Wren Elhai is a student in the Ford Dorsey Master’s in International Policy (MIP) program specializing in cyber policy and security. Before coming to Stanford, Wren spent seven years as a Foreign Service Officer at the U.S. Department of State. He has also worked at the Center for Global Development in Washington, D.C. and spent a year studying traditions of vocal music around the world as a Thomas J. Watson Fellow. Wren earned his bachelor’s degree in political science and Russian from Swarthmore College.
FSI: What’s an issue in the realm of cyber policy that you think is under attended to?
WE: One thing I've been working on involves the societies that are using the Internet for the first time and adopting it very rapidly, and also have existing fault lines of conflict or weak governance. I’ve been looking at how the potential harms of technology play out and how those harms can be regulated, either by building more capable governments, by changing the incentives of the tech companies that are producing the products, or by strengthening international institutions and norms. I’ve been thinking about the mechanisms we can employ to ensure that the technology products that we're producing and exporting to the rest of the world don't have really terrible effects in some of those places because they weren't designed for by people who live there.
You have a lot of practical experience with policy and international security — what made you want to pursue a master’s degree?
At the point where I was in my career, I felt that doing another tour in the State Department would be kind of like committing myself to that as a career and saying that my primary focus as a professional would be as a U.S. diplomat. I wasn't certain I was ready to make that commitment.
On top of that, I've always felt I would go back to graduate school if there were things I could learn in an academic setting that I might not learn in a professional setting. And this was the time to do it.
What about the MIP program felt different to you than other schools you were considering when applying?
At the time, I was deciding between Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School and MIP, and my impression after talking to someone at Princeton and someone here was that this program had a lot more flexibility. Coming out of a long period of working in a pretty structured environment, I felt that I would appreciate the flexibility to decide what I was interested in studying and craft my own path.
I think a couple of factors made that possible here at Stanford. One is that we’re on a quarter system, so you have the opportunity to take a lot more classes. Within that, there’s the ability to specialize in one area of study, but also take electives that are outside of the core curriculum and that are not necessarily directly connected to your chosen specialization. I’ve really appreciated being able to take a class on ethnomusicology, which is related to some of the things I’ve done before, and I think it was a very valuable class in helping me think about the use of both anthropological research methods and also cultural tools in the conduct of foreign policy and diplomacy. It’s likely not something I would ever have been able to do at another program with more rigid requirements.
Since being here, is there something you’ve found to be unexpected or particularly surprising?
I certainly didn't expect to dive headfirst into cyber policy in the way that I have. But also, the main thing that I didn't quite realize about Stanford is the sort of power and influence that is concentrated here. When we're talking about the role of tech platforms in our elections and when or about the ways to counter online disinformation, there are experts on campus who are heavily involved in those debates in the academic and policy spheres. Then, there’s the people that come to visit campus — it’s a venue for all sorts of things, from discussions on election security and encryption, to panels with the Secretary of State on U.S.-Iran policy.
I’ve appreciated those opportunities, because it's fun to go to events like that. As a student that's not generally how you spend most of your time and it's not necessarily what you're here for. But for me, going to those sorts of events and listening to who is saying what has been invaluable. In a couple of cases, they led me directly to opportunities to do research and to work with faculty in a non-classroom setting, which I’ve really benefited from.
What’s in the future for you after MIP?
I set out the challenge for myself of finding a job back at the State Department that would let me use some of the things I've been learning here at Stanford. I am taking a job in the office of cyber issues at the State Department. I'll be in charge of public diplomacy around the issue, thinking about how the press or our own social media channels address the complex problems surrounding cybersecurity and state use of technology and how that affects our national security.
Outside of taking classes in the program, what have you enjoyed working on at Stanford?
Before COVID-19 sent us all online, I was working on putting on a series of events this year with the help of a grant from the Vice Provost for Graduate Education. We looked at the ways people have tried to use music, writing, or film or other forms of art to resolve conflicts. One speaker we invited was an Egyptian ethnomusicologist who brought musicians from 11 countries in the Nile River Basin together to start conversations around conflicts over the use of water in that region of the world. We had a workshop with a performance with the Jerusalem Youth Chorus, an organization that brings Israeli and Palestinian youth together to engage in dialogue and to sing together — trying to model what peaceful coexistence might look like.
Through this effort, I've been able to find some of the other people on campus who share this somewhat disparate set of interests, marrying national security policy with the arts and cultural expression. One of the benefits of being at a university like Stanford is that there are people studying everything you can imagine here. And so, the challenge is not so much that there aren't interesting people around, it’s more about figuring out who is here and how to find them and how to get them to make time in their schedules and to make time in yours to actually come together.