Faculty Q&A: Brian Greenhill
Name: Brian Greenhill
Title: Associate Professor and Vice Chair
Department: Political Science
What brought you to Rockefeller and how long have you been here?
I have been on the faculty here for two years — I arrived in the summer of 2017 after teaching at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire — and I’m finding that Rockefeller is a really great place to work. When I first had a chance to meet with all of the faculty and staff here during my interview I remember coming away with a very strong sense that this position would make a great fit for me, and I’m very pleased to say that that instinct has proven correct.
Tell us about your research interests and why you are passionate about this topic?
I study intergovernmental organizations — that is, organizations like the United Nations or the European Union, as well as many smaller or more technical organizations that relatively few people will have heard of. I find these organizations really fascinating because they represent an attempt by countries to club together to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems. As you can imagine, this doesn’t always go well — international negotiations often end in deadlock, and there are few effective mechanisms for ensuring that countries stick to their agreements — but I find them to be really interesting for helping us understand how order can begin to emerge in the international system.
Within the world of international organizations, the areas that I’m most interested in are the politics of human rights and the environment. A lot of my research has considered the ways in which international organizations help to spread ideas about how countries ought to behave, and how these ideas ultimately shape the policies of their members. For example, I’ve used network analysis techniques to show that countries adopt human rights practices that, over time, begin to mimic those of the other countries with whom they interact in international organizations. What was really striking was that this finding appears even among organizations that appear to have nothing to do with promoting human rights. This is interesting because it suggests that international organizations can affect their member states in very unexpected ways.
What do you want the public to know about your research? Why is your topic important?
We’re living through a period in which the future of many international institutions is in serious doubt. The Trump administration has announced its intention to pull the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement, the UK is on the cusp of withdrawing from the European Union, and the International Criminal Court is suffering from a real crisis of legitimacy. I believe that it’s especially important for people to develop a better understanding of what international organizations do, and at the same time, for the international organizations themselves to find better ways of engaging with the public. In fact, I’m now working on a new research project that addresses the question of how these organizations can influence public opinion on critical issues such as climate change or human rights violations.
What is your favorite part of your job?
I think it’s fair to say that most academics have chosen this career because they love to learn new ideas. For me, the best part of the job comes when I’m teaching new material and I’m able to work with the students to unpack a tricky concept, especially in some of the more advanced classes. I think most students don’t realize that they’re not the only ones learning new ideas in the classroom; they’re also helping their instructors to learn new ways of thinking about things too, and that’s what can make a good class discussion feel so rewarding for everyone involved.
What are your favorite hobbies?
I love running, but I also like to spend my free time just relaxing in front of the TV.
What’s your favorite food to eat or cook?
I love desserts and especially good quality chocolate. I have a real sweet tooth.
What are your must-have smartphone apps?
It would have to be my podcast app. I’m listening to podcasts all the time — whether I’m driving, going for a run, or just cleaning up the kitchen.
What is your favorite song?
“Imagine” by John Lennon
What is your favorite spot in the Capital District?
I love taking my kids to Thacher Park, especially the Indian Ladder trail.