has always shaped the behavior of countries,” she says, “then you understand that there are going to be major consequences of these energy changes in the realm of international affairs.”

Unconventional energy not only has changed America’s energy profile dramatically, but has the potential to do the same for many other countries. “How do these energy innovations influence our role in the world?” O’Sullivan asks. “How do they influence how important the Middle East is to us? If we are not importing any oil from Africa, does Africa go down on our list of priorities or not? If the price of oil drops, what does that mean for Russian stability? If China is able to develop its own resources, through unconventional methods, how does that change how the country interacts in its own neighborhood or in the South China Seas? How China sees Latin America? How it sees Africa? How are these changes in energy affecting foreign policy and national security?”

These are important questions, she argues, as is the question of how such changes should affect how America conducts itself in the world. She recognizes that the ability to explore them in detail, with the help of colleagues and smart students and without the pressures of real responsibility in a government role, is a privilege.

“One of the challenges of being a foreign policy practitioner is that it is really difficult to be strategic,” says O’Sullivan. She recounts the experience of accompanying the new Iraqi government back to Washington to meet President Bush and being stopped by Secretary of State Colin Powell, for whom she had previously worked, just before heading into the Situation Room. “He asked me what I had recently learned, and I just answered ‘How hard it is to be strategic!’” O’Sullivan recalls. “I had written books on foreign policy before ever being a practitioner. You might think about your foreign policy, ‘Well, you have these gains and you no longer have these dependencies, therefore you should be able to change how you interact with various countries.’ The reality, though, is that takes a long time to adapt a national security strategy as large and as complex as that of the United States to new realities.”

O’Sullivan’s knowledge is considerable and her resume is impressive, but she has the grace to acknowledge that her career has included “a massive dose of good luck and excellent mentorship.” And while she may not be reckless, she does believe in taking risks in the pursuit of proficiency. “My mother would say I’ve always been a risk-taker,” she says, somewhat sheepishly. “But you take risks, and you find yourself in the position where you actually have more knowledge than most people because you sought out those opportunities and gained that expertise.”

Guiding others along a career in international affairs and public service is O’Sullivan’s goal. “I’ve been here for six years, which is long enough for me to appreciate that many of my students are going to go on and do wonderful, important things, and if I can make some positive contribution to that journey, that is a hugely worthy pursuit,” she says. “I really do think, ‘What can I tell a student that will be helpful to her if she finds herself in a position of international responsibility—in the private sector or in government or in an NGO—that might help her get a grip on that situation earlier than she might have otherwise? That, to me, is exciting.”

Susannah Ketchum Glass is a writer living in Beverly, Massachusetts.