Matthew Kroenig’s dissertation book, “Exporting the Bomb,” is a typical academic publication, meant for political science scholars. But there’s an easily missed detail on the book’s back cover that would interest a much wider audience: next to Kroenig’s “about the author” photo are the words “courtesy of Karl Lagerfeld.”
Last anyone heard, Lagerfeld was busy designing Chanel’s next line and hadn’t taken on academics as photography clients. But Lagerfeld is the godfather of Kroenig’s nephew, and Kroenig has spent many a summer among his entourage in St. Tropez.
That’s because Kroenig’s brother is “one of the best male models of all time,” as Kroenig puts it — a fact he often shares with his “Introduction to International Relations” students during syllabus week, along with his own career highlights, which extend beyond his brother’s fame: a fellowship at the Council on Foreign Relations and successful work in government and the media as an expert on nuclear nonproliferation with a focus on Iran, to start.
Of course it’s not unusual for Georgetown professors to share their impressive past experience with their classes. Yet the combination of his family’s star power — his sister is a former television news anchor — and Kroenig’s own achievements make his biography more memorable than most. Kroenig’s family, his Washington stories and his willingness to talk about both are what students remember about his classes, more than neorealism or constructivism.
With his fitted suits, colored ties and perfectly waved strawberry blond hair, Kroenig, 37, forms a striking presence in front of his hundred-person lecture halls. He joined Georgetown’s faculty as an assistant professor after earning his doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley in 2007. He gained tenure in 2013, and has spent the years since becoming one of the better-known members of Georgetown’s department of government faculty and a fixture on the Washington circuit of experts.
He arrived at Berkeley, ranked number two at the time for its political science doctoral program, after graduating from the University of Missouri with a degree in history. Born and raised outside of St. Louis, Kroenig didn’t discover world affairs and political science until late in his education. “Driving across the bridge into Illinois was my idea of foreign affairs,” he jokes.
It was a summer on Semester at Sea that first got him interested in international affairs. After a lifetime in Missouri, he saw Cuba, Brazil, South Africa, Kenya, India, Malaysia, Cambodia, China and Japan in the span of three months. He left the program convinced he wanted to become a foreign service officer — the same as the officers who had boarded the ship when it docked to teach the students about each new country.
Before travelling the world on that cruise ship, Kroenig was most interested in sports, and even thought about trying professional athletics. After a high school career as a multi-sport varsity athlete, he played basketball in college.
“He came back [from Semester at Sea], and he stated his life had changed,” says his father, Mark Kroenig. “We could see more of a focus, more of a guiding light in his future.”
He started graduate school after four months as a Rent-a-Car manager in Missouri and eight months in Italy, where he studied up on the Italian language, cuisine and sense of style. He chose nuclear proliferation as his focus just a few weeks before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Kroenig isn’t shy about his accomplishments since then. He got his tenure-track job at Georgetown right out of graduate school, he’ll soon have published five books in six years and he often testifies before the Senate and at the White House.
All that information is available on his website, along with photos of him with policy leaders including former Defense Secretary Robert Gates (GRD ’74). That same photo is the only one on display in his Intercultural Center office, and the only decoration besides his diplomas and a poster of the cover of his dissertation book.
His work on Iran, in particular, has received considerable attention. In articles for Foreign Affairs and in his most recent book, “A Time to Attack,” Kroenig argues that if diplomacy fails, the United States should conduct a limited strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear capabilities. The argument has received praise from some policymakers as well as criticism from people who call him a warmonger. (One particularly harsh online review compared his argument to one Stephen Colbert would make, in character.) Kroenig points out that it is a similar position to those held by the last three presidents.
“I think my writing on this has helped to change the debate on this a little bit,” he says. A little while after his argument first made the rounds in 2012, Kroenig says, President Obama clarified the administration’s position that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable. “He wasn’t as crystal clear as I was because he’s the president, and you talk in more diplomatic language. But I think it did help to force the administration to come out and take a stand, and it was on my side, not on the side of the people arguing for containment.”
Kroenig has been able to combine his research on these issues with a highly successful policy career, and political work. (He was a foreign policy adviser on Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign.)
“He brings a robust sensitivity to help fill out the debate on a whole range of issues, including Iran,” says Nitin Chadda, director on the National Security Staff at the White House, who worked with Kroenig during his fellowship at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he first began studying Iran. “He’s much more engaged in policy discourse than a lot of his academic contemporaries.”
“He’s theoretically sophisticated and he also has expertise in the policy arena,” adds George Shambaugh, an associate professor of international affairs and government who was involved in hiring Kroenig and now co-teaches a seminar on Machiavelli with him at Georgetown’s Villa le Balze in Fiesole, Italy, over the summer. “That combination is very nice, and it works well at Georgetown in general.”
Students admire his commitment to policy debates as well.
“The coolest part about him is he’s a very dynamic professor and he’s also someone who’s not afraid to stick his neck out on controversial issues,” says Kyle Gaines (SFS ’14), who became close with Kroenig after taking his Machiavelli seminar in 2013.
Taking these risks is important to Kroenig. When I ask about what he does for fun, and his favorite books and movies, he mentions Voltaire’s “Candide” and Federico Fellini’s films of the 1960s, before pausing to consider.
“The idea of just sitting down to watch a movie for two hours, I just feel like it’s a waste. There’s a huge opportunity cost to that,” he says. “At this stage in my career, I feel like I have a lot of ideas, a lot to say, a lot I want to get out, and spending two hours watching a movie doesn’t seem like a great use of my time right now.”
Kroenig jokes that Georgetown is “the only place in the world where it’s cool to be a political science professor.” But it’s not really a joke — being cool is important to him.
The first word he uses to describe himself as a professor is “young.” “I said ‘ratchet’ in class the other day,” he says. “The students enjoyed that.”
In a class covering just war theory, he plays a clip of an animated Kim Jong-Il from the 2004 movie “Team America: World Police” when talking about nonproliferation in North Korea. But the biggest laugh he gets all class is unintentional, after a convoluted analogy of international law “passing through a screen,” in which he explains what a screen does. He takes the class’s laughter in stride: “You’re laughing at me, so this explanation isn’t going very well. I’m hoping you got it anyway.”
As a professor, he’s clear and straightforward, but he doesn’t command the same attention as Georgetown-famous lecturers like Fr. Matthew Carnes or Fr. Kevin O’Brien. He does command attention for other reasons — he’s one of few Georgetown professors to earn a chili pepper for hotness on Rate My Professors.
“He’s Hollywood handsome, which runs in the family,” write the authors of the book “Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda,” which Kroenig has assigned for class. The book details Pentagon strategy to fight terrorism, and the analysts who crafted it, who Kroenig worked for early in his career.
Unfortunately for the fans who gave him that Rate My Professors chili pepper, Kroenig is engaged; the wedding is Saturday, in fact. His fiancee, Olivia DeMay, is a pharmaceutical sales representative and a former cheerleader for the Baltimore Ravens. They met at a bar in Dupont Circle about two years ago.
“I had dated women in the past who worked on foreign policy, national security policy, and there were things about that I liked, but in the end I think it was just too close,” Kroenig says. “We balance each other out.”
The rest of the Kroenig family is coming into town for the wedding, from St. Louis, New York and California. Kroenig is the oldest of three children, but the last to get married.
His brother, Brad, is the model, and his sister, Julie, is a stay-at-home mom and a former news anchor.
Kroenig is the oldest by only 18 months, and all three kids were in high school at the same time.
All three siblings are very close now and talk every week, but when they were growing up, Kroenig was a bit of an intimidating older brother. Responsible, athletic and smart, his brother and sister felt like they had to live up to his standard.
“If one of the other kids would rebel, they were more afraid of what Matt would say than what we would say,” says his mother, Barb Kroenig. “I give him credit for how the other two turned out.”
Both siblings still look to Kroenig for advice. “He’s travelled there, he’s eaten it, he’s done it,” says his sister, now Julie Forbes. “He’s led such an interesting life, he always has something to offer no matter the conversation.”
Brad looks up to Kroenig, too, but their relationship is more competitive. (The first thing Kroenig says to me in our interview, in fact, is that his brother had recently been profiled in the New York Times Magazine, and he could now brag to him that he was profiled in The Hoya.) Every member of the Kroenig family mentions this competition as a driving force behind the successes of their very different careers.
“He played every single sport you could imagine, so I did the same thing, always trying to keep up with him, the bigger brother around the house,” Brad says. “It’s carried on to our professional lives as well.”
The brothers share workout and diet tips (the regimen Kroenig follows comes from the book “Man 2.0: Engineering the Alpha”), something that started from this same competitive drive, when the family went on vacation to Lake Tahoe shortly after Kroenig finished his Ph.D. “I remember looking at the pictures and my brother was fit and tan and looked great, and I was like the fat, pale brother,” Kroenig says. “I saw that photo and said, ‘Never again.’”
As much as his siblings admire him, Kroenig sees himself a little differently. “[My sister’s] on television, my brother’s on runways and I’m hiding in my office, writing books. They made a living on their looks,” he says. “So I think that’s evidence that I’m clearly the ugly duckling of the family.”
He’s joking, but there’s a grain of truth there. And when asked if he ever considered following a path more like his brother’s, Kroenig responds from experience with the question. “I think there are a lot of people, especially where I grew up in St. Louis, who think my brother’s lifestyle is much more interesting,” he says. “I understand that for the average person, but I definitely wouldn’t trade places.”
The thing about Kroenig’s family is that he likes telling people about them. Of course he could have used another photo for his book’s headshot. And I might not have noticed Lagerfeld’s photography credit if he hadn’t gotten up in the middle of our interview to point it out to me. His siblings, and their successes, are as important to how he sees himself as his expertise in foreign policy. They’ll probably stay that way, even as Kroenig moves forward in his personal and professional lives.
Besides getting married, there’s a lot coming up for him. After his seminar at Villa le Balze this summer, the couple is adding a honeymoon at a villa in Sardinia. Kroenig is expanding his research from Iran to Russia, U.S.-China relations and the effects of 3-D printing on national security. And he’s been talking to some potential 2016 presidential candidates on the Republican side, whom he mentions by name in our interview but later asks me not to publish. If one of them wins the election, he might take a break from Georgetown to work in government.
“I guess I just want to continue to do what I’ve been doing, he says, “but doing it better.”