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Kathleen McInnis always knew she would find herself in the policy world but the precise destination changed frequently.
On this week’s episode of Women of Washington, host Gigi Schumm welcomed McInnis, an international security specialist for the Congressional Research Service — where she works to help Congress address national security and defense strategy issues. McInnis is also a nonresident senior fellow with the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.
She has experience with the Pentagon, Center for Strategic and International Studies and has traveled all over the world. To top it off, she is the author of “The Heart of War: Misadventures in the Pentagon.”
McInnis’ decision to join the federal workforce was natural and not entirely unexpected. An only child, she lived with her family on military bases around Washington, D.C., and abroad, as her father was a civilian. Moving around helped McInnis develop the ability to adapt to different circumstances.
“I think it was an experience that forces you to build empathy quickly. It helps you operate in different contexts and in different cultures,” she said. “And as an international security specialist, it helped me in two ways.”
Many of her classmates had parents who were stationed in the Balkans or in Iraq, and overflights were common where she was living. She said they were constantly surrounded by these operations and growing up around that made her interested in what they meant, especially for the families.
“If we’re going to be doing international security operations, if we’re going to be operating globally, we’re going to be doing military operations, let’s make sure we have good strategy,” she said. “Let’s make sure that we think through the implications. That was the major inspiration for me.”
It wasn’t until one of her professors introduced her to the world of security studies that she truly found her passion. Still, she said she knew where the path seemed to be leading her ever since her junior year of high school.
Knowing exactly what you want to do is the first step but it does not guarantee a perfect position straight out of college. McInnis said she worked for Parliament, a think tank and the International Institute for Strategic Studies while abroad in London pursuing her masters degree.
Lessons learned, lessons taught
When McInnis returned to the U.S., she took a job with the Center for Strategic and International Studies as the coordinator of the project on nuclear issues. After studying the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and transatlantic relations for most of grad school, she said the transition to CSIS wasn’t necessarily easy.
“I [ended] up in this job on nuclear weapons and I could barely spell deterrence. So it was very much a fish-out-of-water kind of story,” she said. “But it was fascinating. I took the job because it forced me to learn a new issue area. And frankly, that has been an enormously formative experience for me because … nuclear weapons, an understanding of deterrence dynamics and those sorts of things is really foundational for a lot of other issues that we look at.”
She said her job of international security is both technical and political in nature. It requires understanding how humans make decisions to trust each other if in extreme circumstances, or not trust each other, to cooperate to reduce arms to compete and do arms-buildups.
McInnis said she was lucky that she loved subjects across the spectrum from science and math to art and literature.
“I’ve always been the story of person that tries to bring both sides together and bring that into my analysis,” she said. “That’s why I wrote the book that I did. It’s a different way to understand international security issues.”
Her novel focuses mainly Dr. Heather Riley who loses her brother in Afghanistan during the war and is forced to join the government in order to pay off her loans. Through her experience, she realizes that the Pentagon isn’t just a “war-machine,” but is filled with people who are providing their service to the country and there she finds her own call to service.
It is in some ways loosely based off her own experience working within the Defense Department. Though, as she said, her work was mostly analytical.
“I wanted to find a way to walk people through the crazy experience of what the Pentagon is like, what it feels like to walk down the halls [and] what it feels like to be in a pressure cooker of a situation … how the Pentagon is almost a character in and of itself and the sacrifices that people have to make,” she said. “These aren’t easy jobs and you’re expected to work very long hours, so work-life balance fails off. And again, finding a way to explore this in a way that audiences could walk in her shoes and bring their own experiences and reflections.”
But one of her hobbies now is cooking, and she’s a “throw things together” kind of person. Hosting dinner parties is one of her specialties. She said some of her own recipes have been a “debacle,” but the experimentation is fun.
Life is a lot like a recipe. You have to try new things to really understand who you are. And much of her resilience comes from the lessons she had to learn in her career.
“I would love to be able to tell my younger self that it’s okay to be imperfect, especially as I was getting started in my career [with a] hypersensitivity that I had to be on point all the time,” McInnis said. “Any failure at all was so cringeworthy and it was so deeply personal and it [was] almost debilitating. Working through that and getting older, I realized that actually my flaws and imperfections, just like anybody, they can also be our greatest strengths.”
So if she didn’t work for the federal government, what would McInnis do?
“I always said I’d love to be a florist because flowers make people happy,” she said. “But I think [I’d be] a novel writer. I’m so fortunate to be able to do both things that I love at the same time.”
She said there are plenty of stories to tell about the national security world, and another book could be in the works.
Dr. McInnis spoke to us in her private capacity. Any views expressed are not necessarily those of the Congressional Research Service or the United States Government. McInnis is also a former employee of the Pentagon.
Gigi Schumm welcomes Washington's most ambitious and influential female executives to share their secrets to success. Contact Gigi at firstname.lastname@example.org. Subscribe to Women of Washington’s audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.