In Pursuit of the Whole Story

A conversation with incoming United States Department of State Fellow Dr. Robin Brooks
A headshot of Robin Brooks in front of the American flag and a blue background.

Dr. Robin Brooks, incoming State Department Fellow at The Fletcher School, says there are two ways to decipher global affairs: theory and practice. For her, the best practitioners operate at the intersection of the two.

Brooks will join Fletcher in fall 2024, bringing extensive experience in the field. During her fellowship, she will engage in campus life and teach a course on diplomatic statecraft. She is a foreign service officer with the United States Department of State and most recently served as Special Advisor to Vice President Kamala Harris for Europe, Russia, Multilateral Affairs, and Democracy, and previously was the National Security Council Director for the Balkans and Central Europe. She has also taught at Sofia University in Bulgaria and Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. The interplay of these aspects of her career enhances all of her work.

Practical Training on the Global Stage

Brooks grew up with a strong interest in global affairs, which became much more acute during a German language immersion summer camp she attended in high school. The Berlin Wall had fallen, and counselors began coming from East Germany.

“It was fascinating to meet these counselors from East Germany,” said Brooks. “We heard their life experiences behind the Iron Curtain, the transition, the euphoria, and the challenges that came along with it.”

With a powerful interest in human rights and democratic institutions as well as a “strange obsession with countering kleptocracy,” Brooks attended college and studied international affairs. One of her professors was an expert on Bulgaria and led Brooks to a summer program studying politics and culture there. From the beginning, Brooks was focused on human rights, and throughout her career has remained committed to the issue. As she began her work in the Foreign Service in the early 2000s, she chose positions where she could support the consolidation of democratic institutions and rule of law.

“I really did care about making sure that the political transitions in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union were fair, just, and transparent and were contributing to better societies,” she said.

Her first assignment was with the U.S. Mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and she was delighted to have the opportunity to work on these issues in a hands-on way.

“When you study political science, you study something that isn’t really how politics works in reality,” she said. “You study an ideal type.”

“When you're working in government, theory is like another planet, but it is good to have the experience from both sides because they speak to each other,” she added. “If you know the theory, you see the bigger picture and make better policy decisions. When you're teaching, having seen something in action — knowing how it really works — helps you open the black box and understand what drove the policymaking decisions or how we as academics can shape policy better.”

A Practitioner’s Course

During her fellowship at Fletcher, Brooks will bring this multifaceted perspective to bear on a real-world case. Serbia won the rights to host the World’s Fair in 2027. Brooks plans to lead her students in writing a report for the Serbian Chamber of Commerce on how to ensure the project, its related infrastructure, and the fair itself remain committed to transparency, rule of law, human rights, labor rights, environmental protection, and Serbia’s European Union ascension goals.

“When you're building big infrastructure anywhere in the world, there’s always the potential for there to be some level of corruption, pressure to choose a certain vendor, for money to change hands to circumvent environmental or construction standards, or whatever it may be,” said Brooks.

Simultaneously, her professional perspective has trained her to interrogate the discussion surrounding corruption.  

“It's really easy to say that some political phenomenon in some country in Europe is a result of Russian disinformation or foreign malign influence meddling in this country's domestic politics,” said Brooks.

“While there often is an element of that, I also think it's not the whole story,” she added. “One reason that we fail to effectively and successfully address and counter it is because we see it only as foreign malign influence. We don't see it as something even more parochial, because often it is simply a result of a lack of transparency and weak rule of law.”

She identifies simpler, more economic explanations for these problems, such as corruption in media ownership, financial relationships with foreign countries, or individuals who are lining their own pocketbooks.

This same outlook has informed her understanding of several issues in the region. While many feared the role of European dependency on Russian gas after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Brooks believed the issue was not so complex.

“When we addressed the problems related to Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas in terms of some intentional Russian malign influence project, we got the response wrong and were not as effective as we could have been,” she said. “When we instead have conversations about the harmful impact of corrupt financial interests, the importance of democratic institutions, and the need to protect our environment, we find solutions other than replacing one Russian fossil fuel project with a Western one. Instead, we come up with sustainable alternatives that also contribute to good governance.” 

Theory for Lifelong Practitioners

Brooks says that a global affairs degree has immense value in the global political and economic ecosystem.

“Before we enter any kind of economic or commercial relationship with another country, we have to know that there’s regulation that ensures food safety or product safety, that our products weren't built with forced or child labor, or in a way that destroyed the environment,” she said. “I think that's how we raise the bar for everyone, and it's how we ensure that American workers are protected.”

“We need people who understand that at a theoretical and academic level in policy, business, and our civil society to inform the discourse,” she added. “That helps us come to the right decisions and take the right actions as a country that contribute ultimately to our own national security and to the security and prosperity of the American people.”

Read more about Fletcher’s international security field of study.