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Courtney Kelley (’20): Future diplomat and international affairs professional

Courtney Kelley (’20): Future diplomat and international affairs professional

Courtney Kelley
Courtney Kelley earned a Certificate in National Security Affairs from IWP in 2020.

When Courtney Kelley came to IWP, she already had an M.A. in Diplomacy and International Law from the American University of Paris and had completed an internship with the State Department.

She was in the midst of her second internship with the State Department, where she was examining Chinese economic policy in sub-Saharan Africa. Courtney was taking a close look at 45 countries in this region and examining how China’s policies and economic statecraft in Africa affect U.S. national security.

“This was a topic I had not studied before,” said Courtney. “I was looking for a program that gave me high-level interactions with experts in the field of national security and foreign policy while teaching me how to think like an analyst to understand Chinese strategy on the continent. I already had a background in international relations theory from my B.A. and M.A., and I wanted practical insight.”

Studying at IWP while researching for the State Department

To support her work with the State Department, Courtney enrolled in IWP’s Certificate in National Security Affairs program.

“At IWP, all my professors had extensive experience in the field. It was insight from a practitioner’s perspective,” said Courtney.

Although there were no China classes offered during the semester she enrolled, Courtney took several related courses – foreign policy, counterintelligence, and U.S. national security – and made her research papers about China.

“It was the ideal situation of being inundated in topics of U.S. national security, combining it with my background on international affairs, while analyzing Chinese economic policy in Africa at work,” she said.

At IWP, all my professors had extensive experience in the field.

In Prof. Tsagronis’ class on U.S. National Security Strategy and Emerging Threats, the class examined the grand strategy of the U.S., China, Russia, and Iran. Courtney commented: “Grand strategy is about playing the long game. Successful world leaders must be able to see the future and create ways to reach those goals. During that class, thinking about China’s strategy, U.S. national security, and those two countries’ roles in their spheres of influence, fascinated me. And more importantly to ask: what kind of future is being created today?”

For that class, she wrote her final paper on American and Chinese grand strategy in the Indo-Pacific.

Meanwhile, at the State Department, Courtney became a trusted member of her small team of six who were studying China’s strategy in Africa. “I helped my supervisor learn about various topics and gave her relevant information as quickly as possible. I would help answer questions, like: What is China doing in Senegal? Who are the most influential people shaping China-Africa dialogue? Is there an update on this particular Belt and Road Initiative project? And I would help translate documents from French to English. I was proud that my supervisor trusted me with such responsibility.”

A longtime interest in international affairs

Originally from Los Angeles, Courtney fell in love with French history in elementary school and the French language in high school. “After high school, I was looking for any reason to get to France,” she said.

Soon, she was pursuing her B.A. in International Comparative Politics and M.A. at the American University of Paris amidst classmates from around the world. “We were learning about the Russo-Georgian War from our classmates who were from these countries. They each had different perspectives, which were different from the American perspective,” said Courtney. “Understanding how classmates from elsewhere view the same problem helps with creating multilateral solutions. Your perspective on any issue is always going to be on the global scale.”

Through this international lens, Courtney studied power politics and the role of diplomacy during her time in France. She also participated in a war simulation at the French War College, in which she acted in the role of a humanitarian advisor. “I was able to see how humanitarian organizations, NGOs, military, diplomats, and others came together to participate in a simulation, each with their different focuses.”

This simulation sparked her interest in international affairs, and she wanted to explore these issues on a more national level. This began during her first internship with the State Department, in which she studied Mandarin in China through the Critical Language Scholars program. Her second internship with the State Department focused on power politics in China, which led her to IWP.

An American point of view on international affairs

Throughout her studies, Courtney had been exposed to international viewpoints on international relations, and during her studies at IWP, Courtney was immersed in thinking about national security and foreign affairs from a uniquely American viewpoint.

She commented: “I had studied in China, France, and Russia. I knew how to examine an issue from their perspectives, but I had never studied the U.S.’ My time at IWP was an excellent way for me to learn how an American theorist would approach the same issue. If my classmates are having these conversations that are from this specifically American viewpoint, I’m sure the intelligence community, policymakers, etc., are approaching problems like this.”

All the theory in the world doesn’t prepare you for a role as an analyst.

Learning from practical experience

When asked what she would share with a student who was considering studying at IWP, Courtney responded, “I would tell them that all the theory in the world doesn’t prepare you for a role as an analyst. You need to know what the practicalities are. The strength of IWP is that they use the theories to apply from a practitioner’s role.”

“For example,” she continued, “When we talk about grand strategy in international relations, it is a grandiose word that academics like to throw around, but, in my course in national security and emerging threats, we sat down and thought like a national security advisor on the NSC [National Security Council] and examined what that means in quantitative and qualitative terms, and what we know and do not know. IWP provided a perfect balance of taking ideas and actions together.”

NATO West Team, Baltic Storm
Courtney Kelley with the NATO West Team during the Baltic Storm crisis simulation in February 2020.

Courtney and her team also had a practical learning experience during IWP’s Baltic Storm crisis simulation. She was part of the “NATO West” team, and she was giving a presentation to the national security advisors within the simulation. After the presentation, Prof. DiGruttolo – one of the advisors – asked whether the situation in the simulation was comparable to the Ukrainian situation in 2008 or the Georgian situation in 2014.

“We all paused,” said Courtney.

Prof. DiGruttolo explained that she was wondering if it was a situation involving covert operations as in Ukraine, or overt war as in Georgia.

“We were all standing there – we were supposed to be experts!” said Courtney. “We were all thinking quickly about what we knew about Russian history and the latest conflicts in Europe. We confidently gave the wrong answer.”

“Lesson learned! If you are a briefer in any role, you need to be prepared for the unexpected. If you know enough about your topic – Russia and covert operations, for instance – you need to know about the other times that Russia has done covert operations. Always see what else you need to know about your topic.”

The arts of statecraft

“There was another thing that fascinated me at IWP,” said Courtney. During her time at IWP, she had studied U.S.-NATO-Hague relations at the multi-national level, but she wanted to bring it down to bilateral relations.

She commented: “Courses analyzing U.S. national security with a focus on Russia, or analyzing intelligence policy while looking at Soviet and current Russian intelligence practices, deepened my understanding of disinformation. It gave me a bigger understanding of data privacy laws and Russian interference in cyber. With all these topics that were happening around us in the news, through the coursework in my courses on intelligence and policy and covert action, I was able to go past the headline and see the bigger issues that were at stake.”

Current and future work in international relations

Courtney is now completing her third internship with the State Department, this time in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. She and her team are analyzing human rights violations around the world, identifying perpetrators, and conducting political and legal analysis on whether people are indeed guilty of human rights violations and whether their visas should be revoked.

Her future goal is to become a diplomat with the State Department. Through her internships and discussions with IWP professors, she is currently interested in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, the Bureau of African Affairs, or in working in a legal capacity.

“My ultimate goal is a career in public service on an international scale,” she said.

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NATO West Team, Baltic Storm
Courtney Kelley with her team during the Baltic Storm crisis simulation in February 2020.