The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30: Will Wagner

The top young thinkers in economics, education, political science, and more.
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Will Wagner. (Photo: Henry Hung)

Will Wagner. (Photo: Henry Hung)

"The most significant contribution I can imagine," says Will Wagner, "would be the chance to broker a peace accord in the Middle East."

It sounds far-fetched, but if anyone from Wagner's generation could do it, it's likely to be him.

Wagner grew up in Montclair, New Jersey, in a family of geography and history buffs who nourished his curiosity about the world. When he was a kid, his grandmother helped him memorize all 50 state capitals, using a map printed on a placemat. Then she moved him on to world capitals. He'd spend hours poring over her World Book encyclopedias while listening to his grandfather talk about serving in Asia during World War II—childhood experiences Wagner credits with inspiring his lifelong passion for geopolitics.

In high school, Wagner shadowed a senior official at the Department of State for a few days. It was a revelation to realize that he could turn his interest in international affairs into a career.

His decision to devote his life to foreign policy was cemented his junior year at Princeton University, during a study abroad semester in Egypt. While studying abroad, he worked on a research project that involved talking to people who were using the internet to hold the Hosni Mubarak regime accountable. "I enjoyed spending hours in cafes across Cairo interviewing people who were a part of this new movement," he says. "The experience inspired me to write my senior thesis on changes in Egyptian media."

In writing his thesis, Wagner interviewed dozens more Egyptians—journalists, academics, government officials—to examine the rise of the country's independent websites, newspapers, and television channels. He found that, while the country's freedom of expression had improved during Mubarak's final years in office, "the state quietly held onto levers of power that would allow it to restrict independent media outlets should they pose a serious threat to stability."

His paper won the prize for best thesis in his concentration (near-eastern studies). Less than a year later, Wagner saw his research come to life in 2011, when revolutionaries in Egypt used independent media outlets to spread their message as the regime tried to block access to information.

A few months later, Wagner joined the Department of State's Egypt desk under a Princeton fellowship, where he analyzed Egypt's internal affairs and made recommendations for policy responses (a time during which he saw the country's first parliamentary elections since the January 2011 revolution). After that, he served as a fellow at the United States Mission to the United Nations, supporting the Security Council team that covers Middle Eastern issues.

We'll be publishing profiles of this year's list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 throughout the month of March. Visit this page every day to read about another young person who is making an impact on the social, political, and economic issues we cover every day at Pacific Standard.

"Both assignments were tremendously rewarding," he says, "pushing me to refine my analytical skills, teaching me far more about the political dynamics of the Middle East, and exposing me to the challenges of multilateral diplomacy."

After attending graduate school, Wagner returned to the Department of State, where he's now a political advisor; his duties include negotiating resolutions, building relationships with other countries' diplomats, and supporting peacekeeping operations. He also advises Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., and her deputies. He spends most of his time focused on the conflict in Yemen but also does work that relates to Lebanon, the Golan Heights, and the greater Middle East.

When he looks in the mirror, Wagner sees "someone who works to understand how people of other backgrounds look at problems, and who strives to use that knowledge to think about creative ways to overcome global challenges."

To him, a diplomat's most important skill is understanding how the world looks through a foreign counterpart's eyes. "To develop this ability," he adds, "it's necessary to learn foreign languages and delve into world history—crucial background if you really want to figure out how to persuade others to cooperate with you and identify goals you have in common." (For his part, Wagner speaks some Arabic and Persian, and a good deal of Spanish.)

In his free time, he reads fiction, runs half-marathons, and goes to car shows. He takes any opportunity to travel, thanks to his grandmother's early imprinting of maps on his brain.

He calls both his grandmothers his key mentors. "Both were public school teachers," he says, "one in South Jersey and the other in the South Bronx. Their stories about helping students in disadvantaged districts learn to read and make it to college instilled in me a deep appreciation for a career focused on public service."

When asked his motto, he again credits his relatives. "I've always carried with me a pretty simple piece of wisdom that's floated around my family: When you've decided to do something, make sure to follow it through and do your best."

With that in mind, Wagner hopes that, over the course of his career, he'll have improved foreign policy by finding opportunities for governments to resolve disputes peacefully.

"Every time I walk into the U.N.," he says, "I'm inspired by the chance to help represent the U.S. at an institution whose goal is nothing less than preserving international peace and safeguarding basic human rights. To have even a small role in this endeavor is a great privilege, and given how far we have to go to meet the ideals on which the U.N. was founded, I"m constantly motivated to look for opportunities to do better."

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