Q&A with Meghan O'Sullivan

| Spring 2023

Meghan O’Sullivan, the Jeane Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs and Director of the Center’s Geopolitics of Energy project, will become Belfer Center Director on July 1, 2023. As she prepares for this transition, Communications Associate Director Sharon Wilke asked her to share her thoughts on the Belfer Center and what she sees as its greatest strengths, why she decided to take on the leadership role, and how she hopes to build on the Center’s strengths and impact in the near and distant future. 

SW:  As you prepare to take the reins as Belfer Center Director this coming summer, you are undoubtedly reflecting on the Center’s past strengths and accomplishment along with your hopes for the Center in the future. Having been part of the Center and Kennedy School for 15 years—and with significant government and policy experience—what qualities do you think make the Center unique and effective? 

MO:  “The faculty, staff, and students are extraordinary. Their intelligence and commitment to public policy and scholarship are the foundations for everything we do. Add to that strength our larger environment. We sit at the center of one of the world’s greatest universities. Our ability to draw on the talents of our colleagues outside of Belfer and even the Kennedy School enables us to do work that is at the intersection of disciplines, which is where the most interesting and consequential work is being done today.

In addition, the ‘alumni’ of the Belfer Center are impressive and span agencies and institutions in Washington and in dozens and dozens of capital cities around the world. This very large network of policymakers who have spent some of their formative years at the Belfer Center helps us get our ideas to the people who can turn those ideas into action—and helps ensure that we are working on the most pressing problems of our times.”

SW:  You arrived at the Center in 2008 after having served a number of years in government. What motivated you to choose the Belfer Center at that time? 

MO:  “I arrived at Harvard Kennedy School in the fall of 2007, initially as a fellow at the Institute of Politics. At the time, I was emerging from many years working in the White House, Pentagon, and State Department on Iraq and Afghanistan, including two years on the ground in Iraq. I didn't know what I wanted to do, but I didn't think I wanted to be an academic. I had been at the center of action for awhile—maybe too much action, but action just the same. I didn't quite imagine that I could recalibrate to what I perceived would be a more sleepy existence as an academic. 

But then I came to the Kennedy School and I saw that it didn't have to be sleepy in the world of academia, that it could be exciting and it could be challenging. And it's in this context that I began to explore and build relationships with the Belfer Center. And then I got a great piece of advice from someone who said, “When you're thinking about what you're going to do next, be sure to place yourself in an environment that values the currency upon which you want to be evaluated.”  

For me, that currency is one of ideas. And what better place to be than at the Belfer Center if ideas are the currency you want to trade in.”

SW:  In recent years, there have been a number of changes in the world relating to energy and geopolitics. You have contributed extensively to the dialogue around energy transitions and their global impacts. As you think about the future of the Belfer Center, how important do you think this issue area will be and how might the Center be involved?  

MO:  “The energy transition will, in many ways, be at the heart of what the Belfer Center does going forward. Not everyone here will be working on the energy transition, but I firmly believe the energy transition is going to be the context in which we all do a lot of our work. 

The last century has seen several events that have been big geopolitical upsets, whether it's 9/11 or COVID, or the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The energy transition is going to dwarf all of these in the way it restructures international affairs. “Are we going to get to net zero?” is an important question. But the actions that international actors are taking to try to get to net zero are going to reshape the global landscape regardless of the answer to that question.” 

SW:  What led to your decision to say yes to Dean Elmendorf’s offer to lead the Belfer Center? And as you make plans for the Center as its new director, can you give us an idea of your thinking about the future of the Center?

MO:  “I spoke a little earlier about what makes the center unique. So when Dean Elmendorf approached me, I very much had the people of the Belfer Center in mind as well as the mission of Belfer and the Kennedy School, the Center’s legacy of consequence, and the potential for impact going forward. 

Although I have not yet started in the new role, I am in the process of consulting many within Belfer and outside it. Several themes are emerging as being highly consequential for the coming decades, and I hope to work with my colleagues to align the work of the Center in the context of those big trends.

The first and perhaps most obvious is the great power competition that is now the dominant dynamic in the international system. We are now in a world in which the tension between the United States and China in particular has fundamentally altered the space in which many seemingly unrelated issues will unfold.  The second theme of great consequence is the interaction between technology and geopolitics. Ash was a true expert on this intersection and—as a center for science and international affairs—we are well-positioned to carry on his work. Technology is shaping geopolitics—and it's clear to me that geopolitics are also shaping technology. And finally, as I have said, the energy transition is going to be the context in which all of our work on other issues is being done, so a better understanding of it will be central to our work.   

Fortunately, as we seek to make defining contributions in these areas, we can draw not only on the expertise in the Belfer Center today, but also on the expertise of our many colleagues throughout Harvard and around the world.”


For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

"Q&A With Meghan O'Sullivan," Belfer Center Newsletter. Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School. Spring 2023.


Meghan O'Sullivan