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My Cambridge International Security and Intelligence Program Experience

By Ensign Justine A. Ransdell

From July to August 2021, after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy, I was fortunate enough to attend the Cambridge Security Initiative’s (CSI) International Security and Intelligence (ISI) program with a scholarship provided by the Naval Intelligence Professionals. As I progress through my initial schooling and begin my Naval Intelligence career, I often reflect on the knowledge I gained through attending the ISI program. The program provided me with experience and perspectives that I draw on daily, and I believe I will continue to draw on these lessons throughout my career. 

The ISI program, usually held in person at Magdalene College, Cambridge, United Kingdom, was held virtually last summer, and in many ways, the virtual environment was better because it made it easier for students from around the world to attend. Forty-five students were accepted to the 2021 program, all with very diverse backgrounds. Attendees ranged from current college students pursuing bachelor’s to doctorate degrees to professionals in multiple fields, including diplomats, businessmen, translators, government employees, and authors. These attendees came from Egypt, Pakistan, the United Kingdom, Finland, France, Australia, Morocco, and more, and varied in age from 19 to more than 40 years old. The only servicemembers there were a former German army officer, a current captain in the U.S. Army, and me. 

I found the diversity both in background and thought of this group of people to be one of the most valuable aspects. I had never before been in an environment in which discussions presented such differences in ideas and beliefs, and although it did not change any of my core beliefs or values, it did allow me to be introduced to and understand different ways of thinking and viewing the world. It was interesting, as an American servicemember, political science enthusiast, and one who has viewed China’s rise on the world stage with suspicion for years, that a large portion of my peers viewed the United States’ place in the world, China’s recent actions and goals, and other aspects of the international system differently and sometimes the opposite of how I viewed them. My discussions with my peers on the topic of China made me realize that there is a large amount of incredibly smart, successful, and educated people that consider China to be merely a state whose goal is to make more money and help others make more money, rather than a country with its eyes on global hegemony. Realizing this seemed to be a commonly shared view was a shock to me and helped me better understand how and what other people in the world think—and understanding other people has always been an interest of mine. 

Beyond learning about other perspectives through the ISI program, I also gained practical knowledge about intelligence and international relations that will almost certainly benefit me throughout my career as a Naval Intelligence officer. First, the program attendees were required to do an extensive guided research project, from which I personally gained a lot of knowledge. My research project focused on the effect of the China-Iran 25-Year Strategic Partnership on the United States’ Iran foreign policy, so I learned a great deal about China-Iran cooperation, particularly regarding the economy via Belt and Road Initiative projects and increased combined military training and intelligence sharing. Beyond this, I learned about intelligence in an academic sense. Most notably, I became aware of the importance of including open-source intelligence when doing analysis (as is reportedly common across the intelligence community) and the difference in how the UK and United States approach intelligence, which will be helpful considering the UK is our closest ally. Understanding how the UK approaches intelligence could allow me to work with British colleagues better in the future. We also discussed current issues such as intellectual property theft and foreign social media disinformation campaigns. The ISI program taught me lessons on a vast array of topics concerning intelligence and international security, making me a more knowledgeable and well-rounded individual. 

I am incredibly grateful to have been able to participate in the Cambridge ISI program. As I move forward in my career and do my best to lead sailors and be the best Naval Intelligence officer I can be, I know I will use what I learned and continue to benefit from the experience and growth in perspective I gained through this opportunity.