Pandemic politics: How the Future Strategy Forum amplifies the expertise of women

Pandemic politics: How the Future Strategy Forum amplifies the expertise of women

In a new International Affairs blog published here, Sara Plana and Rachel Tecott reflect on the work of the Future Strategy Forum (FSF). The FSF amplifies the voices of national security experts from under-represented backgrounds.

Medium | International Affairs Blog | Sara Plana and Rachel Tecott
Female military leader wearing Covid-19 protective mask
Sara Plana and Rachel Tecott
August 5, 2020
International Affairs Blog

The national security cadre [must] look more like America, to benefit from that diversity of opinion.  (The Honorable Michele Flournoy, former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy)

These words echo the sentiments of so many other national security experts across the political spectrum who recognize that bringing more diverse perspectives to the table is needed improve the creativity and quality of the United States’ foreign policy. However, while we have made progress, the voices of white men continue to dominate the field of international security in government and the academy.

The mission of the Future Strategy Forum (FSF) is to help change this status quo. FSF aims to advance intellectual discourse and improve US foreign policy by facilitating the entrance and elevation of under-represented voices. To that end, FSF amplifies the expertise of women, encourages and facilitates mentorship, and creates opportunities to bridge the academic-policy divide.

FSF is not alone in its missions and is proud to be a part of a family of like-minded organizations like International Affairs, Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security (WCAPS), NatSecGirlSquad, WomenAlsoKnowStuff and the Leadership Council for Women in International Security (LCWins). These initiatives, and others like them, show us daily that the field benefits when all voices are heard.

Today we are introducing the ‘Pandemic Politics’ series, where the International Affairs50:50 in 2020 initiative is partnering with the FSF to support its mission of amplifying the expertise of women and share the insights of PhD students on COVID-19 and grand strategy; the military; and democracy.

Where FSF began

FSF grew out of brainstorming sessions between us (the authors and co-founders of FSF) in our shared office space at MIT back in the fall of 2017. We developed a concept for a workshop in which women experts in international security would share their expertise to educate, inspire and mentor an audience of rising women scholars who might not otherwise have the opportunity to connect with them. Embracing our germ of an idea, Dr Kathleen Hicks, the director of the International Security Program at CSIS, encouraged us to ‘dream bigger’. Dr Hicks and CSIS joined forces with Dr Frank Gavin and the Kissinger Center at John Hopkins SAIS to jointly sponsor what became the FSF.

The FSF has since evolved to encompass three primary lines of effort: a public conference featuring all-women speakers; behind-the-scenes mentoring for PhD students interested in policy; and a publication series showcasing insights from junior scholars of international security. 

‘The Future of’ conferences

FSF’s pièce de résistance is an annual full-day public conference hosted by CSIS (under the leadership of Beverly Kirk, director of CSIS’s Smart Women Smart Power) that tackles pressing issues of international security. A key feature of these conferences is that they feature established and emerging women professors and policy-makers. We also make it a priority to extend a stipend to yearly cohorts of 20–25 largely PhD students from across the United States to ensure access to the conference for as many interested students as possible.

The inaugural FSF conference in 2018, The Future of Force, explored US strategy in the face of the changing character of international competition and warfare. It featured a five panel line-up of all-star speakers from universities, think-tanks, the military, and US Congress and Executive — all of them women. The conference culminated in a keynote panel featuring women at varying stages in their careers committed to bridging the academia-policy divide.

The 2019 FSF conference, The Future of Statecraft, examined the future of Great Power cooperation, international institutions and economic statecraft. It featured a keynote address by former US Ambassador to the United Nations and former National Security Advisor Susan Rice. To advance the FSF objective of amplifying new voices, FSF 2019 also featured the expertise of two exceptional graduate students — both with impressive careers before graduate school — Naima Green and Meg Guliford. FSF also featured a mentorship lunch for graduate students to chat with distinguished women from government, think-tanks, NGOs and universities.

We originally intended FSF 2020 to focus on the nexus of technology and national security. Like so much else, our plans changed with the arrival of COVID-19. Rather than simply move our original programming online, we instead focused FSF 2020 on the ongoing global pandemic. It became The Future of Cooperation and Conflict in the Time of COVID-19. There was a keynote conversation with Michele Flournoy and, as the conference took place during the global Black Lives Matter mobilization against police brutality, panellists rose to meet the moment, discussing the use (and misuse) of force at home and the inextricable links between racial injustice and US foreign policy. The conference featured three virtual panels exploring the implications of COVID-19 for grand strategy, for the military, and for democracy and governance. It is these three themes that the ‘Pandemic Politics’ collaboration between International Affairs and FSF explores.

What is next for FSF?

FSF has evolved its programming beyond the public conference, to advance our goals of promoting mentorship and bridging the academic–policy divide. Despite difficult circumstances, 2019–2020 was a year of remarkable growth for FSF. We welcomed Bridging the Gap as a new partner and expanded our graduate student management team. We also organized a series of virtual events for our 2020 cohort of 23 graduate students to meet and hear from distinguished women professors and practitioners, and will also debut two new (hopefully long-lasting!) initiatives to provide opportunities for junior academics to reach policy audiences through their writing. The first is this very blog series, ‘Pandemic Politics’, which features insights from 16 PhD students reacting to discussions with panelists in events and drawing from their own research and areas of expertise. Second, the Janne Nolan Prize for Best Article on National Security and International Affairs, generously sponsored by the Kissinger Center and Texas National Security Review, is a competition that rewards up to three of the best academic articles from early career scholars. Submit your own work to be considered here!

For the two of us, a central objective for FSF in the last year was (to risk a second Hamilton reference) to build something that would outlive us. FSF is an initiative created by graduate students and led by graduate students. To institutionalize this approach, we assembled a fantastic team of PhD students to take FSF forward into the future, each of them bringing innovative ideas for how FSF can grow and better serve policy and academia. We are proud to pass the baton to new leadership — Julie George, Suzanne Freeman, Eleanor Freund, Leah Matchett and Emma Cambell-Mohn. We cannot wait to see where they take FSF next and hope you enjoy reading all the blog pieces in this inaugural series on ‘Pandemic Politics’.

Sara Plana is a pre-doctoral fellow at the International Security Program at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and PhD candidate in Political Science at MIT. Her research examines proxy warfare, relationships between armed and security-sector organizations, civil-military relations, military operations and effectiveness, and civil wars.

Rachel Tecott is a pre-doctoral fellow at the Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University and a PhD candidate in Political Science at MIT. Her research examines US military strategy, civil-military relations and security force assistance.

In August, International Affairs has teamed up with the Future Strategy Forum for the ‘Pandemic Politics’ series on US politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. This series is made possible by The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and the Bridging the Gap Project (BtG).

This blogpost is part of the ‘Women, Gender and Representation in IR’ series International Affairs is curating as part of the 50:50 in 2020 initiative. If you are interested in engaging with this initiative or want to write a blogpost for this series, please email International Affairs’ Junior Editor Leah de Haan at

Find out more about the 50:50 in 2020 initiative here.