Rob’s intro [00:00:00]
Robert Wiblin: Hi listeners, this is the 80,000 Hours Podcast, where each week we have an unusually in-depth conversation about one of the world’s most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve it. I’m Rob Wiblin, Director of Research at 80,000 Hours.
Today’s guest, Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins, spent 8 years in the Obama administration trying to stop the spread of dangerous weapons. Given the relevance of limiting the spread of dangerous nuclear and biological weapons for reducing the risk of a global catastrophe, it’s pretty self-recommending.
She’s out of government now, so was able to speak more freely than most. Most of you have some interest in politics, government or international relations, and so I expect most of you will want to listen in.
Before that though a few notices. Thanks to everyone who filled out our impact survey to let us know how 80,000 Hours had changed your life. And double thanks to the hundred people who gave some feedback on the podcast.
Most people just said they loved the show, but the two most requested changes were for me to speak more slowly to match the speed of guests, and to use the chapters feature so people can find the section of an episode.
The former is surprisingly hard to do, as I tend to speak very quickly all the time, especially when I get excited. You can of course slow me down in your podcasting app, though I know that then makes the guests too slow.
The latter we can do though — we’re now going to be using chapters so you can jump to the sections of the episodes that you find most interesting. This will be especially useful for really long episodes where there might be a section 2 or 3 hours in that you’re particularly curious about. Or if you want to refer back to a point later on.
Chapters are supported by most podcasting apps now, including Apple Podcasts, Overcast and Podcast Addict. It will likely to come to all the others in time.
Let us know if you have any technical problems with it so we can get Chapters working well. We’re at rob at 80000hours dot org and keiran at 80000hours dot org.
Alright, without further ado here’s Bonnie Jenkins.
The interview begins [00:01:54]
Robert Wiblin: Today, I’m at EA Global: London speaking with Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins. Ambassador Jenkins has had a long and varied career in the US government and policy world with a focus on peace and security. In the 2000s, she spent four years as a program officer working on US foreign and security policy at the Ford Foundation before spending seven and a half years as special Envoy and coordinator for threat reduction programs in the US Department of State in the Obama Administration.
Since then, she has been a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and adjunct professor at Georgetown University Walsh School of Foreign Service and has founded and led a new organization, “Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security or WCAPS for short. And, as if that wasn’t enough, she’s vegan, worked on the 9/11 commission, has a PhD in international relations from the University of Virginia, a Juris doctor from Albany Law School, and spent four years in the US Air Force Reserve followed by 17 years in the US Navy Reserve. Thanks so much for coming on the podcast, Ambassador.
Bonnie Jenkins: Thank you. It’s my pleasure to be here.
Robert Wiblin: So I hope to get to talk about careers in diplomacy and non-proliferation work and your work to promote leadership by women of color in International Peace and Security.
What is Bonnie working on at the moment? [00:02:45]
But first, what are you working on just at the moment? And why do you think it’s really important?
Bonnie Jenkins: What I’m working on at the moment is a lot of time being spent on the organization that I’ve established which we’ll talk about later, and also, I’m teaching and that’s taking up a lot of time teaching and molding young minds on global threats. But I also work on issues, I continue to work on issues of weapons of mass destruction. Looking at some of the threats that we’re facing in terms of US withdrawal from a number of treaties. What does that mean in terms of future arms control? Whether it’s a threat to arms control, what’s the future of arms control now that we don’t have as many treaties as we used to have, in particular, with Russia?
So really looking at that space of, “Where do we head now?” on these issues and also continuing to work on issues of infectious disease.
Robert Wiblin: I guess you’re hopeful that after 2020 we might be able to change some of the things that’ve been, perhaps getting worse in your view.
Bonnie Jenkins: That would be nice. That would be nice, yes.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, are there any treaty withdrawals that bother you in particular or you think are particularly risky?
Bonnie Jenkins: Well, obviously the issues that I work on with nuclear are particularly of concern to me, but also issues that are not in tradition, not part of security space like climate change. I think that we should be doing a lot more on that.
It has a lot of implications on a lot of things that we’re doing and we’re not really taking a leadership role in a number of things on foreign policy. So I have a few concerns.
Bonnie’s time at the Department of State [00:04:08]
Robert Wiblin: So as this is probably gathered from the introduction, you’ve done so many things in your career, it was a little bit hard for me to kind of narrow down and figure out what was most worth talking about.
I think the thing that will most excite listeners and potentially fill in some gaps in my knowledge, is to talk about the seven and a half years you spent at the Department of State working on Cooperative Threat Reduction. I guess you have chemical, biological and nuclear radiological threats. I guess you’re also involved in setting up a Global Health Security Agenda, which I actually just talked about back in episode 27 with Professor Tom Inglesby.
Does that sound good?
Bonnie Jenkins: Yes. Yes.
Robert Wiblin: All right. So despite having actually worked in the Australian government for a little bit and suppose having this pretty big interesting global catastrophic risks, I actually am just super ignorant of diplomacy careers and kind of what the Department of State does and all the different branches and security careers in general.
So you might have to take things a little bit slowly and map things out from the beginning. Yeah, so what are the different kind of categories of problems that you’ve worked on over the next decade. There’s like so many terms that fly around, you know, CB, CB&R like CTR non-proliferation WMDs. And yeah and a lot more. Is there any way of like mapping it out and giving a kind of an ontology?
Bonnie Jenkins: Yes, I would map it out like this. Weapons of mass destruction are chemical–biological–nuclear issues, and we’ve added radiological. So that’s why you have CBRN now and I focus mainly on arms control which is to limit how many arms countries have of these weapons. Non-proliferation, which is to reduce the increase in the number of states that would have those weapons.
And so that’s kind of a category of arms control and non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. A lot of that has focused on states, you know, traditionally we have focused on countries like Iran, North Korea before India and Pakistan developed their nuclear weapons, there were a couple of countries we focused on and also focusing on countries that have now given up their nuclear weapons.
So that’s one category. Another category to look at is what I did while I was working in the Obama Administration, which is called “Threat Reduction” and what that is, is the same weapons, but we’re focused on individuals who have nefarious intent to get their hands on what they can use to develop those weapons.
So that’s focusing on non-state actors. So one is focusing on states and one’s focusing on non-state actors. And that’s a lot of what the threat reduction is.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, interesting. And then I guess there’s the global health stuff–
Bonnie Jenkins: The global health security is focusing on infectious disease issues. And the reason why these issues that I work on are a part of it, is because when we set up the Global Health Security Agenda, we were looking at how to help countries around the world build a capacity to prevent, detect and respond to infectious disease. And in the prevention side, that’s where my work falls because that’s trying to prevent bad actors from using biopathogens to create a disease.
Robert Wiblin: And what’s the kind of overarching category here? Is it kind of peace and security?
Bonnie Jenkins: Well that… I think the overarching category of that is International Security, weapons of mass destruction International Security. When you add the global health security work, then it’s more expansive and too because then you’re not talking about just purely hard security, you know, even though my piece of it is, it’s more of a global threat.
Robert Wiblin: One of the key actors here I guess, so the Department of State you’re involved with, I guess it’s also going to be the Department of Defense and I guess like the World Health Organization and potentially international bodies that look at this as well?
Bonnie Jenkins: Right, the thing about the Global Health Security Agenda, it was what we call a ‘Whole-of-Government’ approach. So it has a number of departments within the United States who work together like the Department of Defense, Department of State, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Health and Human Services, Department of Agriculture to deal with the animals and the plants, the USAID working with development around the world, the FBI, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and probably a couple of others too but I forgot. But it really is a ‘Whole-of-Government’ approach to try to deal with this and when we work with other countries we ask them to have the same kind of ‘Whole-of-Government’ approach because you need that to try to prevent, detect and respond to infectious disease threats and so it includes all of that. But it also includes multilateral organizations because you need to have them involved. So you have the World Health Organization, you have the Food and Agriculture organization. You have the Organisation for Animal Health and you also have things like the World Bank because they put a lot of money on these issues. You have regional organizations like the European Union and African Union and then you have a number of non-governmental organizations.
So really it’s a ‘Whole-of-Government’ whole-of-society approach.
Robert Wiblin: And are there any other big actors that should be named one Cooperative Threat Reduction?
Bonnie Jenkins: Oh yes, for that, you would have to have the Department of Energy because they would deal with the nuclear side as well. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, they do a lot of work within the US to make sure that things in US, radiological material for example, is being protected and then you even have things like the Department of Homeland Security. There’s a part of that that works on chemical security issues. So yeah, there’s a number of departments who’re involved in a lot of these things.
The history of Cooperative Threat Reduction work [00:08:48]
Robert Wiblin: Okay, let’s talk about the Cooperative Threat Reduction work first. So as I understand it, that kind of dates back to the end of the Cold War and there’s kind of a scramble to prevent nuclear material from the USSR falling into the wrong hands. Is that right? Yeah, I guess what does that look like now because I imagine we’re kind of probably mostly done that with Russia but has it evolved into something more?
Bonnie Jenkins: Well, yes, you’re right about the fact that it started when the Soviet Union fell apart and there was a real desire to try to make sure that there was going to be security of materials and pathogens and things like that and that, you know people and scientists with knowledge could get paid so that they wouldn’t go to countries and sell their knowledge.
So there’s a huge program called carbothermic reduction that was started by Sam Nunn and Dick Lugar to really put a lot of money into the Russian infrastructure to secure material to build fences everything from that to getting jobs for scientists, basically. And that’s matured throughout the years.
And when I was working at the State Department, my job was really to help coordinate the work that the State Department was doing on those issues. To coordinate with other departments in the US and with other countries. So that has continued. During my time, towards the end of my time in government, there were a number of problems because Russia was not wanting to stay a part of that anymore.
I think they felt that it was a remnant of days past. They were saying that “We don’t need to be doing as much to assist them now because they could take care of it themselves”. So that was a real problem because it really closed off a lot of ways which we could work with them, to keep track of all the money we put in there to help to make sure that facilities remain safe and secure. So that was really a real problem and really hurt it in many ways.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. So did the focus shift then to other countries other than the former Soviet Union?
Bonnie Jenkins: Yes, what happened was even before Russia started to show signs of wanting to withdraw from the Cooperative Reduction Work, the US has started expanding its work outside Russia.
So the Department of Energy, Department of State had already started going into Africa, Asia, the Middle East, a little work in Latin America, not much. And so we started doing that and then the Department of Defense we’re starting to get authorizations to also go outside Russia. So that was already happening and they’re continuing to do that now.
Robert Wiblin: Do you think Russia might have a point? That it’s been a while now, they’ve got their things a bit more together. So perhaps they don’t need as much help from the US?
Bonnie Jenkins: Well, it’s always nice to know that someone doesn’t need as much help. Yeah, because there’s a lot of places that that money could be spent but there also was the relationships that were developed, there was verification mechanisms. And just having that kind of relationship and being able to be on the ground and see you know, make sure that, like I said, that the facilities that we helped to establish there and the security that we helped established is maintained. And so when you break off those threat reduction activities, you lose a lot in terms of interaction with the country.
Biggest uncontrolled nuclear material threats today [00:11:36]
Robert Wiblin: Yeah interesting. So I guess what are the biggest threats that worry you now in terms of like uncontrolled nuclear material? Yeah, where is it coming from?
Bonnie Jenkins: Well fortunately, what I can say is that there’s always concern about something coming from Russia for example. But because we’ve had this Nuclear Security Summit, there’s been a lot less of a concern, a lot less of that happening.
Now, of course, I don’t have access to intel, so I can’t tell you where it’s coming from now if at all because I don’t have that information if I did I couldn’t say it anyway. But you know, obviously it’s going to have to come from a place that has those sources and you know, plutonium, highly enriched uranium for example is not everywhere. So I mean it has to come from a country that actually has it.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I guess like Pakistan possibly could be–
Bonnie Jenkins: Well they have it. They have that too. Yeah, I can’t say… Yeah, you know, they are a country that actually has that. Yes.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I guess how much does it matter if a country has kind of a peaceful nuclear power program. Does that create much risk of…?
Bonnie Jenkins: Well, the non-proliferation treaty allows countries to have peaceful nuclear programs. It’s in the treaty. And so any country can have that. The only problem with that is when a country develops a knowledge for how to do a number of things.
It doesn’t take a lot more for them to develop to know how to do a nuclear weapon. So I think that’s always one of the… I wouldn’t say it’s a hole in the treaty but it is kind of a concern that if they know how to do that, they can also know how learn how to do a weapon.
Robert Wiblin: Interesting. But I guess is the waste itself kind of a risk?
Bonnie Jenkins: Well, the waste is is not healthy. It is very radioactive.
Robert Wiblin: I guess it’s a radiological threat.
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah. Yeah, and there always has to be a concern about what happens with the waste. What could you do with the waste, I mean, so that’s always something to think about environmentally.
Robert Wiblin: I understand that there’s at least kind of half a dozen players in this, maybe dozens if you cast a wider net. Do you think possibly there’s maybe too many organizations and it’s difficult to kind of it’s a bit of a herding cats problem getting everyone working together?
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah, I mean, I think I don’t know if there’s too many. I think it’s making sure that everyone’s working together and that we understand who’s doing what. You know, so I mean there’s multilateral organizations, there’s initiatives, like the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism. There’s a global partnership that I was leading. There’s certain export control groups that are out there. So there’s a lot of entities in all of the WMD space. But so I think the important thing is making sure that everyone’s working together.
Biggest security issues in the world today [00:13:57]
Robert Wiblin: So obviously there’s a lot of security issues in the world today as there kind of always is. Are there any that kind of stand out to you as particularly worrisome in terms of how severe they would be and how probable they are?
Bonnie Jenkins: Obviously WMD is always because not so much probability in terms of nuclear, but because of what devastation that could happen but more of the other kind of global threats that I teach about like climate change and the effects of climate change on the environment which will affect us. And so that to me is one of the biggest concerns because the effects of what it has on parts of the world and also in the US, so those are the things that I’m concerned about.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I had Samantha Pitts-Kiefer on the show I think a year and a half ago and it made me, yeah, we discussed the risk of like a potential nuclear explosion in the US or elsewhere and it made me think that so a lot of people potentially die right away, but potentially even the worst effect would be that it would be a large closing of borders potentially because then everyone would be worried about nuclear material getting into the country and then being used against them.
Yeah, do you have any sense of what would be the greatest risk? Like what would be the flow through effects of a terrorist attack like that? Could it be that it would damage international relations for many years?
Bonnie Jenkins: It could damage international relations. I mean, I think it’s the panic that it would cause. I think a lot of the repercussions like that. I mean just the panic, the relationship to health, I mean there’s a lot of things that would result from that.
Robert Wiblin: So let’s say that we couldn’t stop, you know, like a dirty bomb being set off in a US city. Is there anything that we can do ahead of time to ensure that the public doesn’t go crazy and like start demanding like policies that would actually would be detrimental or at least not–
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah. Well, there’s exercises of course. I mean there’s a lot of exercises that can be done to help prepare the people who have to deal with that. Who know how to deal with it at the last minute and one of the things you do these simulations is you help people know who their partners are so that you don’t have to wait till something happens so that you know helping the health people to know who to work with, with the first responders and things like that is helpful and that will help prevent over reaction.
You know, there’s always… You can always put policies in place or something in place to prepare for something like that. Big cities do more of that than like the federal government in terms of you know, how to deal with some kind of a disaster. When I was working at the Ford Foundation, we visited several cities and one of the things that we were doing was asking questions about how do you deal with a disaster whether it’s weapons of mass destruction, or it’s an earthquake, or how do you deal with it? And seeing how different cities are prepared or not prepared to deal with those things. So having that said ahead of time is probably the best way to do it. It’s the cities really before the federal government that will deal with those kind of things. They’re immediate.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah are there any threats that the US or the world as a whole you think is really failing to deal with or neglecting to think about?
Bonnie Jenkins: Oh, yeah. I mean there’s–
Robert Wiblin: So many!
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah, I mean, just going back to the climate change. The classes I teach at Georgetown, I think I might have mentioned we have a different thread every week. And last week we were talking about the oceans and biodiversity and before that we’re talking about water scarcity and food scarcity. And these are things that we’re not really thinking about, you know, Americans don’t think about and probably other developed world countries don’t think about as much as they should. But when you read the number is about the number of people who will be affected, the economic downturn that will happen. We lose certain species or because of plastic in the water. These are things you don’t normally think about and that’s the problem. Is things are getting worse but people aren’t really realizing it.
So you have the climate change which is important, but there’s not enough of a connection made between climate change and some of these other issues. To really people understand it’s not just that, it’s everything else that’s connected to it. And those are the things that are real. That I mean the nuclear thing we hope won’t happen. We do the things that we’re going to try to prevent it. But this is going to happen s–
Robert Wiblin: So as much risk as–
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah, and the fact that we’re not trying to prevent any of it, is we’re just losing. We’re getting further and further behind the curve.
The Biological Weapons Convention [00:17:52]
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Do you think enough people are working on engineered pandemics? I guess that’s one that worries me in particular where it seems like there’s not a whole lot of government programs relative to the scope of the issue here.
Bonnie Jenkins: Well, I mean, it’s an issue that the Biological Weapons Convention, they have a discussion on it. Every time they have a meeting every year they talk about that because it’s obviously a concern. Particularly since so you know, all these pathogens are dual-use so it’s easy for you know things that could be developed in new technologies that could be used for good could be used for bad.
So you have to always worry about it. You always have to really be thinking about what the potential negative consequences could be from the new technologies that are being developed in the bio world.
Robert Wiblin: So I guess, so I’m very worried about kind of biological attacks and synthetic biology advances. It seems like the Biological Weapons Convention would be like a very obvious place in which we could try to tackle that, but it seems like it’s not a stronger convention as maybe it could be. And like the enforcement is like not what it could be. Do you have any ideas for like how we could improve the BWC in particular?
Bonnie Jenkins: Well, I know there was an attempt a while back to make it a lot stronger with verification and it didn’t work. There has not really been a significant talk about that but nothing really significant basically was because it was the US that kind of make that not happen. So, as a result, it’s never had the equivalent of the non-proliferation treaty and the Chemical Weapons Convention in terms of having a body that helps to ensure that states do not do what they’re not supposed to do under the treaty.
And so it’s always been like a “weaker structure”. It has three people who were supposed to do all the work implementing the treaty which is a lot to ask.
Robert Wiblin: Three.
Bonnie Jenkins: Yes, three. I’m not even sure how many there are right now because it’s been three and sometimes people have not been there. So, you know it suffers from that and so it also suffers from what people could say enforcement, you know, because it doesn’t have a mechanism for a surprise inspection or things like that. Like the Chemical Weapons Convention has. Or it doesn’t have things that a lot of people run around your facility like the International Atomic Energy Agency has. But the discussions take place there. They talk about it. It’s not like they don’t talk about it. They do have the discussions about emerging technologies and what effect that will have on a treaty and they do recognize it but having an enforceable mechanism, they don’t have the ability to have somebody doing something to do something about it.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I suppose it’s the seed of something that could become more substantial. You know, when the time is right, maybe.
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah, the countries can do whatever they want to do. They can sit down tomorrow, say, you know, “We need to do another, we need to really strengthen this treaty. Let’s do it. Countries are sovereign they can do whatever they want. It’s just that countries are not ready to do that.
Robert Wiblin: Is there potentially a role for philanthropy here, to kind of better resource the BWC or is it like private actors can’t just throw money around?
Bonnie Jenkins: Oh no, they could definitely do with more money.
Robert Wiblin: Okay? Yeah interesting. Well, yeah, maybe. I might look into that and stick up some links because there could be listeners I think who might be very interested in looking at like yeah, whether the BWC could potentially be a good place to direct donations.
Bonnie Jenkins: Mm-hmm. If they can’t give it to the BWC implementation support unit, which is the three people, they can give it to countries that do things there, you know, or to have research done, so there’s ways in which you could do it.
Projects Bonnie worked on that she’s particularly proud of [00:20:55]
Robert Wiblin: Are there any specific projects that you worked on at state or elsewhere that in retrospect that you’re really proud of that you think, you know moved the needle?
Bonnie Jenkins: I think the Nuclear Security Summits were great because that definitely created a lot more, in a very fast time frame, a lot of focus by country leaders to do a lot in terms of securing nuclear material and as a result a lot has been done globally on that issue that might not have been done or definitely not as fast.
So that’s really great working on the global partnership against the spread of weapons of materials of mass destruction, which is a 30 country organization. That’s more than just a G7 obviously. And they’re all working together to coordinate the programs that they have around the world to prevent WMD terrorism.
And so that is a really great mission and I was there at the time we extended it in 2012. 2012 is when I chaired. That’s the first year after we extended it. I played a role in it. That was really great. That felt great to be to be part of the extension of that, indefinite extension of that initiative and there were a number of things like that. That I was able to be a part of that was great the GHSA, the Global Security Health Agenda, the launch of that. Being a part of that was really great.
Robert Wiblin: So those are examples of kind of getting the right people to talk to one another and to discuss the right issues. Is that kind of very often, is that like a high leverage point because some people might be skeptical that, “Ah you get people to talk around table and then kind of nothing happens”, but that’s not the case.
Bonnie Jenkins: It has to be action. You have to start by talking. We have to get people around the table to have a conversation to figure out what we all want to do, what’s the strategy, how are we going to go forward, what’s the mission, what’s the goal, how countries are going to be involved? But then it has the most action and all of these things were things that moved to action and we actually use the word action in a lot of things we did.
So for the Global Health Security Agenda, we have something called action packages. You know, which we developed a name on purpose because we wanted to focus on the fact that this is not just talk, it’s action. And in the Nuclear Security Summit, we have something called action plans and then the G7 Global partnership was about activities that were actually going on and how do we coordinate it? And I’m a very much of an action kind of person. I like to see things at the end of the day having gotten done. So yes, it is a part about bringing people around the table. But that’s just the first part of it. That’s a necessary part of it, but you really have to move forward after that.
The day to day life of an Ambassador on an issue [00:23:03]
Robert Wiblin: So your title was Ambassador or Special Envoy? I guess–
Bonnie Jenkins: It was both actually, haha. Yeah, people use Ambassador but it’s sometimes read as Ambassador special envoy. Yeah.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah I suppose most people like me might imagine ambassadors as kind of between countries, like you’re an ambassador to a specific country, but here you’re kind of an ambassador on an issue. What yeah, what you do day to day as an ambassador of this kind?
Bonnie Jenkins: Well, I did a lot of travel. I mean it might have been easier to be ambassador of a country because that would have been to a lot more stationary because my portfolio is global. So I literally could be in Africa one week and then the next week in Indonesia. You know, I mean, I literally was all over the world, which is very exhausting.
Because it was more of a focus on an issue rather than a country that was global, my daily activities really varied focusing on any one of the four areas that I worked on. On CBRN and then you add infectious disease on top of that so I had a lot of different issues. I would hold meetings at the White House. I would host my own meetings at the state department. There were a lot of interagency meetings where you know, you pulled together people from different parts of the US government. I’d be going to talk with ambassadors from the embassies. I’d be traveling to go to certain meetings.
I’d have to speak at a conference. Then I’d have to go to chair a meeting. I’d be leading a delegation to some event meeting with folks from multilateral organizations going to New York for meetings at the UN. It really varied because there was no set plan. There’s no set day that was ever like the other because I had so many different things in my portfolio.
Robert Wiblin: So what is the goal when you’re travelling and talking to all these people. Is it usually to kind of get them to care about these issues in the first place? Or to tell them what they can practically do about it or maybe to coordinate them with other groups and be kind of an intermediary who gets everyone on the same page.
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah, and they each would have their own purpose. For example, if I was going to a meeting on the global partnership, then I was going because I was the US Representative. So I was there to push the work of the US to coordinate our programs with other countries. It could be to visit a country like Germany when we were having conversations on why we want to extend the partnership. Or it could be a country to talk about why we want them to do a certain thing regarding the Nuclear Security Summit.
So each one has a different purpose. Then it could be just a conference. You know, they wanted me to speak at a conference and you know it was in our interest for me to go there. So they all varied depending on the type of issue it was, the type of weapon it was. I could be going to the Food and Agriculture Organization to talk about why they need to think more about biosecurity issues. It really varied.
Biggest misunderstandings of the field [00:25:41]
Robert Wiblin: What do you think listeners are most likely to misunderstand about the field that you’re in, or the work that you do?
Bonnie Jenkins: Just that it’s very complex. It’s juggling a lot of balls. It’s not just sitting and having conversation. It’s a lot of stuff behind the scenes. A lot of the planning, you’re sitting and getting down the talking points. Getting the talking points clear with the US government entities within the state department.
Pulling together the PowerPoint slides in some cases. Just all the work behind the scene that goes on before you actually sit down with your counterpart in another country. You know the stuff that goes on within your department and within the US.
Where does Bonnie disagree with her colleagues working on peace and security? [00:26:21]
Robert Wiblin: What’s something that yeah, your colleagues and kind of yeah, this peace and security work. What’s something you think that they get wrong, somewhere that you disagree?
Bonnie Jenkins: I would say the silos between it, I think that some of that’s human nature, some of that’s colleagues not being able to see the connections between some of the issues we work on, keeps the ball from moving forward, you know, when it could be because I think we need to be much more holistic and how we look at some of these things.
Robert Wiblin: Do you think that if people tried to be less siloed though, there’d be kind of other problems that would arise, like you’d have not enough specialization or people would feel too scattered across too many areas.
Bonnie Jenkins: I think you can have it both ways. I think you can still be working on your issue but at the same time have an appreciation for what others are working on, or at least understand the role that they play. I do a simulation at the University of Pennsylvania on infectious disease and we have students from different schools come together and just work together. And the goal of it is to say we’re not asking you to be a specialist in every one of these fields. You’re in the business school or medical school or nursing school or vet school or communication school or school of mental health.
Or whatever and what we want is for you to come here and bring your specialization. So as part of the team we are going to look to you to answer certain questions because that’s your area. That’s a good thing. You know, we need to know that there are people who, that’s what they do, that’s their job. That’s what they went to school for. However, at the same time, you’re not by yourself. And on these Global Threat Issues, like infectious disease, you have to work other people.
That’s why it was always a Whole-of-Government approach when we did a GHSA. And so we want them to at least have an appreciation for the role that others play and to know that, “I need… I can’t do this. I can’t answer this. I know Joe over there who I can reach out to and answer that question”.
Robert Wiblin: So there’ s kind of downsides to going at it alone in something like this, but there’s also downsides to try to bring everyone on board because I guess they could potentially slow you down kind of where you can potentially move as fast as the slowest actor. If it were up to you, do you think the US should try to be more collaborative in this area or maybe more just like go ahead with projects that it thinks are a good idea?
Bonnie Jenkins: I think there’s moments for both. I think there’s definitely times when you have to take the lead and we’ve done that and there’s certain times when you need to let other people take the lead. For example, with the Global Health Security Agenda, there are countries who have stepped up like Finland and Indonesia and the Netherlands and you know Italy. Countries who have stepped in and said, “We’re going to take a leading role.” and you want that. You know and you don’t want to always be in front because you want collaborators and you want people to buy into things.
They’re not going to buy in if they don’t have a role. If they don’t have a stake. If they don’t feel like they’re being heard. So the best way if it’s going to be a collaborative global approach, you have to know when to step back and say, “You know, maybe I could do this, but you know what, maybe it’s better that I don’t. There’s a bigger picture here”. That’s more important.
Robert Wiblin: Are there any kind of measures or projects that you’ve tried over the course of your career where you’d kind of recommend that people not try them again where you think it didn’t work out, so it’s probably not going to work out if people have another go.
Bonnie Jenkins: I guess there are times when like, for example, my role was a coordinator for the threat reduction program. So it was a lot of coordination helping people work together, finding ways in which they can find a common ground and I think it’s always good to recognize when that’s not going to work.
There are certain times when certain issues are so ingrained in someone’s psyche or they are so in control that’s good to know when it’s not going to work and not to waste a lot of time on it.
How do we get more done in this area? [00:29:48]
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, what in the big picture, are the kind of the barriers to getting more done in this area? Is it kind of cooperation within orgs or between orgs in the US or between countries or maybe just the ability to get people’s attention in the first place or knowing actually, what would be useful to do?
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah, I think it can be a little of all those things. One is, you know, priority. It may not be the most important issue. For example, in the state department, each one of the bureaus have, you know, the regional bureaus have their list of areas that’s most important. So when they go to a country that’s within that, representing that bureau they have the top five issues that, lets say the Ambassador’s going to raise or someone’s going to raise for me to go and visit that country.
And as my issue was weapons of mass destruction, for example, I always wanted my issue to be one of those top five, but it may not be because maybe for that country that is not the US government doesn’t think that that’s the most important issue. So a lot of its competing issues, you know, the funding, you know making… If the issue’s not the most important and you may not get the funding that you need for it. Bureaucracy which can slow things down.
You know, usually you can get things out, but it could definitely slow it down if someone does not want it to go forward. So there’s a lot of human things like that that can also make it difficult and the silos.
Robert Wiblin: People have different kind of models of politics and international relations and I think some people have the idea that kind of individuals matter and if you show up somewhere and you’re particularly charming and persuasive and make good arguments, then that’s going to move the needle. There’s other people who are a bit more cynical that it’s like, “No countries kind of do what’s in their interest and its structural and kind of yeah, individuals, it’s very hard for them to change things by you know doing a good job in their role. Which one would you say you agree with more?
Bonnie Jenkins: I would have to say both because I think the art of diplomacy is knowing how to be that person that can you know, a good diplomat knows how to figure out how to get a country to persuade a country to do something while at the same time ensuring that the country does do something that’s also within it its own interest or else they’re not going to agree to do it. You know, it’s that balance of you know, promoting US policy while at the same time ensuring that the country’s own interests are not stepped on.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, what are the interests that you might worry about stepping on? I suppose it’s like just budgetary issues that you’re asking them to spend money maybe or like to allocate, you know limited management time–
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah, it depends on what’s important to their country. So if it’s a poor country, then it’s going to be a money issue. So maybe we can help by providing some assistance, you know. If it’s expertise maybe we can help by providing some expertise. So it depends on what the issue is that will help move that country to agreement.
Robert Wiblin: How much do you find that people just don’t like being told what to do. Is that a concern?
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah, but you don’t you don’t phrase it like you’re telling them what to do.
Robert Wiblin: Imagine that.
Bonnie Jenkins: Your phrase it as a diplomat, you have a way of talking and then I mean sometimes depending on the situation if it’s really, you really want something and you’re like told that you have to get this and they don’t want in then you may have to do that.
But then that’s a power thing too. And you know, you have to think about how you use power. If you want to tell somebody what to do, then you expect them to do it. But that’s a power issue too, something to think about.
The Global Health Security Agenda [00:32:52]
Robert Wiblin: So the Global Health Security Agenda was this package of programs that was designed to kind of improve pandemic preparedness and improve a bunch of other things about Global Health security and Tom Inglesby was a big fan back in episode 27.
I think at that time it wasn’t clear whether it was going to get ongoing funding after 2018, but it seems like it’s carrying on it at least has some funding for some of the programs. What parts of it excited you the most and are they still going?
Bonnie Jenkins: I think what excited me the most was the concept of doing this global initiative that’s also this Whole-of-Government approach that’s working closely with the multilateral organizations and the NGOs and what I find doing my own research on different types of threats, that really is a model for trying to deal with things. Is that you know, you have to go all out and you have to really have a Whole-of-Government, whole society approach to dealing with some of these threats that’s out there.
And so that’s what impressed me. It was the fact that we were able to pull that together and to do that and then that’s still going on. Well, we were able to get the money and so it’s 2019, so we’ll hopefully continue to get money for it.
Robert Wiblin: So it’s mostly still operating.
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah. Yeah they’re still having meetings on it. It’s definitely still up.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah are there any positions that the right listener might want to apply for, where like they could potentially push forward the GHSA.
Bonnie Jenkins: I mean the GHSA is run by the government structures. So it depends on where the person is located. So in the US, for example, there would be jobs at Health and Human Services that are focusing on that and State Department, Department of Defense. Each one of the agencies departments would have people who are focused on that issue. It depends on how many people how much time it will vary depending on how much stake and how much work the agencies are doing on that issue or what departments are doing on that issue. But you know, that’s what you would do within those.
There’s NGOs that do work on these issues. The NGOs are doing work on this before we even called the GHSA. There were a number of government agencies, of course and NGOs who were working on this and philanthropy and academic institutions. So a lot depends on where you want to come into the issue. Does it have to be government or do you want to work on other things like Tom Inglesby?
The implications for countries who give up WMDs [00:34:55]
Robert Wiblin: In academia, yeah. What are the implications of the kind of effect that some countries have given up WMDs seem to have kind of been punished for it indirectly. So I guess like Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons after the fall of the Soviet Union and then kind of Russia took Crimea. Libya, I think dismantled its nuclear program and I guess Gaddafi kind of came to a bad end.
Whereas like by contrast, North Korea now has nukes and that makes it more untouchable.
Bonnie Jenkins: Well, there are countries who gave them up who didn’t necessarily have problems like Kazakhstan gave them up, Belarus gave them up, South Africa gave them up, Argentina, Brazil decided not to go for it. So, you know, there are countries who have decided not to go down that route whom have not been ‘punished’. I don’t know if you can call the Ukraine situation punishment or just I mean, the question is, would Russia have gone in there if they still had them?
Maybe not you know, so there could be a direct line to that but I wouldn’t say because they’re also a lot of cases where there wasn’t a ‘punishment’.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I think it’s yeah, it’s very sad situation because I think Ukraine had an agreement with both the US and Russia over its territorial integrity that’s not been honoured and it sets a bad precedent for the future.
Bonnie Jenkins: It does, it does. But hopefully you won’t have more countries who want to develop them anyways.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, haha.
Bonnie Jenkins: Let’s not even have that be an issue, right?
Robert Wiblin: Do you think the world would be safer if we got rid of nuclear weapons entirely. I know that there’s some people who think that but I’m a little bit skeptical.
Bonnie Jenkins: Well if no one has them then it’s not even an issue.
Robert Wiblin: Well, but then couldn’t be an issue because then everyone will be skittish that potentially another country would very quickly put them back together and then there’ll be at a–
Bonnie Jenkins: Well, that’s a different question.
Robert Wiblin: Okay, yeah. Yes. If it was sustainable.
Bonnie Jenkins: If it’s sustainable, yes. If it’s not, then yeah, because then it could start again. So if everyone got rid of them and there’s an agreement not to build them then yeah. But if it’s not a sustainable agreement or not a stable situation, then you’re back to where you were before.
Robert Wiblin: What you think about the US having a no first strike policy. I think Obama considered that, maybe there was some pushback from the military and it ended up not–
Bonnie Jenkins: I know China has a no first use policy. As an arms control, non-proliferation person, I would not have a problem with it. You know, I think it would be, I think there’s merit to having one. I think that helps instill some confidence in the non-proliferation regime that the US, you know, is so serious about the issue that they want to actually agree to something like that.
Robert Wiblin: Have you ever had to worry about participating in kind of a government program that you thought was a bad idea or like maybe even kind of actively actively immoral?
Bonnie Jenkins: No.
Robert Wiblin: Interesting. Okay, I guess I mean that situation could arise. Does it ever give you reservations?
Bonnie Jenkins: It could arise; it has not arised for me. I’d have a real problem if it was something immoral and whether I would do it. Whether I would stay in my job to do it. I mean, I think I mean I have the luxury. I think I had the luxury of saying, of knowing that if something like that happened, I would leave. But I also had the luxury of working in the government with Presidents who I liked and I wasn’t when I didn’t like them.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I guess I ask because I know that it’s something that holds some people back from careers in the civil service and maybe especially the military where it’s that, you can’t just walk away as soon as you disagree with a decision.
Bonnie Jenkins: Yes. Yes and in that respect, well you have nothing to worry about anymore. But um, yeah, you have to make a decision you have to make a decision about whether you know, and people often ask… I get the question all the time, in particular right now, like the state department who stay because they’re civil servants or they’re Foreign Service officers and staying with a situation they may not be happy with. But then I would say well people raise their hands to the constitution and not to the person and so they are in those jobs, you know promoting the constitution and the goals and the vision of the constitution, not the person nor the people or the particular administration at any particular time.
But it does get harder, even with that argument. It can get very difficult and people do leave and people have been leaving.
The fallout from a change in government [00:38:40]
Robert Wiblin: Speaking of which, in government there’s always this risk the kind of there’ll be a change of government and then the things you were working on will be deprioritized or dismantled.
I guess how do people deal with that personally and is that a big issue for morale in the Civil Service?
Bonnie Jenkins: No, because I worked in the 90s and then I left in 2000 after Clinton left I left and then I came back and Obama won and you know, I don’t really think in terms of that because it’s hard to measure that I mean, you know, it’s hard to say because I’ve gotten a lot done that I don’t think has been necessarily turned away and you know another way to look at is that if you had not done that you might have been even worse off than you are now, so it’s too hard to measure that.
For me to sit and feel like you know, it’s not worth it or wasn’t worth it because it’s all getting turned around because it’s hard for me to know if it really what would have happened if I wasn’t there. You know how far would we have gotten if I hadn’t helped to work on something.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Guess that things can things get worse or things can also get better.
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah, it might have been worse now because it might have been worse before.
Listener submitted questions [00:39:39]
Robert Wiblin: So when I announced I was going to interview you, there was a very enthusiastic response on Twitter and Facebook and we got some unusually good questions submitted by listeners.
I thought I might just go through some of them. You might not be a position to answer all of them but we can have a go. So, yeah, do you have any ideas on how to deter North Korea from its current nuclear weapons program. And do you have any idea of like what mistakes were made in the past? I mean it’s possible that this was just kind of inevitable. That there wasn’t a very good place we could lean on to prevent what happened.
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah, I mean if you look at the history, you do get the sense that they really wanted to develop a weapon. Yeah, I mean, I think that they withdrew from the treaty and they tested they withdrew from the non-proliferation treaty and they tested. So, just looking at the history, it does definitely indicate that that’s the direction that they wanted to go.
Robert Wiblin: And do you think that there’s much that can be done now, or maybe it’s–
Bonnie Jenkins: Well now that they have the weapon it’s always a lot harder to make them get rid of it because now they have it and so it would take… their are histories, as we were saying, some countries have given up weapons, but it would be a challenge to figure out what to give them to make them do it and they want the sanctions lifted and that would help but would that really make up stop? I don’t know.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I have the sense that I don’t really begrudge like what Clinton or Bush or Obama tried to do or indeed Trump at least most of the time. Because it just seems like it would have been so hard to shift them because I mean they’ve just got so much artillery aimed at Seoul at the end of the day if this is what they want to do, what are you going to do? It’s very hard to stop.
Bonnie Jenkins: Sort of a military strike, which I’m not sure is–
Robert Wiblin: It’s very risky.
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah, it wouldn’t make sense.
Robert Wiblin: Do you think it was a mistake for Obama to kind of set the red line about the use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria and then maybe not follow through on it.
Bonnie Jenkins: Well, I think you know, I guess what you could say is, you know, it’s difficult to make a threat if you’re not going to carry through and I think that’s probably true in any situation. So yeah.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I guess I think it’s one of the decisions that he agonized the most about and maybe has the most reservations about in retrospect.
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah well, you know, you make some decisions that work and you make some that don’t work.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, yeah, that’s pretty funny.
Bonnie Jenkins: That’s life, haha.
Robert Wiblin: I guess they ended up dismantling quite a bit of the chemical weapons for a program there afterwards, right? So that’s kind of a half victory there it wasn’t as if there was no–
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah exactly.
Robert Wiblin: So glass half-full, maybe. What do you think is kind of the annual risk of a nuclear exchange each year given this kind of a risk of malfunctioning technology like a false alarm like we’ve had some times in the past or just an escalation of a conventional war between countries.
Bonnie Jenkins: That’s hard to say. Because I would think that you know countries would want to make sure as much as they can under those extreme circumstances that something was actually real before they retaliated and did something.
Robert Wiblin: So you think that countries would have that restraint?
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah, I think they would because it’s too much of a gamble to make a mistake there. And so, you know, I think you want, they would want to make absolutely sure. Under the circumstance, that depends on the person. The person could be trigger-happy. You know that has something to do with it, the other person. It depends on what country it is. That would make a big difference. Depends on what kind of relationships that was happening with the country at the time which factor I mean, it’s a different thing if it’s China versus Russia versus the UK vs. France.
Yeah, you know so I mean there’s going to be different reactions, different things you’re going to factor in but I would hasten to say and hopefully that they would not be an immediate exchange there at least think about what’s going on, you know.
Robert Wiblin: How big of an impact does proliferation among minor powers like North Korea or Iran have on the risk of nuclear conflict among super powers?
Bonnie Jenkins: I wouldn’t think a big–
Robert Wiblin: It’s not super related.
Bonnie Jenkins: I don’t think so.
Robert Wiblin: Yes. I heard a story that it’s possible that if North Korea actually tried to send a nuke to the to the US Mainland and the US tried to intercept it, Russia would not be able to tell whether they were missile interceptors that were heading in practice actually over towards Russia or whether they were actual nuclear weapons. Now, I imagine that they would have anticipated this possibility and would not be like to immediately launch in this situation but I suppose it’s like there’s a possible scenario here where you can imagine it accidentally triggering–
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah, I mean, like I said, it could be dependent on the person who’s there at the time looking and how trigger-happy or nervous that person would be. Or is it a person who’s more thoughtful like you said and said, “Well something’s happening. Maybe this may not be what I think it is”. I mean, I think one of the problems with this line is that there’s been talk, in particular, in the last nuclear posture review of these miniature, these smaller, these weapons that would kind of escalate, you know, and so they wouldn’t be like the real thing. They’d be, you know a version that would–
Robert Wiblin: Tactical nuclear weapons?
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah, they would be kind of like just to say we’re not going to do the big thing yet. But this is a smaller one. So we just want you to know how serious we are kind of thing. And the problem with that was raised which is that a lot of, some of the platforms are the same as would have the larger weapons. So they wouldn’t know whether it’s a larger or a smaller weapon.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I guess even when it goes off like immediately you might not be able to tell
Bonnie Jenkins: You might not be able to tell. And so we’re hoping that the other side will be calm and casual and say, “Oh that’s not the big one”–
Robert Wiblin: “That’s just a warning shot”.
Bonnie Jenkins: “They’re just trying to warn us.”
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Yeah.
Bonnie Jenkins: Just hope that they really think that.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, so maybe that’s the answer to my next question which is, what are the least safe weapons in terms of potential accidents? I guess maybe tactical nuclear weapons, they create a risk of escalation.
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah, there’s a risk of escalation.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I suppose with bioweapons, but it doesn’t seem like many countries have bioweapons these days.
Bonnie Jenkins: No, fortunately most countries don’t but, in particular not to deliver them, but you know people have laboratories so every country has a lab. So they’re all dual-use but in terms of being able to make one you need the right pathogens and somebody with intent to do harm.
Robert Wiblin: What are the biggest challenges of ensuring biosecurity in resource-poor settings in particular?
Bonnie Jenkins: Helping them to build the infrastructure to make it secure. That could be building, which we’ve done, building big fences around the lab helping them make sure that they have the stuff inside the lab to be safe, you know, that things, there are locks and things like that. Making sure that they have the badges that they need to get in and out, you know, just the internal review and assessment of people who could work there. Making sure that they’re the right people. There’s things like security culture which is training people to understand what the risks are so that they know what not to do.
Robert Wiblin: I guess it sounds like it actually might be easier in these cases, because kind of you can spend money on these really obvious things, and just, in fact, it might be easier to do, to like get improvements at least in places, where it’s like very little money than in places that are already close to the state-of-the-art.
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah, as long as you have the hardware and the human factor because you can have the fence and you can have all of that but if you don’t have a person who understands the importance of security culture, then it still won’t work. So you need the human and the infrastructure to work together.
Robert Wiblin: Is there anything you think that the US or EU could do to reduce risks between Pakistan and India or is that kind of just up to them in reality?
Bonnie Jenkins: I mean there’s always efforts that can be made and there’s always conversations that as diplomats that can be had as ambassadors and countries can have with them on a regular basis. So I think there’s always, you don’t have to wait for them to get angry at each other. I think there’s always efforts that can be made to ensure that the relationship is a good one. And when it’s not a problem to keep it that way. I would prefer that to waiting till there’s a problem and try to fix something.
Robert Wiblin: Quite a lot of people in response to climate change are advocating for bigger uptake of nuclear power. What implications would that have for kind of nuclear weapons security if anything at all?
Bonnie Jenkins: Well, it’s just more of a concern about more knowledge out there in terms of what can be, who knows processes about potentially developing a weapon. So that’s the concern, you know, whether there’d be any waste.
I mean, maybe not a lot but there are you know, there could be a concern about that as well about environmental issues and things like that. But for me, it’s a lot of knowledge issue and it’s expensive. It’s a really expensive thing and you know a lot of countries have to decide if it’s worth doing that versus doing other things that are also important right now that they are definitely going to be facing and are facing.
Robert Wiblin: So the US is pretty close to kind of state of the art in a lot of these areas, but what could it learn from other countries? What are cases where other countries are maybe doing things better?
Bonnie Jenkins: Making trade-offs between what’s needed and not all countries. But some countries are better off in understanding the importance of some of these global threats and the importance of needing to address them. But it’s also because they’re facing them a lot easier and can see them a lot more. In terms of how we deal with countries like how we deal with Iran for the JCPOA, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
I think there’s some lessons learned about how the Europeans are dealing with it. And even the Russians are dealing with it. And the Chinese to deal with it. I think it’s better than how the US is dealing with it, you know. But I’m an arms-control person, so of course I say that. So I think there are definitely lessons that we could be learning right now about a number of issues both hard and soft security.
Robert Wiblin: What are the professional norms in the US around kind of criticizing governments that came before you or that come after? I suppose there’s civil servants and there’s like political appointees, maybe the rules are a bit different.
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah, you know, yeah, I felt that I was a political appointee and I was also a civil servant at one time. So I understand the importance of just as a civil servant, I was a Foreign Service Officer and that you stay, you know, regardless of who’s in charge. But yeah, it’s not an easy one, but you said with respect to trade offs.
Robert Wiblin: Oh, no, I suppose like what are the norms about criticizing? So because I’ve had some people just be unwilling to kind of criticize other governments. There’s maybe some kind of–
Bonnie Jenkins: I think I would say we’ve broken some norms. I mean, like I said, you have a new administration every four or eight years, right? Normally, I was gonna stay all the time, but normally you stick by the agreements that were made because what’s the point of having a treaty if you’re going to change it every four years or eight years? You normally stick with agreements that were made before you.
And that’s been a problem. The norms of how we treat other leaders and talk to other leaders and speak with other leaders has definitely been kind of shifted, yeah has shifted. So I think there’s a number of norms that are not written down in books. Yeah, we don’t write down, you know, you don’t call people names, you don’t lie, you don’t call people who are leaders of other countries especially allies names. I don’t know if that’s ever written anywhere.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Yeah, exactly.
Bonnie Jenkins: It’s also just respect. It’s also respect for somebody else. So yeah, we’ve broken a few of those.
Robert Wiblin: I suppose as a result, it seems like there’s more people under the Obama Administration who are willing to criticize the current administration perhaps there was a bit more of a ceasefire in the past.
Bonnie Jenkins: Well, you know people do their time and they go away, you know. And you see presidents, former presidents around but they don’t usually have the limelight because they’re more than happy just to live their life now. You know, it’s not an easy job and if they’re there for eight years, the age they look tired, they look totally different because it’s not easy.
Robert Wiblin: They gotta get some sleep.
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah, and they like that. They’re happy to do that. But it’s been yeah, we’ve seen a lot more of the former Administration folks now because there’s been so much concern. I guess the best way to put it about what’s been going on.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I think it’s interesting that people criticize Obama for reducing US credibility by not following through in the Syria chemical weapons case, but of course, like withdrawing from all these treaties that the US has made, I think, has surely done like much more to kind of damage the US’ credibility and reputation for like following through on the things that it says.
I mean even if you think the Iran deal was a bad idea and there’s some people I respect who I think have that view that it was like maybe the US should have done something different. Having signed it, it seems like it’s a very different question whether you should renege on the deal and that seems very worrying to me as a precedent for like, well why would other countries engage on these issues?
Bonnie Jenkins: Well, that’s the problem. I mean, you know, it was in everyone’s interest and maybe, I mean, the criticism that I hear is maybe it should have included other things and you know, but that was not the purpose of the agreement. It was achieving what they sat down to do which was to reduce the chances of Iran developing nuclear weapons. If people think back to that time frame and just how frantic it was with us going back and forth with Iran and our allies back and forth.
“You want a nuclear weapon? No we’re not? You’re developing a nuclear weapon? No we’re not.” Well, they were saying, “We’re just doing peaceful uses, that’s what’s allowed in the treaty” and we’re saying, “Yeah, we know it’s allowed in the treaty, but we also know what you’re doing”. It was crazy back and forth. And so if you remember back then just how difficult it was and then you realize that that treaty was the right treaty for what we needed to get done.
And if it didn’t address other issues then you don’t tear up the treaty. What you do is you find a way to have more negotiations on other things. But now if you try to tear up the treaty, then you don’t have anything and you just start from scratch. Why would they sit down with you again?
If I started out with somebody and I had an agreement with them and I was doing what I was supposed to do and they said, “Sorry we don’t like the treaty” and I’m like, “But I’m doing what you said I was supposed to do. I got inspectors running all around my facility. Everyone’s saying that I’m compliant and that you still want to leave and I haven’t violated”.
So, why would I sit down? Why would I sit down and have another agreement? It just doesn’t make a lot of sense. That doesn’t mean it can’t ever happen but it does make it more difficult to see why somebody would want to do it again. And so for me, as a lawyer, an international lawyer that negotiate treaties, you just keep it. Those treaties are too hard to get. Once you get it, you keep it and if you want to add more things you add going things. But tearing up treaties in arms control is just very concerning because it’s just too hard to get those things done.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I mean at the time it looked pretty sensible to me. It definitely looked like a step forward and I guess it’s like it’s not everything that you’d want but it’s kind of the nature of these agreements is that everyone only gets half of what they want. The thing that surprised me was that you’d think that Israel would have the greatest interest in this agreement because that most in the firing line for any weapons that Irangets and yet Netanyahu was absolutely set against it and I couldn’t quite understand the reasons that he was giving. But I guess I gave me pause because like well Israel has a lot of skin in the game here and they they didn’t seem too keen for this, well like one half of Israel wasn’t so keen. I’m just like, I’m just like I don’t understand.
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah. Well, you know they have their reasons but you also have to look at what makes sense from the global community sense.
Robert Wiblin: I guess maybe they were hoping that just the US would go to war with Iran, but maybe that isn’t of interest of every other country that that happen.
Bonnie Jenkins: Well, I think there’s definitely an interest in not having things go well. You know, I mean, I think having contentious issues with the US is probably more than what they would like I would think.
Robert Wiblin: Were there any improvements to the safety technology for nuclear weapons or other weapons in the United States during your time in government?
Bonnie Jenkins: I would say so. I was much more on a security side not as much on the safety side, but I would say yes because we also had what happened in Japan and the accident in Japan, Fukushima. I think that that resulted in a quite a bit of work on safety issues. So while that’s not my area as well on the security side of nuclear issues. Yes, there’s just been a lot done on that.
How might listeners be able to contribute to solving these problems with their own careers? [00:54:55]
Robert Wiblin: Okay, so let’s just move on and talk a little bit more directly about how listeners might be able to contribute to solving these problems with their own careers. So you worked in the military, civilian government, and outside of government in kind of think tanks and universities now. Do you have any sense of where someone can kind of get the most leverage if you just have a free hand to choose between any of these and you don’t have like a super good personal fit for one over the other.
Bonnie Jenkins: I would say probably government and that may depend on where a person works. In the US at least we have great opportunities with both the government and outside government. We have the ability to go back and forth between government and outside government. So there’s a certain luxury in being able to find different ways to impact policy. But obviously since policy is most directly made in government, that’s the first place if that’s what somebody wants to do.
I mean it’s impacted by think tanks with what they write and think tanks want to impact policy. So there’s NGOs too, so there’s other ways to impact policy, but the most direct ways are government.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, interesting. That’s a pretty consistent answer that I’ve gotten to this kind of question which, so I suppose the system is somewhat that you when you get the chance to go into government because you’re allied with the people who are in control, then it’s like you do that and then when you don’t then you go out and kind of bide your time, maybe in University and so.
Bonnie Jenkins: That’s what a lot of people do. A lot of people, you know, especially political appointees they’ll leave and then go back.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. It’s kind of like I guess like build up your expertise and reputation and then yeah wait for the right moment. I guess what about careers in electoral politics or nonprofits? Is there anything valuable that people can do there? I guess I worry that, you know running for congress you get torn between so many different ways. That if your interest is kind of weapons control or like peace and security it might be actually very hard to do that as an elected representative.
Bonnie Jenkins: Yes, it is more challenging to do it as an elected representative. But you know in the NGO world, you could do a lot, you know, because you mentioned NGOs you can do a lot with that and they do a lot.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, are there any NGOs that you want to highlight that you think do really good work?
Bonnie Jenkins: One’s Arms Control Association because I’ve been working with them for many years, I’m on the board. There’s so many. There’s an organization called WAND which focuses on women and looking at somebody’s health security issues. There’s my organization, WCAPS.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, haha, we’ll talk about that in a second.
Bonnie Jenkins: Yes, there’s the Union of Concerned Scientists which does really great work. There’s Ploughshares that does work as a funder. There’s so many–
Robert Wiblin: The Nuclear Threat Initiative?
Bonnie Jenkins: NTI, yes, I mean, I could go on because I funded a lot of groups who’re now at the Ford Foundation and I also work with a lot of groups now. So yeah there’s quite a few.
Robert Wiblin: So if someone wanted to go into a career in one of those organizations like yeah, what should they study and kind of what kind of career capital can they build up in their twenties to get themselves–
Bonnie Jenkins: You know, it’s hard. I mean obviously international relations is important, public policy issues, international security is good. Diplomacy, if that’s a possibility. Foreign Service. Like Georgetown’s Foreign Service school would be good. Government, you know some schools have government schools.
All of those are good and of course doing internships and fellowships are ways to complete your resume for the right things in a resume to get jobs. So those kind of things really. Also scientists, I mean, we have biologists and nuclear physicists and chemists who are doing work in the policy space.
We have AAAS fellows which are scientists, a lot of biologists who get involved in policy work and we need those for like weapons of mass destruction. You need the scientists who can tell you what’s possible and what’s not possible.
Robert Wiblin: It seems yeah, like a lot of these issues are very technical. Like you really need scientists and engineers to understand. How much, I guess, do you have to work very closely with them because your background isn’t as much in science and tech?
Bonnie Jenkins: It depends. I mean sometimes you do because it may be an issue that you know, you just need their perspective and say what’s possible. What can we agree to? We don’t want to make a mistake and say we can do something we really can’t. So just having them in the mix. Having them at the meetings and you know in the offices and a lot of the time it’s just clearing up documents having him clearing things is important because then they could look at documents and say, “No cross it out”. Yeah, that’s what we go through the whole clearance process is because we want to make sure that what we’re doing makes sense.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah interesting. So what is the path of someone who’s kind of maybe graduated in physics or chemistry or engineering who wants to go into this? I guess it’s the AAAS Fellowship which–
Bonnie Jenkins: The triple AAAS fellowships.
Robert Wiblin: Is there anything else?
Bonnie Jenkins: I mean, I guess they could just apply to jobs for the federal government like anyone else. There’s the NGO route that they can get involved in. There’s the think tank route. But all of these have potential avenues into the government. So just getting out there working in these kind of institutions, it’s always good to write things and DC’s very much into writing articles op-eds, blogs. Getting your name out there. There’s a lot of getting your name out there. Having people know who you are. That’s a big deal in DC.
Robert Wiblin: Are there any kind of post grad courses for people from a more technical side who want to work on peace and security?
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah, there’s a lot of graduate courses particularly in DC. Georgetown, George Washington American, George Mason. All the Georges that are American, they have graduate programs.
Robert Wiblin: How separate is the Foreign Service and the Civil Service in the US? Are they pretty different tracks or do people move between them pretty freely?
Bonnie Jenkins: Usually if you’re in Foreign Service, you stay in Foreign Service. You know, because you’ve got to take a particular exam to get into the Foreign Service. It is its own track within State Department.
Robert Wiblin: I see. And what’s distinctive about those kinds of roles? Did you think that particularly impactful?
Bonnie Jenkins: Well Foreign Service is, you know, that’s the one where you travel every three or four years, sometimes two years depending on or even one year depending on where you happen to be and so you you know you bid and you go to different embassy every two to three years. And you may go back to main state and stay in Washington DC for two or three years. So they’re the folks who work at our embassies, you know in our missions around the world and civil servants at state, for example, normally stay in the US and they’re not on that same kind of cycle of every two to three years. A lot of them work in a functional bureaus at state versus a regional bureaus at state. One’s obviously regional and one’s functional. So like I was a civil servant before I was a political appointee. I was a Foreign Service Officer. So it’s a job like everyone else, you know, it’s a civil service job.
Robert Wiblin: Within the executive branch, there’s a bunch of different tracks. We’ve got diplomacy and we’ve got like standard civil service. We’ve got like intelligence services and then there’s the military and then I guess there’s also law enforcement.
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah. Well the diplomacy would be more like the Foreign Service folks. Then there’s the military of course, which is self-explanatory. Intel which is self-explanatory. You could have military who are intel. Military intel , Navy Intel for example or CIA.
Robert Wiblin: I guess like the Biological Weapons Convention enforcement is actually in the FBI, right?
Bonnie Jenkins: There’s people in the FBI who may focus on bio issues. There’s people in the FBI that are focused on a lot of different things that have to do with FBI type work, but they do have folks who work on WMD issues as well.
Robert Wiblin: Do you have any view on, I guess which these tracks seems particularly promising for someone focused on weapons control? Or maybe like kind of who’s a good fit for which one?
Bonnie Jenkins: It depends on kind of what you want to do. If you want to do nuclear issues, the Department of Energy makes sense. You could also do that work at the NRC, the Nuclear Reconcile Commission. You could do it at State Department. You can do it at a lot, even the Department of Homeland Security does some work on it. So it depends on what area you want to work on. Bio, that could be depending on what it is, State Department, Health and Human Services, Centre for Disease Control, Agency for International Development, USAID. It depends on what your issue is that you’re interested in and where you want to be within the US government doing it. Or you can be in the NGO world? There’s always that.
Robert Wiblin: Is there any way of quantifying kind of how many people are in this space? Are we talking thousands, tens of thousands?
Bonnie Jenkins: Oh God, it’s hard to quantify. It’s very hard. I wouldn’t even know. In the whole WMD space, in the US, wow, thousands probably.
Robert Wiblin: Thousands, okay. Yeah, I guess it’s large enough that someone who wants to get into it has a reasonable shot that there’s like a lot of different angles in, it sounds like.
Bonnie Jenkins: Well, yeah, there’s a lot of reasonable jobs. I mean working in the federal government is not… It is kind of opaque and there are a number of direct routes into it. A number of fellowships that people can take advantage of to get directly into the government, rather than having to bang on the doors.
It’s very hard if you don’t know anyone if you haven’t been here for a while to go to the different events to meet people and you know, it’s so just kind of opaque and I can imagine… I came through something called the presidential management fellowship program. So I was in one of those what they call direct routes in here into the government, but you apply they have, you know, they have jobs openings and you apply for the jobs unless you have a direct route in there.
Robert Wiblin: Yes, my next question was going to be that a lot of listeners would like to have kind of a career that resembles your one to some extent but they kind of don’t have a sense of how what first steps can they take to get their foot in the door to meet people in DC to get started. Do you have any advice for someone in that situation?
Bonnie Jenkins: Well try to get a fellowship or internship into DC. I mean there’s a number of organizations and NGOs and think tanks that have summer internships or just regular internships. Because you want to get here and you want to meet people and you want to get there and you want to meet people and you want to go to the events and be around and it’s a lot easier to do if you’re in DC than if you’re not in DC, but anyone can apply for the fellowships and internships.
I would… Either just a regular one at state or a regular one at the NGOs or one of these direct ones that you can get into like the one I did.
Robert Wiblin: Do you have anything to say about the different internal cultures of the of the various organizations because I imagine someone you know might be the right fit for state but not so much for the military.
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah. They all have their own culture. Having been in the military, DOD has its own culture, state has its own culture, Department of Energy has its own culture, et cetera, et cetera. So yeah, they each have their own culture and sometimes you don’t really know which culture fits your personality until you get there.
But if you like the diplomacy culture, if you’d like to be one, to move people by, sway people by your words. If you like that kind of a culture that kind of a personality. There’s state if you’re much more of a, you know, a lot harder if you’re militarist then you want to do the DOD, you know, so it’s you know part of it is knowing the culture part of it is, you know, I didn’t think about that. I just kind of worked at places that were doing the things I wanted to do and then I just kind of figured it out.
Robert Wiblin: Yes. So is the culture of the Department of Defense kind of how you might have imagined it to be or are there any surprises?
Bonnie Jenkins: No, not really. It’s very bureaucratic and I enjoyed it. I really enjoyed it a lot. Yeah.
Robert Wiblin: I suppose these are all massive orgs, so maybe they’re all bureaucratic to some extent.
Bonnie Jenkins: Oh, yeah. There’s a lot of bureaucracy.
Robert Wiblin: Is there any difference–
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah. I mean I thought DOD had a little bit more than state. But state has a lot of bureaucracy too but I think there’s just more people have to sign off things at DOD. A lot more people have to watch things but they both have a lot.
Robert Wiblin: I guess Department of Defense, I can’t remember the exact numbers but the number of staff is just–
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah, they have a much bigger building than state. But state has a lot of embassies around the world, even though they have bases around the world. So it’s hard to say.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah something you’d want to say about the culture of the intelligence services and what role they play in the bigger picture here.
Bonnie Jenkins: They play a very important role of giving us information of what’s out there. I mean I was in Navy intel. And you know, it’s the role of getting the information for the policymaker so that they can make better decisions.
Is Bonnie glad she went into the military early in her career? [01:06:25]
Robert Wiblin: Are you glad that you went to the military early on in your career. Did that help a lot?
Bonnie Jenkins: Oh, yeah. I’m glad I went. It was a great culture. I mean, I enjoyed all the experiences that I’ve had. I was reservist for that time. I was called for one year out of the 22 years I was in but I really enjoyed them. I miss it.
Robert Wiblin: What did you enjoy about it?
Bonnie Jenkins: The camaraderie. The rules in a way. I mean I didn’t want it 24 hours a day, which is why I was never full time. But the camaraderie is great. I have so many great memories of… I had fun. I actually had a lot of laughs.
Robert Wiblin: So that’s not what I imagined.
Bonnie Jenkins: I know. One would not think that but I actually had I mean it was for I mean, you know, I remember going on for active duty for a year and, you know, there was a lot of different kind of experiences there. But I’ve had a lot of fun memories of being in the military more than… I started out just thinking I’d only be in there for six years. And I started out in the Navy, I mean I started in the Air Force and switched over to the Navy and stayed a lot longer than I ever ever thought I would stay.
Robert Wiblin: Do you think that if you hadn’t started out in the military early that it would have been kind of harder to get promoted and to advance in your career the way that you did or was that just like one of many options that you could have taken?
Bonnie Jenkins: Well, like my military career was reservist. I only was there one weekend a month, two weeks a year, even though at times it was a lot more than that, but that was my commitment so it didn’t really interfere with my progression in life because it was just one weekend a month. It was a perfect situation.
Robert Wiblin: Did it keep you in shape?
Bonnie Jenkins: Oh yeah, it kept us in shape and you know, it was like it was fun. And it seemed like those weekends would come by so fast. It was like, wasn’t I just here? But I got some great deployments. I loved being on an aircraft carrier. I thought that was the most fun thing in the world. I loved being on ships. I loved being on ships and the more wavy the boat, I liked it.
Robert Wiblin: How did you feel about being called. It was during the Iraq War, right?
Bonnie Jenkins: I was called in 2006 and I went down to Central Command, down in Tampa. And I was supposed to go to to Iraq and then the person I was supposed to replace didn’t leave so they sent me down to Tampa instead.
Robert Wiblin: Okay? Yeah interesting. Was that exciting or a bit frustrating maybe to be called–
Bonnie Jenkins: You know, when you’re called it’s always a little disorienting. But people were getting called up. So it was just a matter of time before I got mine. I had just gotten to the Ford Foundation.
So I was only there for like, I think a year and a half before I got called up but I was so sure that would never happen. But it was quite an experience going down to Tampa because like I said, I thought I was going to go to Iraq and then it changed over to Tampa. And I would’ve been fine going to Iraq too because everybody I knew came back because you know Naval Intel so we were not out on the convoys or anything in that space.
I actually wanted to go. I actually wanted to go and see what was going on for myself, but it turned out fine. I went to Tampa. I enjoyed it. It was a lot of fun.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, so I recall things weren’t going so well in 2006, that was like a difficult time when people were starting to worry that, I guess a mistake. But even if you have reservations about it, potentially… There’s this interesting thing, so Australia joined the US in the Iraq War and I guess I think it was a mistake to have gone probably into Iraq in the first place. But then I think actually given that the US is going in, maybe Australia should’ve joined because there’s this great documentary, but it basically seems like it was massively under-resourced, the work that came after after the military victory, and I think if there had been more forethought and more people on the ground that actually, it could have worked out much much better than it did.
So the film is “No End In Sight”. It’s a great documentary if you haven’t seen it. So I think it was made in 2006 or 2007.
Bonnie Jenkins: Oh, okay.
Robert Wiblin: I think it was kind of analyzing the mistakes made in 2004 that allowed things to drag out maybe a little–
Bonnie Jenkins: That would be interesting to see.
Robert Wiblin: I think disbanding the Iraqi military I think is one that people look back on as like a bad idea. That left a lot of people without jobs.
Bonnie Jenkins: I wonder how it’s going to look with Trump and his decision about Syria. I think that’s going to have a lot of repercussions.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, do you have any other kind of key advice for someone who’s in their 20s and 30s who’s like, wants to pursue a career in the executive branch?
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah, I mean keep pursuing it. Yeah, it’s not like you know, it is a bit opaque particularly if you’re not in DC. But if you really want to work on, I mean and you can do what I did. I started working in city government and then I went to State and then I went to Federal.
So even if you cannot get a job in the federal government, there may be interesting job at State that you’re working in, in the Capitol or even in the cities, so federal jobs. And you know, you can still get a perspective that you get from working for the government. And then, you know, maybe something eventually will open up but I wouldn’t give up I would just kind of keep at it if that’s what they really wanted.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, it sounds like pretty often people might have to take kind of stepping stone roles to get into the position that they ultimately want to get into?
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah, and it made me like, I mean, I remember I did a couple of volunteer-like jobs just get exposure and to put it on my resume and sometimes you have to do that it’s not easy but, you may have to do something and not get paid just so that you can put it on your resume. It’s a lot, I mean, I did a lot of resume building.
Robert Wiblin: I think it shows, haha.
Bonnie Jenkins: What I needed to do to get this and so I did that.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah interesting. Think sometimes people come to us and say, “Oh I want to take this role as a stepping stone, but then I’m not sure actually, it could disadvantage me because I’ll get typecast as doing this other kind of role and then it will be hard in fact to move into the area that I really want to be”. Do you have any idea how people can figure that out? Suppose they maybe just have talk to people in the area and find out how it looks?
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah, I mean talking to people is always good. Talking to mentors. Getting their thoughts on what makes sense. Particularly talking to people who are in those fields. I was a little crazy about it. I just always did what I wanted to do you know, I didn’t think about I mean… It’s like when opportunities turned up and I’m still like that when an opportunity opens up and it makes sense, I usually just go for it.
And you know, my career has always I’ve done a lot of things, but there’s always been like a constant threat throughout all of it, which has been weapons of mass destruction. So even though I went from the military to congressional commissions to governments, academia to philanthropy. There was always one thread and it was always WMDs.
Networking in DC [01:12:27]
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. So a listener might hear this and then they perhaps move to DC but they don’t have that many connections there. How do they get invited to the right parties? Are there kind of networking events?
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah. Oh there’s always networking events. There’s always happy hours. My organization holds happy hours. You go to happy hours you meet people and one thing always leads to the next. You know you just kind of start by doing that and there’s so much going on at, there are conferences you can go to and meet people. Networking events or networking events. I mean there’s a lot going. Join organizations that have events going on that you can go to.
Robert Wiblin: So you’re going to have to put yourself forward. But if you’re willing to do that, then you can you can definitely break in. How much do the personal skills matter then? I suppose if you’re someone who’s quite shy, it sounds like it might be a bit more challenging.
Bonnie Jenkins: Yes, because you have to know how to make small talk.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah.
Bonnie Jenkins: And that’s just a matter of practice like everything else, you know, you could take a class on small talk.
Robert Wiblin: Really?
Bonnie Jenkins: I don’t know, I was just joking.
Robert Wiblin: It wouldn’t surprise me.
Bonnie Jenkins: I wouldn’t either. It really wouldn’t either. They’d probably call it like, “How to Network” and there are webinars and things about how to network but yeah, I mean you can do something like that just do a webinar or just you know, go out with friends, who are more open and kind of just piggyback off them, you know until you’re just more comfortable.
I mean, the gift of gab. I like people. I like to talk to people. But I’m much more of a person like, I will zero in on a person and like, “Let’s sit down and have a chat” and I’ll do that throughout the time, you know, I like to get to know people a little better than have like… but I know the gift of gab. I know that there’s a role for that.
Robert Wiblin: Is that something you developed, or?
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah, I wasn’t naturally like that. You know, once I know person, forget about it. You know, I mean or even once I have that first connection, it’s fine, but just walking up to somebody who you don’t know. It’s daunting if you’re not good at it, but the more you do, it’s like anything else, the more you do it, the better you better get at it.
Robert Wiblin: Do you have any advice on kind of charming people in the Ambassador role. Would you kind of go read their blog posts? So like and then kind of comment or like show that you admired something that they’ve done in order to warm them up, or is that maybe it’s too late in the career for that?
Bonnie Jenkins: When I was an ambassador?
Robert Wiblin: Yeah.
Bonnie Jenkins: It was much easier then.
Robert Wiblin: I see, right.
Bonnie Jenkins: If you want to talk to me–
Robert Wiblin: All right, I see, haha.
Bonnie Jenkins: Or I could say I’m an Ambassador that made it easy for me, but I think that helped me to do it now because you know, you just don’t I think like most things when you don’t think about things things are easier. If you don’t think about it and you go to somebody and you say, “Hi” and introduce yourself to them, to him or her, it’s just a lot easier than if you sit and think, “What am I gonna say? Do I have the right thing to say? How they’re going to react? So you sit here thinking about all this stuff. And you’re still standing in the exact same spot.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I know there’s a lot of people feel kind of skeevy about networking when they’re younger, but I think so, well, why don’t you just realize that everyone has some interesting story and you just have to find it by like asking the right questions and maybe also just that you can potentially do people favors.
So it’s not, this isn’t a matter of like extracting resources from other people. It’s more of like helping one another and maybe can make you feel a bit better about it.
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah, and you may go up to somebody who has the same hesitation so happy to see you say something.
What are the downsides to pursuing a career like Bonnie’s? [01:15:27]
Robert Wiblin: For sure. Yeah completely. What are the best reasons not to pursue the kind of career that you’ve done? What are the downsides?
Bonnie Jenkins: A lot of travel. I was very tired by the time I left. A lot of it was my own fault because I would try to do everything. But, you’re not stationary and if you want to be stationary and have a big family and have a dog and a cat and watch the flowers grow you’re not going to be able to do that because you’re travelling a lot, you know. But you could balance it, because I didn’t really balance it a lot. I just kind of traveled but you can balance it if you control your schedule.
Robert Wiblin: Do you regret that or any kind of glad you lived the–
Bonnie Jenkins: I don’t regret a lot of things in my life. There are a couple things I do regret. But I don’t regret a lot. And so no, I mean I came out healthy, you know, I still travel. I travel a lot less. I definitely don’t do a lot of international travel anymore. No knock on wood, no bad health effects, that’s the most important thing to me.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah interesting and I guess if you hadn’t got into government, what else can you imagine yourself having done?
Bonnie Jenkins: Well, first of all, I said I always wanted to work in government. Yeah, it started when I was young. I had the calling to work in public service, but my other passions animals. I would have loved to be a veterinarian and I would love to work with the big animals in Africa. Just leave me I’m just going to go work with the big cats and the you know anywhere there’s a big animal. That’s what I would do. But I love animals. I would do something in that.
Being a vegan in DC [01:16:47]
Robert Wiblin: So I know some people in government who are vegan who kind of keep that a secret because they’re worried that people might judge them maybe. Or like, I guess maybe it’s more of a conformist culture perhaps in DC. I guess people are worried about sticking out in some ways. Is that something that you kept under wraps?
Bonnie Jenkins: No, it’s on my Twitter account.
Robert Wiblin: Oh, wow.
Bonnie Jenkins: On Twitter it says vegan. I’m proud of it. I’m proud of the fact that I don’t eat animals. I think it’s a good thing.
Robert Wiblin: I’m with you. Yeah, so people don’t have to kind of hide their personal beliefs that much.
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah, but you know, I think it’s changing. I think that’s changing because I know I know quite a few people who are vegan. You know when I go out to eat, I mean there was one experience where I was at an event for the weekend and I sat at the table and everybody but two people were vegan. And if you go to college campuses around the US, I was at the University of Minnesota last week and you know, they have so many vegan restaurants around and they’re full. I went to one and there were people standing in line. Really good food, too. So, I think that’s changing. I’m sure some parts of the US for example it’s not. I’m sure there are places where it’s really heavy meats. That’s not the case. But there’s a lot of people who are now not eating meat.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, we just moved to London recently. I think it’s even bigger here just like so many vegan restaurants around and it’s a popular, fashionable. Right? I think it’s a great thing.
Bonnie Jenkins: And yeah, you find a good one. It’s like I mean, every time I go back there’s more and more. They keep growing.
Robert Wiblin: Was that ever an issue traveling all around the world that you’d have to let people–
Bonnie Jenkins: I’ve only been vegan about four years now, but I was never a big meat eater, but I do know people who were vegan when I was traveling and it was difficult, particularly in parts of the world where they eat a lot of meats.
Robert Wiblin: Where it’s not so common, yeah.
Bonnie Jenkins: I mean it’s easy to find a salad. You can always find a salad some place, but now restaurants, even the ones that I see overseas are getting better at that. Giving more options.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, what convinced you four years ago?
Bonnie Jenkins: Like I was saying, I never was a big meat eater, and so when I decided to… It was a slow process. I didn’t stop like one day. It was like certain things I had stopped eating anyway. I already stopped eating pork. I would have bacon once in a blue moon. I had stopped eating steaks. I’d have a hamburger once in a while and it was just gradual. Then I just made a decision to stop and then you know, I love animals. So the combination of bad and it just kind of made it sensible.
Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security and Conflict Transformation [01:19:15]
Robert Wiblin: It just made a lot of sense, yeah. Okay. Finally, let’s talk some more about the work you’re doing at the moment with WCAPS. So yeah, after leaving state department in 2017, you decide to set up this new nonprofit Women of Color Advancing Peace Security and Conflict Transformation. What motivated you to do that?
Bonnie Jenkins: I just wanted to try to see if there’s a way to make the policy making more diverse. It’s not very diverse in the US. I’m not sure how it is everywhere, but I know in the US, it’s not very diverse at all. So, then I just realized I just think we’ll have much better policies if we could have much much more diverse or at least have policies that’re better informed by different perspectives and different cultures and different backgrounds. And so I think it’s not, in any issue, not just to inform policy, it’s good not to have the same thinking people around the room making decisions. Particularly if they’re decisions like foreign policy that affect other countries like if they’re decisions that are going to have such huge impact on different types of people.
It makes us have different types of people who are also in a room trying to help make those decisions, you know and helping to steer the right direction for the policies.
Robert Wiblin: Is foreign policy especially non-diverse or is it just kind–
Bonnie Jenkins: Foreign policy is very non-diverse. International Security is very non-diverse. Now, there are more women in those fields now than there were before, but there’s still, a lot needs to be done and particularly for people of color.
Robert Wiblin: So is the goal to encourage more women of color to go in and start careers in this area, or make it easier for them to do that, or to help them reach leadership roles over the course of their career, or kind of all of the above.
Bonnie Jenkins: It’s kind of all the above because I mean, there’s certain, just different aspects of the problem. And so you kind of attack different ones. One is increasing interest on any issues. We’re developing a pipeline program that’s going to do that. Starting a junior high school and talking about these issues for peace and security.
It’s about empowering them. And so we have this great podcast that anyone at anytime anywhere could just listen to women who have been in the field and how they got into it and challenges just so that people know they’re not by themselves. And it’s also trying to create desire to stay in it, you know mid-career kind of stuff.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, what do you think are the other biggest barriers to increasing representation. Do women of color maybe leave disproportionately over the course of their careers?
Bonnie Jenkins: One is supply and demand. One is that there’s not enough going into the fields or staying in the field, particularly for women. There’s a lot more now, but still we have to get them to want to stay. For people of color, it’s more it’s also it’s not just staying, it’s getting the interest in some of these issues and helping them understand how these issues interrelate to domestic issues that they care more about for obvious reasons.
So in this culture, the demand is, the culture which is very traditional white male and it’s stayed that way for years. It’s still that way.
Robert Wiblin: Is there much much progress on the internal culture to make it more welcoming to a wide range of people?
Bonnie Jenkins: Not right now, haha.
Robert Wiblin: Not right now, yeah, haha.
Bonnie Jenkins: There definitely was when I was in the Obama administration, there certainly is a lot less now.
But it’s also… even with the Obama Administration. It’s more than just the administration, it’s the culture within departments that have to really make a difference and–
Robert Wiblin: This kind of organizational culture is pretty persistent.
Bonnie Jenkins: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Culture is is naturally resistant because it’s what people have been grown up to believe and so we are naturally, subconsciously always thinking what we’ve been told since we were kids. So it’s just resistant to change as a rule. And so that’s one reason why it’s so tough.
Robert Wiblin: There’s kind of two different benefits that I can see WCAPS having which, I’m kind of curious to know which one you think is bigger. So one is just this is really important work and you want to have lots of people aspiring to go into it from all across society so that you can kind of get the very best people doing this work and working on these really important problems.
The other one is that you know, even if you don’t get more people aspiring to work on it, you have a wider range of people with different experience and different knowledge going into it which might hopefully improve decision-making, I guess, especially given that we’re talking about something involves coordination across many different cultures all over the world.
If everyone’s just cut from the same cloth, then that can be a problem. Yeah, is it kind of focused on both of them equally or–
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah, I mean, maybe not always equally but definitely focused on both of them because like I said, it’s a complex problem and there’s different entry points in terms of how to try to fix it and you’re not going… If you want to have more people in the field at the policy-making level you gotta have more people who are entering the field and who’ll stay in the field otherwise they’ll never get up to making the decision making process. So I mean it’s a little bit of both.
Robert Wiblin: Given the importance of cross-cultural literacy in this work, do you think it could be useful to get a lot more, kind of first-generation immigrants to the US working in it who might have connections to other countries that they could use?
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah, I mean diaspora is very important and you know, when we’re talking about policies of other countries, it’s good to have, it’d be nice to have people in those discussions who understand the culture, you know, and who can say, “This is probably the best routes. I know people there I’m from there”. You may want to consider these things and they’re not part of these discussions.
Robert Wiblin: I guess, are there issues with security clearance for first-generation immigrants.
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah, I mean, security clearance is definitely an issue for many, you know, in terms of places they’ve been and having to track all that down and trying to undo history. It’s definitely a concern.
Robert Wiblin: So what kinds of projects does WCAPS run to improve the situation and why choose those ones over others?
Bonnie Jenkins: Well, WCAPS is a number of things. I mean when I think about what we’re trying to do, I think about what are the fundamental things that one would need to feel empowered, to be engaged. So a lot of the programs speak to young women, mid-career women so we do networking.
So people can know, one of the problems is that people were saying, “We don’t know who else is doing this stuff. We don’t know who else is working in these areas. We know there’s other people. We don’t know who they are”. So that’s been very valuable. And people have been very forthcoming in terms of connecting with each other.
We have this amazing very active Listserv where people are sharing information, sharing jobs, all kind of things. So the network has been really important and it’s really demanded. Another is a mentorship program. Because people really need mentors and they really want mentors. As I said, we do podcasts and webinars. Webinars are just on all types of issues. The podcasts, we have like 33 podcasts so far of women of color talking about their careers.
We do training we’ve done media training, you know, to help both very young and mid-career in terms of issues, in terms of media, talking to the media, speaking in front of the media, Twitter accounts, LinkedIn accounts, how to be a good person on Instagram. All the stuff on communications. How to write an op-ed. Done a lot of that.
We have several working groups that are set up for individuals to focus on more issues. So we have like, I think we have like six working groups everything from National Security, to cybersecurity, to Global Health, to weapons of mass destruction, climate change, illicit trafficking, so we have a number of working groups where people can focus and we have a young ambassadors program. So young folks can get together and do things on their own and so we do quite a few things.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, that’s a whole lot of different projects I guess. How do you evaluate which ones are working? And do you expect that maybe your focus over time on the things that really seem to be moving the needle.
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah. So like the networking I can just see by the traffic. That’s easy. The podcast, reactions like I just met someone last night and I was talking about the podcast and they said, “Oh yeah, I heard that podcast”. You know, I can track it on the website and see how many people are following that so that helps to see that. How many people are, I mean, I’m seeing a lot more of my colleagues on panels. A lot of organizations are contacting me to help them find people for their panels for their things because they know that we have a huge group of women of color.
And so that’s been really helpful. I mean, I have had the Council on Foreign Relations, which is a think tank, reached out and they did a presentation on some of their fellowships so that they can get more people. So it’s being seen as a resource now, which is great. People are coming out. And people who I don’t even know it’s just like using this to get information about a job. You know, we were hiring staff because they want people of color to apply, so they look at my network as a great way to get people to do things. So it’s been a great accomplishment.
Robert Wiblin: I ask partly because I guess there’s a bunch of similarities with 80,000 Hours. We’re trying to shift people’s careers to get them to go and work on like yeah, paths we think are particularly impactful and sometimes it’s easier to kind of evaluate the impact you’re having than others.
When we do like one-on-one advising we can follow up and find out from people directly whether what we’re doing is helping. The podcast is a little bit trickier. We kind of survey people once a year, but I expect it’s potentially influencing quite a lot more people than what we’re actually measuring. We try to write up these case studies where we figure out what people would have done otherwise, I suppose to satisfy donors, but it’s interesting trying to prioritize between different projects when some of them way more easy to quantify the impact than others.
Yeah. Are there any projects you expect to be kind of especially impactful? I suppose, for example, the podcast could reach like many many thousands.
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah, we’re going to be doing a better job of advertising it. We have it on YouTube and iTunes but we’re going to be trying to do much better. We’re going to put it on a podcast platform which I think it’s on one now, we just have to figure out how to use it. We have it on WordPress, we have a whole separate website just for that.
I’m excited about this pipeline program that we’re going to be doing is going to be me putting together I said junior high school, high school, graduate school. Pulling them together. Each group would mentor the younger groups and learn how to mentor. And just really strengthening the pipeline itself in terms of getting people into government.
The value of attention in DC [01:28:25]
Robert Wiblin: It was interesting in your presentation at EA Global, you’re saying the kind of currency of New York is money and I guess the currency in DC it sounded like attention kind of so, it’s like, did you get to write in the Washington Post? Did you like get to give all these talks that other people saw? Which like has a bit more of a zero-sum element because, I suppose, you can make more money and everyone can get richer, but it’s a little bit hard for everyone to get more attention because there’s only so much attention to go around.
So you’re suggesting maybe part of the way to help women of color advancing their careers is just to make sure that they get opportunities to be seen and so I guess if you say, maybe on Instagram, or get to get to be on panels.
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah, get to be on panels, get to be on TV, get to be on MSNBC on TV, you know, just get to be doing opening statements. Just seeing it more is indication people recognize that there’s a need and that there’s gaps we need to do something about it.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, that’s something you can potentially really push on to, I guess to help advance people in their careers. Yeah, what would you recommend, I suppose, to people at the state department or other organizations? How can they potentially help with your mission if they’re interested?
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah, they could join the organization. They can let us know that they’d like to do joint programs with the organization. We do a lot of those with entities. You know, suggest members to be part of the Ambassadors program. Be part of the network.
Just you know, I love great ideas, you know, so, you know, if there’s an idea because they somebody may know an organization and say, “It’d be great if you guys work together”, you know, it’s just I’m pretty open to ideas. And ways in which to strengthen what we do.
Robert Wiblin: How much does the fight over attention kind of make things feel a bit more combative that people feel like they have to kind of constantly be pushing their name out there in the policy scene. Does that like worsen the culture do you think within DC or maybe that’s just how things have always been?
Bonnie Jenkins: I think that’s the way it’s always been and I think people recognize when it’s happening, but they don’t I don’t think people take it too seriously of other people trying to get their name out there,
Any ways WCAPS could accidentally make things worse? [01:30:08]
Robert Wiblin: So in Effective Altruism, we try to like always encourage people to think about both the upsides and the downsides that they can have with their projects. Are there anyways, you think WCAPS could kind of accidentally make things worse. So I suppose one way I was thinking is that it potentially highlights differences between people within this kind of field where maybe it will be useful to like highlight the ways that people are more similar than they think.
Bonnie Jenkins: Mm-hmm, Well, I don’t know if it necessarily highlights them. It just speaks to the fact that there are differences and it speaks to the fact that there’s nothing wrong with differences and it’s a positive thing. But it’s also important to have a place where people can share their experiences and share their frustrations of being a person of color in America and being a woman anywhere for that matter and there are definitely negative things about that, but trying to empower them, you know to be to feel good about that.
Robert Wiblin: Do you feel a tension, say, if you point out problems that women of color might face within the state department or other government organizations that’s like helpful for fixing those problems and drawing attention to them and getting them resolved. On the other hand it might discourage women of color from applying to work there and like inadvertently make the problem worse by that route.
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah. Well the thing is that there has to be a certain amount of recognition of the fact that the US, the culture of the US is based… There’s just racism. It’s just a part of our culture.
It goes back to the way in which we we started and so by acknowledging it, recognizing the differences, calling these things out, but with the way of trying to figure out how do we work together is better because if we don’t do that, then we end up losing out. It’s almost as if you don’t recognize the differences, then it’s easy for things to go as as they always have been and if you’re not from the dominant culture, you’ll keep losing out. But if you recognize the culture and then you say, you know, we have a different history in many ways and therefore, you know, we want to bond together and make ourselves empower each other, then we can all do better, you know.
But if you don’t do that, then it’s almost like if you don’t call it out, nothing will change. It’s like a false sense of security and I’ve had people come back and say they don’t like the term, “people of color” for that reason they say, “You know, because then you’re making yourself different”. But then I say there’s nothing wrong with being different, it’s how you look at it. You could think it’s a negative thing. I don’t think it’s a negative thing. I think if anything it’s trying to acknowledge the fact that we are a culture in America that’s based, that racism is a very important part of who we are and it’s a negative thing. And so you have to deal with that.
Robert Wiblin: Is there room for a lot of other people to join you at WCAPS?
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah. It’s open to everyone. Yeah, I say we’re open to all colored allies. Anyone… I have a page on my website that’s called, “Down with the cause” and you know, I like to highlight people who are our allies.
Robert Wiblin: Are you hiring for any particular roles at the moment?
Bonnie Jenkins: I’m just in the process of hiring an intern.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, okay we can stick up a link to that hopefully up with this episode.
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah it’s on my first page, yeah, first page of the website.
Message for women of colour in the audience [01:33:05]
Robert Wiblin: Yeah is there anything you’d like to say to women of color in the audience who might be kind of on the fence about whether to pursue a career in peace and security?
Bonnie Jenkins: Well, you know, there are many careers to pursue, so you don’t have to pursue peace and security. But if you have an interest in peace and security issues, if you have an interest in anything dealing with all these concerns that we are facing in the world today. So many things are impacting women of color around the world whether its access to health care or the way in which women are losing their lands because of climate change or dealing with infectious disease in the Congo or the lack of water in parts of Nigeria and the water scarcity in Flint Michigan or any of these issues affecting women around the world, particularly women of color are affected here and there’s a connection. So it’s definitely an area ripe for entry for diverse voices and we need them and the whole country needs them.
It’s not just us, everyone needs to have these diverse voices and these diverse ideas. I always tell people, “You never know what you’re not hearing if they’re not there” and I always use the example of we could have had a cure to so many different things that we will never know because the people who might have given us the cure, were not at the table and so we can’t afford to keep doing that because we’re facing threats where we need to hear all the ideas because we might have missed the next genius or something because the person was never given an opportunity. We can’t afford that.
Robert Wiblin: Do you think women of color might have like systematically different views in some way or like an insight into peace and security that others don’t?
Bonnie Jenkins: I think they definitely will. We are all a product of our history and our upbringing and I think some will have similar ideas because the way they experienced their childhood and some will have different.
I think because as women of color who have experienced racism or discrimination, at least most of us have, we have a different way of looking at things. We just have a different perspective. We have a different perception of some of the exact same things that others will look at and that’s true of any culture, that’s true of any group. They’re just going to have a different viewpoint because of what they’ve experienced.
TV shows relevant to Bonnie’s work [01:35:19]
Robert Wiblin: Well, we’re almost out of time, but I got a couple of questions for you. Just to finish off. Did you watch the Americans and if so, did you enjoy it?
Bonnie Jenkins: I watched a couple of episodes and I do like it. I just haven’t, I just have to find more time to stream but I saw a couple and unfortunately, I saw one that wasn’t the first one. I saw one. I said, “It’s really good” and I saw the next one and then I was like “Oh my God, I saw it out of turn…” But, do you watch it, I assume?
Robert Wiblin: I’ve watched all of it. Yeah, I think it’s a fantastic show. I mean, I guess at some points it’s like not completely realistic but as for a spy TV show–
Bonnie Jenkins: How many years has it been on?
Robert Wiblin: Oh, well, it finished I think a year or two ago. So I think it had seven seasons in total.
Bonnie Jenkins: Wow! That makes me excited. It means I have a lot to binge-watch now.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah it’s so good, I mean it gets very dark. People should be ready for that. Yeah, are there any TV shows that you think of kind of a somewhat realistic portrayal of what it’s like working in DC, so it’s not House of Cards.
Bonnie Jenkins: No, it’s not House of Cards. It’s not Scandal either. They have bits and pieces of it that’s real. But it’s not nearly as sexy or as manipulative as TV. You know, they want to make it a little bit more than it really is.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, it’s a bit of a shame, I can’t really think of one. It’s like–
Bonnie Jenkins: I guess people say… What was the show that Martin Sheen was and he was the President?
Robert Wiblin: Oh, The West Wing. Yeah. It’s a bit–
Bonnie Jenkins: No no, I mean I thought… I haven’t seen a lot of them. That show was on for a long time. That’s one to binge-watch if you have a lot of time.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, but that one seemed like it had to be too idealistic to me. Like, the people in the White House can’t be this good, haha.
Bonnie Jenkins: So maybe something in between right?
Robert Wiblin: Yeah something between that and Veep I guess.
Candidates for 2020 [01:36:57]
Robert Wiblin: Are there any candidates for 2020 that have particularly interesting ideas or like a good temperament for peace and security issues?
Bonnie Jenkins: Well, I don’t know if any of them are really attacking peace and security the way I think they should. We just did a survey with my organization that we’re going to come out with and we targeted the three top issues that at least women of color in the membership who I talk to came up with. And climate change, they have had a couple of special discussions about that. But as a rule, normally speaking, foreign policy does not get as much attention as domestic policy.
Robert Wiblin: I guess Tulsi Gabbard talks about that a lot.
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah. Yeah. I mean there’s definitely been talk about it. Probably a little bit more this time than in the past than I think because people have been pushing them.
There’s definitely been a lot more talk overall about foreign policy. But usually when you listen to a debate you have to wait a long time before somebody even mentions foreign policy.
Robert Wiblin: No, it’s a huge frustration of mine because they’ll bicker endlessly about like very subtle issues in like domestic policy where like none of these things are likely to get through Congress and yet like foreign policy where the President has this like relatively free hand.
They just discuss almost not at all. There’s not I don’t think there’s going to be a foreign policy specific debate in the Democratic primaries, which seems like a real shame.
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah, particularly what’s going on now. I mean, so much of what’s happening and so much disappointment that’s happening is all foreign policy issues.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah completely. Do you think Steven Pinker’s right? That there’s kind of a pretty solid trend towards more peace over time. Or do you think maybe that could be an illusion that we just got lucky for so many years and it could be that the 21st century is even worse than the 20th when it’s all said and done. Sorry, it’s bit of a grim question.
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah, I’d like to think so. I’d like to think so.
Robert Wiblin: There’s probably a trend towards greater peace, but it’s not guaranteed. Like it’s unpredictable, so we got to stay on the ball. Yeah, I guess on a more positive note to finish. What are the most positive signs, kind of in International Peace and Cooperation that you see today?
Bonnie Jenkins: I like things like the sustainable development goals. I think that’s a good way that’s showing that the International Community is recognizing some of the problems and they want to do something. That they have targets in it that they’re trying to measure by. That countries have to do a report even though I don’t think we did one. They have to do a report on their success of what they’re doing.
I think that’s a sign of the way in which we need to be working together. To address some of the challenges we have. I think it’s a good sign that there are no new countries who’re trying to get nuclear weapons. It’s the same ones. It’s always been the same ones for years. We haven’t had a knock on wood, haven’t had a big biological attack. You know, that’s that’s a good sign, you know, and young people marching for a better future is a good sign.
Robert Wiblin: Also, you know, there’s been a lot of like instability and provocations over the last few years, but it seems like mostly things have held together or like things don’t always kind of fly out of control there’s often, there’s also restraint there that the countries exercise.
Do you think you might get back into the game and work in the executive branch again in future, or is there only so many years that someone can do this?
Bonnie Jenkins: Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know. It’s really difficult to even think about that right now. One, because we still got some time and with the organization doing well and teaching and I got a lot on my plate right now, so I don’t know, we’ll see. Anything can happen right? Especially with my career.
Robert Wiblin: My guest today has been Bonnie Jenkins. Thanks so much for coming on the show.
Bonnie Jenkins: Thank you for this. This has been great. I really appreciate it.
Rob’s outro [01:40:12]
Robert Wiblin: There’s a lot more talks by and with people like Bonnie on the Effective Altruism Global YouTube channel, which we’ll link to in the show notes.
Just a reminder that we have about 100 jobs relevant to US government careers on our job board at 80000hours dot org slash jobs.
The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced by Keiran Harris.
Thanks for joining, talk to you next week.