Renata Dwan, originally from Ireland, studied PPE at St Hugh’s, then the MPhil in IR at St Antony’s and finally the DPhil in IR, moving around colleges following work and scholarships, until her graduation in 1997. She held the Hedley Bull Junior Research Fellowship at St Anne’s and served as Women’s Advisor at Oriel. Her DPhil on French-American relations took her to Paris frequently as well as to Princeton University in the US as a Fulbright Scholar.
Where has your career path taken you after Oxford?
After my DPhil, I took a job working for the East-West Institute based in Budapest, Hungary, before joining Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) to head their programme on armed conflict and conflict management. Research there on policing in international peace operations led me to the European Union in 2002. I was seconded as an advisor to the EU for almost two years, helping plan, implement and establish the EU’s first crisis management operation in Bosnia.
In 2005, I joined the UN working on peace and security issues. I’ve worked in the field in Afghanistan, Syria, Haiti, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and have held a number of different positions at Headquarters, most recently, Head of Policy and Best Practices for UN peace operations in the Departments of Peacekeeping Operations and Field Support.
And where are you currently?
In March 2018, I took a new direction, taking up the position of Director of UNIDIR, the UN Institute for Disarmament Research, based in Geneva.
What interested you about disarmament research?
The world of arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament is where many of the questions in international relations are coming together in a very interesting way, and at a rapid pace. Can the post-World War II international order transition peacefully and can the mechanisms that have been put in place to regulate relations between states support this transition? Do we still have confidence in multilateral systems for arms control and disarmament, and are they still relevant for contemporary political and security issues and threats? Developments in technology, the changing nature of conflict, and changing attitudes and relationships between individuals, communities and states all have far- reaching consequences for how we think about and approach security and disarmament. The speed and sheer extent of technological change in particular is surpassing our ability to respond in terms of policies and actions. Technology is posing wide, rapidly evolving issues around security, weapons and arms – from missiles in space to automation of lethal weapons. And yet what I’ve been struck by is the relative continuity of thinking around political and security concepts, doctrines and policies.
There can be a bit of despair when it comes to thinking about these topics – and I would add, despair around multilateralism and international institutions in general – but we need new, engaged ideas and I very much hope that universities like Oxford will continue to work on these issues. I think multilateral organisations and solutions have never been more needed in a globalised interconnected world, and have never been more questioned.
What still influences you from your years in Oxford?
The emphasis in the English school of International Relations on the importance of knowledge of the area, the country or the region that you’re working on. The longer I’ve worked in multilateral organisations, and in particular the UN, I really have come to value that if you don’t come to work with a spirit of inquiry and understanding of the context and history that shapes a place, it’s very difficult to work effectively. That has and continues to shape my world view.
I was also influenced by having so many women to look up to in the Department. My DPhil supervisor was Anne Deighton, and she was a great supervisor and one of many great female role models I had at Oxford. I felt supported as a woman. I feel very grateful for this as it’s not the case everywhere and it’s not always very easy for women working in international relations.
What is a favourite memory from your first year at Oxford?
I remember being really inspired at Matriculation by the Vice-Chancellor’s words, the notion that Oxford is a place where ideas could be expressed and where ideas from different and diverse perspectives were invited and respected. It strikes me as all the more pertinent for today. It’s one of the things which I always admired about Oxford, that commitment to both preserving the space for respectful debate and to really advancing the notion of ideas.
And a best bit from your DPhil?
The incredible atmosphere in St Antony’s bar at night! People worked very hard, late into the night, but then we would come together for a glass of wine, and it was such a wonderful sense of people sharing ideas and what they were working on – it was intellectually inspiring and full of interesting conversation.
Finally, what advice would you give to fellow alumni, particularly women who are looking to work in international relations?
First, find a mentor. I think it’s very important to find other women with whom you can sound out ideas and from whom you can seek support.
Second, be prepared to take chances. If an opportunity comes up, say a one-year posting in a foreign country, consider taking it - even if you don’t know what the next step will be.
Third, don’t feel you need to have ‘a plan’. You enter in one door without knowing what others it will open. You have to be prepared that a career in international relations is not a structured process, and be open to moves that sometimes seem parallel or even non-linear.
Fourth, be mobile. It doesn’t suit everybody, but if you can and are willing, try living in different countries. It’s an experience that will enrich you not just professionally but personally as well.
Renata Dwan is Director of the UN Institute for Disarmament Research