Stephen Watts

Photo of Stephen Watts
Senior Political Scientist; Associate Research Department Director, Defense and Political Sciences Department
Washington Office


Ph.D. in government, Cornell University; M.A. in European Studies, Georgetown University; B.A. in government, College of William & Mary


Stephen Watts is a senior political scientist and associate director for the Defense and Political Sciences Department at the RAND Corporation. His research has focused on irregular warfare (insurgency and counter-insurgency, stability and peace operations), security sector assistance, coalition diplomacy, political development in the wake of civil wars, and long-term conflict trends.

Watts received his Ph.D. in government from Cornell University, where he was awarded the Esman Prize for best dissertation in government, and has held research fellowships at Harvard University's Belfer Center and the Brookings Institution. He is the lead author of nearly a dozen RAND studies and has published articles in such journals as The Washington Quarterly, Parameters, and Joint Force Quarterly.

Prior to beginning his doctoral studies, Watts served as a foreign affairs officer responsible for peacekeeping planning for the Balkans in the State Department's Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, where he was twice awarded a Superior Honor Award for his work. He has held short-term assignments at the State Department's Office of Policy Planning, U.S. Embassy Sarajevo, and Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command–Afghanistan.

Concurrent Non-RAND Positions

Adjunct Assistant Professor, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service

Honors & Awards

  • Elihu Root Prize (second place), Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College
  • Esman Prize, Cornell University
  • Research Fellowship, Brookings Institution


  • Afghan National Army soldiers, advised and assisted by NATO Train, Advise, Assist Command, conduct a fire support mission in Zabul province, Afghanistan

    In Afghanistan, the Glass Is Still Better Seen as Half Full: A Response to Gary Owen

    While things are certainly not “great” in Afghanistan, there are more reasons for hope than many had expected to see by this point in the transition from a large U.S. presence to a greatly reduced one.

    Aug 24, 2015 Lawfare

  • A checkpoint in Helmand province, Afghanistan, on March 10, 2012

    Afghanistan After the Drawdown

    If neither victory nor a political settlement are likely in the short term, and if complete withdrawal is unpalatable, then the United States must ensure that its support of Afghanistan remains politically sustainable.

    Jul 6, 2015 Lawfare

  • Philippine and U.S. marine soldiers in a joint military exercise in Ulugan bay, Philippines

    The Foreign Policy Essay: The Limits of Small Footprints

    The history of “small-footprint approaches” should be sobering. It suggests that such approaches are good at preventing allied governments from losing against rebels, but are not very good at actually winning wars.

    Mar 31, 2014 Lawfare