Investigating Geopolitics and Metaphysics

PhD student Scott McDonald researches Taiwanese geopolitics during research fellowship
A black and white close-up headshot of Scott McDonald

If you look for PhD student Scott McDonald, you will find him in the library, but halfway around the world, where he is busy reading the speeches of the PRC’s leaders and classical political philosophy texts in Chinese. 

McDonald is currently on a research fellowship in Taiwan, a program that funds academics who want to research in Taiwan on Taiwanese history, Chinese history, and politics. His dissertation looks at the intersection of classical Chinese philosophy and foreign policy decision-making in the People's Republic of China.

His path to classical Chinese philosophy has been a winding one. Intending to study international relations as an undergraduate at George Washington University, he was drawn to seek answers to why people behave the way they do through minors in economics and philosophy. Realizing that his true love was political theory, he knew he wanted to go back to school for his PhD, but first, he served for four years in the Marine Corps, which drew him in for its philosophical underpinnings.

“In most militaries, people swear allegiance to a state, or a leader. In the United States military, we swear an oath to the U.S. Constitution. That is why the U.S. military exists,” said McDonald. “I took that very seriously—that is why I joined the military.”

Through the Marines’ Foreign Area Officer Program, which trains military officers to become regional specialists, McDonald earned his master’s degree and was assigned to Chinese language classes. While he was initially daunted by the language he suddenly needed to learn, he began to see a powerful fit between his love of political theory and Chinese political philosophy.

“This is a culture that for over 2000 years, has taken this political theory, as embedded in Confucianism, and attempted over and over again, to apply it to the practical problems of governing society,” he said.

Through the program, he studied in Beijing for a year. He and his colleagues traveled far and wide to practice the language and learn from people outside of the country’s major cities. In his conversations with people in the capital city or remote villages, he found that Confucian ideals and ethics remain prevalent.

Following his time in Beijing, McDonald was assigned as a Marine attaché in Australia. When the Marines later asked him if he was interested in an active-duty assignment in Taipei, he was quick to say yes. Through his subsequent positions—teaching at the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii, working at the Pentagon in D.C.—he saw that something he had learned during his training was oftentimes missing from the conversations with officials in the U.S.

“The people who are making foreign policy decisions in Beijing have a different worldview, so sometimes we talk past each other. Their fundamental assumptions in terms of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics are very different than those of people making decisions in Washington. And therefore, they approach problems differently,” said McDonald.

“I can't tell you how many times I was listening to a panel at a think tank in D.C., and someone would say, ‘Well, obviously the PRC wants denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.’ No, you want denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Why do you think the PRC wants that? Back that up; tell me why. Tell me what they're thinking that leads to that.”

McDonald began to dig into these underlying assumptions. He read a large percentage of the corpus of classical Chinese philosophy, studying the ideas that underpin the country’s politics today.

His investigation of this philosophy also gives him insight into the politics surrounding Taiwan, which has been a nexus of conversation since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Increasingly here, people see themselves as Taiwanese, as having their own unique identity, a nationalism based not on ethnicity, but on a sense of belonging, and shared ideas, to this place,” said McDonald. “The U.S. has long been based on acceptance of a set of ideas. Taiwan has an identity based upon acceptance of a set of ideas. And I think that's very interesting, and powerful, too, and I'm not sure the PRC has always understood how powerful that is.”

For his dissertation, and during this research fellowship, he is investigating the power and influence of Chinese political philosophy around the issue of Taiwan across the leadership of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Xi Jinping.

While for years he knew that he wanted to pursue a PhD in political philosophy, McDonald found that Fletcher was the ideal place for him to land.  

“The Fletcher School being inherently interdisciplinary, I fit here. They like that my stuff is both academic and policy relevant,” he said. “I’m blending an academic approach to international relations with classical Chinese philosophy, which is not studied very many places here in the U.S. as a philosophy. Blending those two together, Fletcher says, ‘Yeah, see what you can do with that.’”

He has also reached beyond the school and found invaluable support from the university’s prominent PRC security scholars, as well as a philosophy professor who teaches Chinese philosophy. He is grateful to have the support of an interdisciplinary and dynamic committee.

Read more about Fletcher’s PhD programs.