Amidst the beauty of the campus, the excitement of the sporting events, and the talented faculty, staff, and students, an undergraduate career at Duke can be consuming. There is always something to see or someone to meet. However, when Craig Cohen (PPS’96) arrived on campus in the mid-90s, he wasn’t content with seeing Duke Chapel and attending basketball games. He was always globally minded, and Sanford was the gateway to see the world.
Cohen found that gateway in the Fall of 1995 when he took “Contemporary Issues in Public Policy” with Robert “Bob” Korstad. Through that course, Cohen understood that Sanford's Hart Leadership Program could make his enthusiasm for history and foreign policy tangible Hart allowed him to experience the direct impact of foreign policies in (former) Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Malawi, culminating in a transformative experience working with families devastated by catastrophic events. Cohen recently documented those travels with Hart in an essay here.
Almost three decades later, Cohen is now the executive vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a globally-focused think tank based out of Washington, DC. In fact, the Hard Leadership Program continues to be, at least tangentially, a part of Cohen's career, as the benefactors of the Hart Leadership Program -Mitch and Linda Hart- are also trustees of CSIS.
Previously, Cohen has served as deputy chief of staff and as a fellow in the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project of the CSIS International Security Program. He was co-director of the CSIS Commission on Smart Power and directed research on Pakistan, authoring A Perilous Course: U.S. Strategy and Assistance to Pakistan (CSIS, August 2007). He is also the author of Measuring Progress in Reconstruction and Stabilization Operations (U.S. Institute of Peace, April 2006) and served in 2006 as an adjunct professor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. Before joining CSIS, Mr. Cohen worked with the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations in Rwanda, Azerbaijan, Malawi, and the former Yugoslavia.
As an experienced policy professional, Craig Cohen has worked in various policy environments worldwide. This exposure to diverse settings has given Cohen a sense of how things look on the ground and how complex the issues can be. In his current role at CSIS, he is proud of the collaborative efforts that have made it a successful organization. The work produced by the think tank positively impacts policymaking across a range of issues. Looking to the future, Cohen believes that the choices made in public policy over the next few years will shape the direction of the 21st century.
In a recent conversation, Cohen spoke of his time at Sanford and his career since.
What is the most fascinating work or highlight so far in your career?
I was fortunate to have worked in a number of interesting policy environments overseas at the beginning of my career—Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, Malawi, Azerbaijan, and Pakistan. This work gave me an important sense of how things 'on the ground' can look different and more complex than those from Washington or a university setting. At CSIS I've had the privilege to work with a number of former policy and business luminaries, as well as current and future stars. I find it fascinating to see how these people approach problems and I try to learn from them. This time spent overseas and in close proximity to amazing people stands out as the highlight of my career so far.
What are you most proud of?
I never aspired to run a think tank, but as executive vice president of CSIS I function as if I'm the GM of a sports team. I get to work with the CEO and board on long-term strategy. I help recruit our top scholars. I oversee the financial side of operations and design strategies for how to allocate resources. I'm integrally involved in our outreach strategy and how we achieve impact. All the big problems end up on my desk and I try to chart our way through those. It's a very collaborative job—with leadership, the administrative team, our scholars, and ops. I'm proud of how CSIS has done over the last decade and the direction it's heading as one of the top national security think tanks in the world.
What is a story/example you tell others about the importance of the work you do?
Everything's relative, right? My wife's work is far more important so my kids love to tease me about that. No one wakes up needing a study from a think tank. But I do believe that the work we produce has a positive effect on U.S. policymaking across a range of issues from China strategy to public health to cyber. A lot of this is behind the scenes and based on relationships. I know we have played a stabilizing, bipartisan force at a time when our politics are pulling us apart.
Why does public policy matter in 2023 and beyond? How has it evolved?
The stakes seem so much higher now, don't they? When I came out of school, the Cold War was over and there was this sense that problems that seemed impossible to solve could finally be addressed through global cooperation. It felt like American leadership was welcomed in so many parts of the world. Perhaps that was just an illusion, but that was the feeling at the time. It feels very different now. The U.S.-led order is eroding, democracy seems to be on the run in too many places, we still don't seem to be adequately organized to address problems that cross borders like pandemics or humanitarian challenges, and great power competition is back in a big way. Plus, we can't seem to find a common view of the problems let alone solutions at home. The policy choices we will make over the next several years will really set the direction for the rest of the 21st century. When you look back throughout history, there were these important moments when the United States was blessed with leaders who led us through turbulent times. We certainly need leaders like this now.
What is one highlight memory you have at at Sanford?
I had a fabulous experience at Duke and at Sanford. I had a freshman seminar on contemporary issues in public policy with Bob Korstad that I just loved. I remember debating in class about what the U.S. ought to do to stop the Serbian bombing of Bosnia. In some ways, it echoes debates at present about how best to stop the Russian bombing of Ukraine. I remember Claudia Koonz encouraging me to do an oral history project on Bosnian refugees instead of book research, which terrified me at the time. I remember the opportunities the Hart Leadership Program provided me early in my career through Kirk Felsman to go to Rwanda. I know that is more than one positive memory, but there are so many.
What would you say to a current student at Sanford – a word of advice or something you wish you knew when you were graduating?
My best advice would be to try to put yourself in interesting situations surrounded by interesting people. I think that's when we learn the most, especially early in our careers.
Terry Sanford implored students to ‘stand for something.’ What do you stand for?
I believe in the power of ideas. I love the fact that just about every major change in the human condition and human understanding began in someone's mind as an idea. I suppose that's why I'm at a think tank.
What is the most important skill that policy students should learn?
Humility. It's really easy to trick ourselves into thinking we understand more than we do. Many of the major problems we've gotten into as a country have resulted from a lack of humility, in my opinion.
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