Dr Christine Cheng

Lecturer | King's College London

 CV in brief:    Education:   University   of Oxford  |  University of Princeton  |  University of Waterloo    Career so far:  U niversity of Oxford |  Canada Department of Foreign Affairs  |  World Bank  |  South African Institute of International Affairs  |  University of Cape Town  |  United Nations    Find Christine Online:   LinkedIn  |  Twitter  |  Tedx   talk  |  Blog    Exclusive interview by Lucie Goulet, 20 November 2017

CV in brief: 

Education: University of Oxford | University of Princeton | University of Waterloo

Career so far:  University of Oxford | Canada Department of Foreign Affairs | World Bank | South African Institute of International Affairs | University of Cape Town | United Nations

Find Christine Online: LinkedIn | Twitter | Tedx talk | Blog

Exclusive interview by Lucie Goulet, 20 November 2017

What do you do?

I’m a lecturer at King's College London in the Department of War Studies.

I do research in international relations and comparative politics. I delve into the specific politics of places. I specialise in Liberia but I've also worked a bit in Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire, South Africa, Guatemala, and most recently, Colombia. 

My focus is on how countries transition from war to peace. My book is coming out in the spring and I’m pretty excited about it. It’s on extralegal groups in post-conflict environments. I write about how groups of ex-combatants controlled Liberia’s rubber, diamond, and timber economies after the war ended. But it’s not just about Liberia— it’s about rethinking our entire approach to state-building and external intervention.

I’ve also been working on another project on elite bargains, peace processes, and political settlements over the past 15 months with the UK Stabilisation Unit. We (Jonathan Goodhand, Patrick Meehan, and myself) collaborated closely with policymakers from the Stabilisation Unit. It was a big project with twenty-two case studies commissioned and a major report. Our conclusions are suitably provocative, and I’m hoping that our findings will force some honest conversations about what can be realistically expected in the aftermath of war.

How do you choose the countries you study?

I started with Guatemala, when I was an MPA student at Princeton. I had a wonderful professor, Rick Barton, who led our refugees workshop. Rick was the former deputy head of UNHCR. Out of that experience, I learned that I loved fieldwork. I enjoyed connecting with people, understanding their experiences, and trying to figure out “the real story”. Our group wrote a report for UNHCR on the inadequacies of their policies. The whole experience made me want to do more fieldwork. 

In South Africa, I worked on my own as an independent researcher for a few months. I decided to pursue a project on conflict and crime so I just went to South Africa and made my own contacts. I didn't know anybody, I didn't know very much. I talked to former gang members and those who used to belong to the armed wing of the ANC. I wanted to get a feel for what it would be like to do research more seriously.

The Liberia work came out of my DPhil because I was looking for a case that was immediately post-conflict. I started the DPhil in 2004 and there weren't many cases in the world that met that criteria. I did research on Sierra Leone and Côte d’Ivoire as part of that project because Liberia’s civil war was deeply tied to its neighbours.

The Columbia work came to me. In the lead-up to the signing of the peace agreement, the Ministry of Post-Conflict, the Transparency Secretariat, and the Attorney-General’s Office invited me to advise them based on the research that I had done on post-conflict peacebuilding and corruption. 

I have interviewed many women who graduated from the KCL War Studies Department. What is specific about the teaching that makes graduates so successful in foreign policy?

I wish we could take all the credit! It helps that we start off with some very sharp students.

In my own classes, I spend a fair bit of time emphasizing context— social context, historical context, political context, geographical context. I do this to teach my students empathy: to imagine what it is like to be in somebody else's shoes and the pressures and constraints they’re subject to. That somebody could be the president of the United States or it could be a woman living in a very harsh conflict environment who is trying to survive, keep her family alive, and stay safe from sexual predators. I get them to imagine what it would be like to make those decisions, to survive those situations, to think about what other people are going through. If you can empathise well— with your enemies, as well as your friends— then you make better policies and engage in more meaningful interventions.

You have to ask yourself: ‘Is what you're doing or what you're proposing to do actually helpful?’ Then if you think about the decision-makers and the policymakers and the politicians, and what their incentives are and how they're thinking about the issue, and how power, incentives, and competence interact together, I would hope that we wind up with people who are more thoughtful about foreign policy, and also more effective policy makers.

Do you think that's a gendered way of thinking about it?

There are definitely aspects to being a woman that have made me excruciatingly aware of social dynamics— especially in professional settings. The Weinstein scandal and the Westminster’s sexual harassment practices are top of my mind right now.

It’s striking that there are men I know who are struggling to accept the magnitude of the problem, whereas the women are hardly surprised. Women routinely try to speak out on these issues, but they’ve learned— we’ve learned— that speaking out can cause as many problems as it resolves. So, we bury our stories. We tell them in hushed tones. We don’t name names. We don’t shame the people who deserve to be shamed. Why not? Let’s talk about this. Only now, with #metoo, are we finding strength in numbers.

Going back to your question, I don’t think of my approach to teaching as gendered— but I do think that my gender informs my scholarship and my understanding of the world. There are things that I see more clearly because my experience as a woman has socialized me to be extremely sensitive to power dynamics. Women understand power differently, and that allows us to empathise differently with people who have power (or not), to understand how they use it, and how that plays out in foreign policy. 

Why academia rather than journalism? The way you describe what you were doing in South Africa, it sounds like it could have been writing for a newspaper.

I did write something for a newspaper while I was in South Africa— for The Toronto Star. And I did think about becoming a journalist because I had always written for newspapers or edited them. 

I didn’t do the DPhil because I wanted to become an academic. I did it because I was passionate about understanding the overlap between civil war and organized crime. I couldn’t understand why tens of thousands of people were being killed in Latin America due to drug-trafficking, and no one was paying attention, but policymakers were paying attention to civil wars with much lower casualty rates. I thought I would finish the doctorate, publish a book, and return to the policy world.

But something happened along the way. A doctorate socialises you into valuing different things. It has a strong effect on how you think about what is prestigious and what is valuable. I’m sure that had an effect on my career trajectory— which has meandered so far from its original path.

As an undergrad, I started in Systems Design Engineering at the University of Waterloo (Canada). As part of my degree, I did six work placements in the private and public sectors. After these six work terms, I knew that I didn’t want to be an engineer, but I didn’t know what to do.

I had some student union experience and a friend suggested that I run for president. I ran and won. For the first time, I was excited about my job. I had the chance to make things better for people; I was working on policies that mattered within my university and outside of it. I was also the CEO of a $4 million company with responsibility for all of our student-owned businesses. I learned so much that year and I thought to myself, "I love this and I want to do more of it."

When I went to Princeton, I pivoted again into the world of international affairs. I worked for a couple of months in the CARE International New York office as a research assistant. Just before 9/11, I worked in the UN Secretary-General's Office, and then at the UN Commission on Human Security. Later, I worked for the World Bank as a consultant. During my DPhil, I won a fellowship that took me back to the foreign ministry of the Canadian government. In all of these positions, I kept asking myself, "Could I imagine myself here?"

By the time I finished my DPhil I had sampled quite a few different work environments— and I had to make a decision about what to do. The trade-off for me was always, “do you want to have influence or do you want to have freedom?”

Positions in the World Bank and national governments allow you to exert real power once you are senior enough. You manage a large budget, have quite a lot of say, and you can implement programmes with major impact. On the other hand, you have to subscribe to things that you don't believe in. You have to survive the political infighting. You have to make compromises, and stay quiet when you know the truth. 

You trade that off against having a true and clear voice as an academic. The problem is that it’s really hard to get an academic job, and of course, academics don't get heard a lot. So how long do you have to toil before your voice is heard?

A third option was to give it all up, work for the private sector, and make lots of money. But that wasn’t the right choice for me. 

From what I've heard about academia, becoming a professor is quite political. How do you combine that with keeping quiet?

There's a lot of academic freedom in terms of conducting research. You can say almost anything as an academic in the UK, although there are some areas which invite controversy and can make your life more difficult. The political part of it has more to do with making your way through the internal hierarchy of academia— just like any other demanding professional career, there are gatekeepers and influencers; there are rivalries and factions. Academia is so competitive these days that you have to not only be intellectually gifted and well-published, but also good at establishing your own academic “brand”. 

Yes, keeping quiet— especially when there are so many problems within the university sector— has been hard at times. Maintaining that balance is hard— especially as a woman. When can I push for change— does my voice here actually make a difference? Can I say something that will change the conversation or the approach? Am I in a position to say things that other people cannot because of various vested interests? Does it serve a purpose for me to speak truth to power here, or am I needlessly expending political capital?

Do people approach you differently because you're a women of colour in academia?

I never thought much about my minority status in Canada— it didn’t seem to matter. But it immediately became salient when I moved to Britain. I’m an outsider on so many levels, but I think my Canadian-ness and my gender outweigh my minority status in academia. But it’s difficult for me to really know.

I do think my students of colour approach me differently. And I’m certain that my female students do. I think— I hope— they see me as a potential role model. If you feel like an outsider, it’s important to have evidence that you can push past the obstacles. I am that evidence. When I did my DPhil at Oxford,  I sought out my own role models. For example, I've told both Jennifer Welsh (a fellow Canadian) and Ngaire Woods that they were formative in helping me to imagine myself as a female scholar.

We first got in touch because you're quite involved with the Lib Dems, working on their foreign policy working group.

I joined the Liberal Democrats right before Brexit because friends of mine in Canada were suddenly vaulted into positions of great political power when the Liberals were elected. 

All of a sudden, I went from knowing nobody in government to knowing senior people in government. So even though I had never joined a political party before, I began to think, "Maybe I should get involved in foreign policy.” 

When Brexit happened, I thought, "I've joined the party. Let’s do a bit more.” At the time, the Lib Dems were forming their foreign policy working group and I applied, along with hundreds of other people. Shortly after joining the working group, I was asked to run for the federal policy committee. I had only been a party member for a few months and I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. It was an open election across the party membership with ranked ballots and I had scrambled to put together my election materials. Somehow, I won the most number of first-preference votes, despite knowing almost nothing about the party. I was stunned. It wasn’t just the winning— it was the fact that I was a stranger to the party and a Canadian minority woman— and I was welcomed right into the heart of the party. Actions speak louder than words and that vote told me everything I needed to know about the party and its members. It was the first British institution (outside of academia) where I was made to feel welcome, as if I really belonged. It felt really good.

I have since become one of the vice chairs of the foreign policy committee, and I was on the frontlines of the Lib Dem manifesto process for the 2017 snap general election. The experience has been exhilarating, but the political situation has been deeply frustrating. 

I didn't mean to get involved like this. I dipped my toe in and then somebody asked, "Will you do more?" I couldn’t have imagined any of this 18 months ago. Before Brexit, I had little interest in party politics— I was a foreign policy specialist. But circumstances have changed. You can worry about other people's politics, civil wars, foreign policy issues, when everything is okay at home. Things are not okay at home right now.

Setting aside my personal views on Brexit, it is clear that on the foreign policy front, Britain’s international reputation is being destroyed. To our allies, we look shambolic. To our enemies, we look weak. To our friendly rivals, we are ready to be taken down a few notches. And while we are being internally consumed by Brexit, the list of problems and concerns that we no longer have the energy for continues to grow (AI and automation of jobs, Trump, climate change, the rise of China, Middle East uncertainty).

I don't want to wake up one day and have my son ask me, "Why didn't you do something? You, of all people, could have spoken up. You had the freedom to speak so why did you stay quiet?" 

Do you think being vocal about your involvement with the Lib Dems could be an issue for your career? 

I thought about keeping my Lib Dem affiliation quiet. Originally, I'd asked them to leave me off the website for the foreign policy group. That's not possible now that I sit on the Federal Policy Committee. The good news is that party membership has little effect on my role as an academic. If anything, it’s my role as an international politics scholar that originally motivated me to become more involved in party politics. We’ve handled Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria so badly— I wanted to help our government get things right, or at least, less disastrously wrong. And yes, there is still plenty of Lib Dem foreign policy that I disagree with.

To be honest though, I don’t know how my political involvement will affect my academic career. In the end, I just decided that it’s best to be open. I don’t know how to not be open anyway. My views on international politics are documented on my blog and in my twitter feed; I don’t feel like I’m pulling any punches because I’ve joined a party. If anything, I feel extraordinary lucky because the security of my academic job means that I can be utterly honest, and some of these critiques are now more likely to have an impact in Parliament because of my involvement in the Lib Dems. 

There are 24 hours in the day, and before you got involved with the Lib Dems you already had a job, and you were writing a book, and you have a son. How did you make the space? 

You have to be pretty ruthless about what you think is important. I've had to create space for it, and yes, other things suffer. But it's very hard to measure exactly what is being sacrificed. Are you spending less time with your family? Are you not taking care of yourself? Are you spending less time with friends? I suspect that all of these things have been affected, but I also spend less time ranting and I’ve channeled my anger and despair into something positive. I know this sounds cliché— but I feel empowered. I feel like I belong to a pragmatic party that shares my values, and sees the world the way that I see it. We debate issues. We take account of the evidence. It’s all so reasonable and civil!

The other issue I’ve been working on is getting more women and girls to run for office. I gave a TEDx talk on this right before Trump was elected. After the election, I’ve been ramping up my efforts on that front as well. (At the moment, I’m trying to find a volunteer executive director to take it all forward.) 

On making space, I have learned to do some things more efficiently. After I had my son, I was more ruthless about my time. I’m well aware of my best thinking hours and I organize my time to take advantage of when I work best. I think better in the morning, so I put off the things that require less brain energy until the evening.

Inevitably though, you have to make choices and decide what's important at a particular point in your life. We were talking earlier about trade-offs, and I feel like I made a big trade-off early on in my son's life. I didn't get my permanent job here at King’s until he was four. The first four years of his life were ridden with uncertainty because of my career. I worked a lot. Over the weekend, I'd spend a lot of time with him and we would be close, but over the course of the working week, he would become a stranger. Then we’d grow closer again over the weekend and the cycle would start again. 

That was a real sacrifice. It's still heartbreaking to think back about it now. What if I hadn’t gotten a job that I was happy with? I would have given up so much. That guilt… I think all working mothers share this.

What is your parting advice to our readers? 

If you want a job in foreign policy, then go into the field. Differentiate yourself by doing something that others wouldn’t do. Become an expert on a place or an industry. Don’t just apply to the standard internships at NATO or the UN or Oxfam. Go find a part of the world where it’s possible to live cheaply. Find a foreign policy or development internship after you get there. Take a risk and invest in yourself. What’s the worst thing that will happen? You’ll spend six months and develop some valuable country expertise. This will make you much more employable when you go home. And what is much more likely to happen is that you will be offered a paying job after you’ve proven yourself useful. Being there in person makes a big difference— people underestimate this.

When that opportunity is presented to you, seize it with both hands, and do so gratefully. Be kind to people around you, and help others on the way up. Don’t just take. Give back. Pay it forward. And when you are mighty and powerful, just remember how it felt to be that 19-year-old intern searching for her first break.