Dr Mara Tchalakov is a very recent graduate, having completed her DPhil in International Relations just last year. She came to Oxford to read the MPhil in IR, having completed her BA at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Prior to pursuing her graduate studies at DPIR, she worked at the US Departments of State and Defense, and in 2010-2011 she was deployed to Afghanistan with NATO's International Security Assistance Force. She is a former President of the Oxford University Strategic Studies Group, an officer in the United States Navy Reserve, and a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
We spoke to Mara about her research and what life has been like immediately after DPIR.
Your dissertation won last year’s Dasturzada Dr Jal Pavry Memorial Prize, which recognises theses on a subject in the area of international peace and understanding. What was your doctoral work on?
My dissertation, Minds at war: dual mindset theory and the psychology of Europe’s descent into the First World War, investigated the ways in which individuals contribute to war and peace decisions, particularly during moments of intense crisis. Unlike other international relations schools of thought that treat the state and its leadership as a “black box”, I remain convinced that individuals can and do matter. Specifically, I posited that the specific mindsets of individual leaders act as an intervening variable that can help to explain when and why states choose to go to war instead of prolonging negotiations, and vice versa. I applied this theory to the historical puzzle of why the First World War broke out when it did in July 1914, during a relatively calm period of European politics, and not in response to the Balkan crises of 1912-1913, when the continent appeared to be on the brink of international disaster. Although the assassination of Franz Ferdinand is often fingered for blame, I discovered that many of the decision-makers in July 1914 had actively participated in these earlier Balkan crises and their experiences were crucial to explaining a collective shift in mindset that occurred in response to the archduke’s assassination.
What did you do after graduating?
I joined the US Foreign Service, the diplomatic corps of the Department of State. I am a political officer by training (there are five specialties, or “cones”, in the Foreign Service) and I am assigned to the US Embassy in Nouakchott, Mauritania. I knew very little about the country before departing for post, although I think that will change for future generations of diplomats as the geostrategic importance of the Sahel becomes more pronounced.
What is a day in your life like in Mauritania?
Mauritania is about as far removed from the verdant cloisters of Oxford as one could possibly imagine. There are few paved roads where I live and goats often roam free in my neighbourhood – and seem to be in no particular hurry, complicating my commute. On a given day, I might be meeting with human rights activists or politicians in the morning and helping nongovernmental organisations like The Carter Center partner with local civil society groups on their election monitoring efforts in the afternoon. Mauritania just experienced its first democratic transition from one elected leader to another in its nearly sixty-year history. In between navigating the odd camel and the intense Nouakchott city traffic, I try to remember what a privilege it is to have this kind of a ringside seat to history.
What is the most significant thing you learned at Oxford that still influences you?
Read voraciously and fearlessly. Even if it is simply a peculiarity of British English, I love that one reads for a degree at Oxford. It evokes this marvellous image of plunging into a tottering pile of the greats with its corollaries of intellectual freedom and personal responsibility. I sorely miss afternoons spent reading in the Bodleian or at Blackwell’s café. There is a wonderfully stubborn quality about Oxford’s insistence on the solitary, immersive nature of reading in our increasingly fast-paced and interconnected world.
By far the second most significant thing I learned was how to serve and when to pair port versus sherry at a dinner (and how never to confound the two).
What’s next for you?
I’m thrilled to be heading to Berlin for my next diplomatic posting. I will arrive just before Germany’s next federal elections as the country – and the European continent – transitions to a post-Angela Merkel era. In the meantime, I get to spend a year learning German and indulging my love of Cold War-era spy novels. Next on my list is Ian McEwan’s The Innocent.
Looking back on your first year as an alumna, what advice would you give to this year’s graduates?
First, don’t feel obliged to pursue an academic career to make significant use of your academic degree from Oxford. Pursue what genuinely interests you and it will prove the best way to give back to the alma mater that has given you so much.
Second, cherish the friendships you made while at Oxford. These are the people who will rejoice and commiserate in your life triumphs and tribulations, and, chances are, they will span many continents and time zones upon graduation, so value the ready-made global network that Oxford provides!
Mara Tchalakov is an alumna of DPIR, currently working for the United States Foreign Service at the US Embassy in Mauritania