My Story By Cindy Vestergaard

Editor’s Note: My Story is an autobiographical series written by the experts and team at the nonpartisan Stimson Center. Each story details the people, places, and events that led the author to dedicate their career to resolving some of the world’s most pressing global challenges to peace and prosperity. We continue this series with the Director of Stimson's Nuclear Safeguards program Cindy Vestergaard.

My story begins in British Columbia, Canada during my second year of college...

Picking international relations as a major seemed the obvious choice. It was the 1990s and the possibilities seemed infinite. The Soviet Union had collapsed, Germany was reunifying, and new countries were being born. International negotiations on nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons kept Geneva’s Palais des Nations abuzz while a civil society movement led the way to a treaty banning landmines.

It was the decade of Nelson Mandela, Princess Diana, and Generation X. A decade shaped by the economic ‘peace dividend,’ third-wave feminism, Grunge music, and the World Wide Web.

Born in Canada to Danish parents, I watched the Europe my parents had grown up in rapidly change.

The European spine of the post-WWII order was shifting to a post-Cold War one. New nations broke out of Yugoslavia while the Treaty of Maastricht began forging an ever-closer European Union. There was a single market, Schengen, and an expanding NATO. The European political map was transforming (again). And for the masters, there was nowhere else I wanted to go.

I found myself particularly drawn to Hungary and its capital Budapest. From Magyars to Mongols and the Ottomans, from the Habsburgs to Soviets — I was fascinated by its layered history of migrations, revolutions and liberations. Upon independence, it made a seemingly smooth transition from goulash communism to liberal democracy. It had joined NATO, was on its way towards EU membership and was home to Central European University (CEU), a graduate-level university established in 1991. With a student body mostly from central and eastern Europe at the time, CEU offered an East-West mingling unlike anything Paris, Amsterdam, or London could.

Cindy was drawn to the history and culture of Budapest, where she studied at the prestigious Central European University and started her career as an intern at the Canadian Embassy.

After graduation, I was fortunate to land an internship at the Canadian embassy in Budapest.

The experience provided immediate exposure to the unfolding of events that still impact international relations today. By the following summer I had moved to Ottawa and joined the foreign ministry. After a few short months in the Landmines Division, I moved to the Global Partnership Program and Canada’s collaboration with Russia and countries of the former Soviet Union to secure and eliminate cold war stockpiles.

It was during those years that I came to fully appreciate the concept of ‘total war,’ the absurd notion of both sides preparing to unleash every nuclear, chemical or biological weapon in the toolbox (and bunker and basement) if the cold war turned hot.

After five Ottawa winters, I was ready to go back to Europe; this time to Denmark, my other home country (admittedly not the best for winters either; but more akin to Vancouver than Ottawa).

Cindy earned her PhD at the University of Copenhagen — continuing her work addressing evolving WMD threats

I joined the Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS) and re-engaged in an evolving Europe.

I completed a PhD at the University of Copenhagen. Afterwards, with the Governing Uranium project, the project's reach became global, touching even the Arctic, as discussions between Copenhagen and Nuuk gained momentum on the peaceful uses of Greenland’s uranium. In 2016, I hopped back across the pond and joined the Stimson team.

Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to have experienced different cultures and worked with dedicated individuals who continue to inspire. The drive is knowledge, to learn and reach new understandings.

Cindy presents research findings at the Moscow Nonproliferation Conference in 2014.

The biggest take away from the journey so far though, is that this Danish-Canadian gig is kinda cool, perhaps just a bit too Nordic weather cool. In the next lifetime, I’m coming back as a Brazilian-Australian.


Cindy Vestergaard is Director Nuclear Safeguards and Blockchain in Practice programs at the Stimson Center.

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