5 Questions with Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins, New Senior Fellow in Global Policy

October 22, 2020
Head shot of Bonnie Jenkins
Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins has joined the Humphrey School as a senior fellow in global policy.

The Humphrey School of Public Affairs is pleased to welcome Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins as a senior fellow in the School’s global policy area.

Jenkins, a former State Department official and expert on assessing global threats from nuclear weapons to global health, will hold the position on a part-time basis for the next two years. She’ll conduct seminars, engage with students and student organizations, and may teach courses on global security. 

Dean Laura Bloomberg says Jenkins will be a “tremendous asset” to the Humphrey School. 

“Ambassador Jenkins first met with Humphrey School global policy students in the fall of 2019 and I was so impressed with her ability to paint a picture for them of what U.S. foreign policy and international relations can look like when one is in the thick of it,” Bloomberg says. “She shares her experiences in a very human manner that enables our students to dream big and to envision themselves in these roles.” 

During eight years in the Obama administration, Jenkins was coordinator for Threat Reduction Programs in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, and took the lead in the launch and implementation of the Global Health Security Agenda. 

Since leaving the federal government, Jenkins founded and directs Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security and Conflict Transformation (WCAPS). She is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and an adjunct professor at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. 

Prior to 2009, Jenkins worked at the Ford Foundation as a program officer for U.S. foreign and security policy. She is a retired Naval Reserves officer.

We asked Jenkins about her new role at the Humphrey School, and the major issues that present a threat to international security. Her responses have been edited for length and clarity.

1. What is your biggest passion right now?
My biggest passion is continuing to lead the organization (WCAPS) that I started three years ago. That’s both a passion and an obligation. The challenges of running an organization, trying to make it grow, and the different facets of running it— that uses all parts of my brain. It’s a challenge that keeps me going. 

My other passion is continuing my work finding ways to deal with global challenges like weapons of mass destruction and infectious diseases. It's a passion of mine to teach the next generation why they should care about these things, why they should think about how we address these things, why it’s important to have the average person doing what he or she can. We can’t leave it to the government, because we’re all a part of the solution. I enjoy engaging students to help them not only understand why it’s important, but also for them to tell their friends about why it's important, and to help educate others about some of these big challenges that we face and that they’re going to be dealing with in the future. 

2. What do you hope to pass along to Humphrey School students? 
COVID-19 is a reality check for everyone, especially young people who have to make changes in their lives and their academic experiences because of it. It's a wakeup call that highlights the need to learn how to adapt. It's one thing to talk about infectious disease and challenges if you're not in it. It’s another thing when you’re in a situation like this. ‘OK, now I can understand, now it makes more sense, now I can see how this relates to other things.’  So using this experience to help them understand what living in the 21st century is like, and encouraging them to take advantage of this lived  experience. 

I'm all about dealing with threats. My background is in weapons of mass destruction, and I have worked on issues of terrorism and infectious disease. But because of the things I’ve done in my life, my perspective is broad on issues of international security. So my experience can help them understand that. 

The other aspect of my role is career guidance. What are the challenges in making a career in foreign policy or diplomacy or international security? I can bring my experiences to students about those things. There are other parts of the School that I may get involved in, doing work on gender issues, for example. 

3. As founder of Women of Color Advancing Peace, Security and Conflict Transformation, why is it important to attract women of color into global policy work? 
If you look at what’s going on with COVID-19, African Americans are being more impacted. If you look at things like food security, water security, climate change—studies show that people of color are impacted the most by those challenges. It’s happening in parts of the world like Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East. If you look at America, what’s going on in Flint, Michigan [with its lead-contaminated water supply], what’s happening with COVID-19, it’s women of color who are mostly impacted. So since we are the ones who are mostly impacted, we should certainly be at the table to discuss what kind of policies we’re going to adopt to address these issues—and we're not there. We need to have more voices at the table.

I started this organization three years ago to help diversify the voices of women of color in peace and security discussions, deliberations and decision-making, to try and ensure that policies are much more representative of all America. The fact is that women of color bear the brunt of the impact when there’s a lack of peace and security. 

Within that, WCAPS is looking at ways to strengthen the pipeline [of women of color who are experts], hosting programs on issues like climate change, cybersecurity, infectious disease, or international development. 

4. From your expertise on the threats caused by infectious disease, what is your assessment of how the United States is handling the pandemic?
What surprises me is the magnitude of the crisis, and our inability to deal with it. In all the discussions I’ve had about infectious diseases prior to this, I thought the U.S. would be better prepared and better at testing and responding. Infectious disease happens all the time, but we don’t always hear about it because it doesn’t always get to a level of this magnitude. It's a phenomenon that we have to learn to live with. You can't be prepared for every disease, but I thought that our response would have been better in how we handle it as a culture, seeing how bad we are versus other countries. There's a lot for us to learn from this experience. 

5. What other challenges in the global policy arena should we be concerned about? 
There’s climate change, there’s biodiversity, warming oceans, food and water security; a lot of those issues are connected. There are a lot of things happening that are not getting a lot of attention. There are many issues that we can’t seem to fix. As I see how the U.S. is dealing with COVID-19 I don't have a lot of hope for us dealing with other disasters. We are culturally challenged. I’m not going to say that we’re worse than everybody else, but I think that we have seen that we're just not that good at it. Other countries are much better at handling these crises. The U.S. is built on a culture of capitalism, where money is more important than anything. That’s a problem when you’re trying to deal with these collective good issues. We as a culture prioritize things that are not necessarily going to be helpful in the long run. So we need to really think about how we can be better.