Senior Research Associate and Senior Program Manager | James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies
What do you do at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies?
I am a Senior Research Associate and Senior Program Manager. I co-manage our work on East Asian nuclear issues, export controls, and sanctions. I also work on Non-Proliferation Treaty diplomacy.
How did you get in to your current position?
At the beginning of my career I was interested in going in to politics, but this changed quite rapidly. I did my undergraduate at Carleton University in Canada, and was fortunate enough to participate in a work-study programme that places students in federal government jobs. My final post was at the Global Affairs Canada, where I worked as a trade policy analyst, working on a number of potential future challenges to Canadian trade. I then took on a role at the Canadian embassy in Berlin focussing upon aerospace and defence trade, which cemented my desire to work in the security field.
From there I did a Master’s in International Peace and Security in the War Studies department at King’s College London. King’s gave me the opportunity to consider nuclear policy issues further with the help of some incredibly inspiring faculty members, and I was hooked.
Whilst at King’s I was taken on as an intern at the Royal United Services Institute, where I worked up to deputy director and stayed until January 2017. In March 2017 I joined the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, which is based in California but has offices around the world.
How is your role changing now at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies? Are there any areas that you’d look to focus on that you have not previously in the nuclear field?
I am most excited to delve deeper into the issues that I have been working on previously. While at RUSI, I’ve developed a really keen interest in East Asia, namely North Korea, and on export controls and sanctions policy issues. The Center for Nonproliferation Studies has always excelled in these areas, so it is a wonderful opportunity to learn more.
You have focussed upon sanctions policy during your time at RUSI. Do you believe that sanctioning can continue be an effective approach to combat nuclear proliferation in the nascent Trump era?
Sanctions are just one tool that states can apply to help encourage a target to change its behaviour. They hold the greatest chance of having an effect when they are tailored with a realistic foreign policy objective in mind, and when they are combined with other tools and approaches. Many Western experts and officials have concluded that sanctions were decisive in pressuring Iran to negotiate over its nuclear programme, and are trying to apply those lessons to other nuclear challenges, like North Korea.
The differences here are important though. For example, the high-level objective for North Korea sanctions is reportedly to get Pyongyang to enter into negotiations and eventually denuclearise. We have good reason to question whether that’s realistic today. That’s not to say that sanctions are unimportant in the North Korean context, or that they are not worth trying. All of our policy options for addressing the North Korean nuclear threat are shades of bad.
In general, there are challenges and risks related to sanctions that a Trump administration will have to be mindful of. There is always the temptation to overuse sanctions to respond to unfavourable foreign policy developments, whether that is human rights violations, terrorism, or WMD programmes. And it is also hard to coordinate sanctions design and implementation in a multilateral fashion. Without nuanced diplomatic engagement and policy forethought, sanctions can generate a host of unintended consequences.
In the case of North Korea, where sanctions may be less effective, what alternative mechanisms would you suggest to combat proliferation?
Even if we don’t see North Korea returning to the negotiating table over its nuclear programme, sanctions are going to continue to play an important counter-proliferation role in East Asia. Pyongyang continues to be able to get illicit goods overseas, and sell illegal military technology including for ballistic missiles, to foreign customers. Without sanctions, we would not have the same clear, universal legal basis to act against such shipments. Coordinating multilateral action would be harder.
In terms of advancing the high-level goal of North Korean denuclearisation though, it’s hard to condemn sanctions as a tool. The fact of the matter is, so many of the states that are meant to implement them just aren’t. Would we see Kim Jong Un changing his behaviour if the sanctions regime enjoyed more universal implementation?
President Trump has declared that the Iranian deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) will be scrapped. What do you believe will be the consequences of such a decision? Would it still be possible to monitor Iran?
A collapse of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action would be a huge step backwards. I am hopeful that this will not happen, but if it did we would have enormous difficulty reuniting the international community uniting around a new approach to Iran’s nuclear programme. In fact, it may be impossible to repair the split that would occur. We would also be left with far less international transparency over the Iranian issue, and Iran would have fewer legal constraints on the precise technical characteristics of its programme; we would be making policy from “behind the dark curtain”. It would be a major concern.
What kind of projects were you involved with as an intern at RUSI?
I joined RUSI to assist on a project regarding nuclear dialogue with China, in collaboration with the Foreign Office, and went on to a salaried role from there. Unfortunately internships within the think tank field are incredibly competitive, and one’s ability to convert an internship to a full time position depends on having the right skills and being in the right place, at the right time.
I was fortunate that I was brought on at a time when we were looking to grow the team. While that doesn’t always happen, in my time at RUSI I hired several interns who stood out. One of the most rewarding parts of my job was seeing them take that opportunity and run with it. I’m also pleased that our team always paid its interns a London living wage. It’s a major sticking point for me, and the think tank community still has a long way to go to end a culture of unpaid interns.
What skills do you look for in an employee?
I am always looking for able researchers, analysts and writers, who can build networks amongst the huge range of individuals we interact with on a daily basis, be they ingovernment, the private sector, the general public or in academia.
We’re also looking for good project managers. So much of our work is centred on managing contracts from our external funders. Beyond that it is important that the candidate has a genuine interest in nuclear issues. We work hard, and I believe that if you don’t truly love your subject, it is difficult to stay motivated. I can tell fairly quickly whether someone really cares about WMD issues.
What has been the biggest challenge in your role?
Firstly, there is developing a specialism. One has to get over the feeling of “imposter syndrome”, because when starting your career you are surrounded by far more seasoned analysts, and this can be daunting.
I came into the field and took an interest in North Korea, and I truly committed to developing my expertise in this area. It’s been a challenge as it’s a subject that requires technical knowledge and understanding of the country’s complex history.
The other challenge has been business development. It’s not something I expected to encounter, but we rely on grants to sustain our work, and from mid-career onwards all analysts are expected to bring in revenue to support our research. This is challenging. It means understanding the landscape of funding opportunities, having good and fundable ideas, and aligning those ideas with our institutional capabilities.It’s a skill I’ve certainly had to learn on the job!
What would you say has been the most valuable skill you’ve learned during your career? What advice would you give to those seeking a career in foreign policy?
An ability to network. It’s so important to meet with people in the field, to get a sense of what they’re doing and to make an impression early on. Attend talks and events in your areas of interest; keep reading about it and learn from others wherever and whenever you can.
If you weren’t working in nuclear policy, what would you do?
Aptitude tests always tell me I should be a florist, but apparently I didn’t get that memo. My current job couldn’t be further from a florist. At some stage I’d love to get experience in the private sector, perhaps in relation to sanctions. Private sector actors have such an important role to play in sanctions implementation, and it’s difficult to appreciate the details of that from the outside.
And finally, what books are you reading at the moment, and what are your essential reads for anyone interested in nuclear policy and security studies more generally?
Let’s start on the nuclear-recommended reading. Everyone should read the biography and writings of Michael Quinlan, a legend in the UK nuclear community who was hugely influential in shaping the way we talk about nuclear issues; the theory and very complicated dynamics of the field. I often gave our new analysts at RUSI the book.
I’m currently reading a satirical novel called The Sellout by Paul Beatty, which won the Man Booker prize. It’s a really sharp piece of writing but I’ve only just started it so will have to see where it leads.