U.S. foreign policy is run by lawyers. At the Cato Institute, we examined the terminal degrees of all cabinet-level foreign policy officials since 1945—secretaries of state and war/defense, CIA directors, national security advisors, UN ambassadors, secretaries of Homeland Security, and directors of national intelligence—and found that of these 157 individuals, fifty-five (or 35 percent) held a JD/LLB as their highest educational achievement, whereas just sixteen (or 10 percent) held history or political science PhDs.
Why do American politicians prefer having lawyers run foreign policy, rather than historians or political scientists? Should they? The answers aren’t obvious.
First, it’s important to admit that much of this may not be by design. There’s an endogeneity question right away: law degrees are overrepresented among politicians, and politicians frequently wind up in cabinet national security positions. Also, a law degree is a decent filter to demonstrate that someone has basic smarts: reading comprehension and writing skills. (Insert your own joke here.) So, it may not be the case that each administration necessarily sets out to find lawyers to run foreign policy; there just happen to be an awful lot of lawyers scurrying around DC.