Clements Center
Clements Center

Clements Funding Recipient Alexandra Shishkova talks about her internship at the State Department

Jul 18, 2016

The Clements Center's Student Professional Development Fund enables UT undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to intern at some of the top governmental and non-governmental organizations across the world by providing monetary support for unpaid positions. 

 This summer, the Center funded thirteen students and here is Alexandra Shishkova's story.

"During the summer of 2016, the Clements Center funded me to intern in Washington, D.C. at the U.S. Department of State. In order to put my internship into context, let me first explain the general structure at the State Department. At the specific level there exist a plethora of offices that manage particular policy issues or diplomatic missions; these offices fall within more general bureaus that can be either functional (domestic) or regional (international); and the bureaus are grouped into families led by an Under Secretary who reports to the Secretary of State. My assignment was with the Office of the Biological Policy Staff (BPS) within the (functional) Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, which is in the T-Family led by the Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Affairs.

The BPS Office manages the negotiation of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), and I got to take part in their preparation for the Eighth Review Conference of the BWC to be held in Geneva in November of this year. The BWC is a multilateral disarmament treaty banning the development, production and stockpiling of biological and toxin weapons and on their destruction. 2015 marked the 40th anniversary of the BWC, which entered into force in the U.S. on March 26, 1975. Why the BWC really matters, however, is because it has set a very strong international norm against the state pursuit of offensive biological and toxin weapons programs to wage war by disease, and because of the BWC it is understood that such an abhorrent endeavor will not be tolerated by the security community worldwide.

What I did as a State intern would fall under the general umbrella of policy analysis. For example, I was responsible for taking apart the statements countries had submitted to the UN and organizing them into matrices and charts to look for patterns that could help the U.S. delegation form negotiating strategies. For another project, I interviewed country experts and researched the countries that have not yet joined the BWC in order to compose strategy documents on how to best target our outreach to them.

Interning in an office that oversees a treaty is in my opinion the best way to develop policy analysis skills because all of the negotiations come down to language and exactly how ideas are phrased. I learned that in treaty negotiations, countries submit working papers and then negotiate at conferences over whose words will make it into the resulting final document. Sometimes years of preparation goes into this “agreed language” because the best policy language is highly strategic in nature, and it ideally gives the author some sort of leverage.

The best part of my experience has been how involved I was throughout the internship. What I mean by that is from day one, I was treated as if I were really a State Department employee. I represented my office and the State Department at interagency meetings and conferences, I attended a week-long training session with long-time federal employees in security fields and I was trusted to provide technical analysis and strategic policy ideas to assist the U.S. delegation in their plans and prospects for the upcoming Review Conference.

On a related note, the State Department is a mind-blowingly inspiring place to work. My building had seven floors of offices with some of America’s most exceptional thinkers, writers and communicators—any policy interest I could think of, I could easily search the directory and find a genius diplomat who works on that issue. And because the State employees respected me despite the fact that I was an intern, they would really take time out of their extremely busy schedules to have a coffee chat with me.

The biggest challenge I had to overcome during my internship was my naivety in thinking diplomacy was about working together to come up with a solution for the greater good. I quickly learned that the goal of a diplomat is always to protect the interests of his or her country. The problem that my office dealt with—nonproliferation of biological weapons—can be seen through so many different lenses, but I had to see from the perspective of a diplomat protecting U.S. interests. I found it difficult to balance a genuine desire to promote the worthy goals of the Convention, which has successfully restricted the development of an entire category of cruel and unusual weapons of mass destruction, with the strategic need to leverage what is best for the U.S. at the end of the day. But it can be a lot of fun, too. Other countries also have the same responsibilities to protect their interests, so there is sometimes a joking relationship between delegations as they are making it extremely difficult for each other to move forward. So I hope that does not dissuade anyone from pursuing an internship or career in diplomacy because this has been an incredible opportunity!"

Alexandra is a student at the LBJ School of Public Affairs.