In this Career Spotlight, we are honoured to speak with Professor Rory Medcalf, Head of the ANU National Security College, about his influential and impactful career in national security and international relations.
Rory Medcalf is Head of the National Security College at the Australian National University. His career spans diplomacy, intelligence analysis, think tanks, academia and journalism, including as Founding Director of the security program at the Lowy Institute. In government, Professor Medcalf was a Senior Strategic Analyst with the Office of National Assessments, Australia’s peak intelligence agency, and a diplomat with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in India, Japan and Papua New Guinea. He now plays a lead role in informal diplomacy among a range of Indo-Pacific nations.
Moreover, Professor Medcalf contributed to three landmark international reports on nuclear arms control and was an adviser for Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper. He is recognised globally as a thought leader on the Indo-Pacific strategic concept, as articulated in his acclaimed 2020 book Contest for the Indo-Pacific (published internationally as Indo-Pacific Empire). In addition, he is a board member of the ASEAN Regional Forum Register of Experts and Eminent Persons, the National Foundation for Australia-China Relations, and the Scientific Advisory Council of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.
The Careers team at Young Australians in International Affairs was delighted to sit down with Professor Medcalf to discuss his influential and impactful career in national security and international relations. Take a read of our reflections from the interview and watch the three embedded videos to learn about Rory’s insights spanning his diverse career, along with his top tips for success in the field of international affairs.
Part 1: Skills and the Future of International Affairs
Rory begins by offering key reflections on the question we constantly ask about careers in foreign affairs: ‘Should I be a generalist or specialist?’ His practical and forward-thinking advice provides insight into the changing needs of foreign policy, including moving beyond the traditional and, at times, narrow preconceptions we can have around international careers. He encourages us to picture what the future is likely to require of us, not what our current outdated silos might be pushing us towards. He suggests we develop not only foreign policy and diplomatic skills, but also working knowledge of a wide range of other areas including technological change, law, health, social policy, climate change and energy policy, among others. While Rory says it may not always be best to specialise early, as versatility is a key skill, specialising is certainly needed and best matched with these disciplines to best prepare for addressing future challenges.
Rory also reiterates the international opportunities both within and outside of government—moving in and out of these fields gives one’s career both breadth and depth. He reminds us to not assume obvious career paths are the best and only option for us. Taking career risks, moving sideways and zig-zagging between jobs and industries helps us look beyond any limiting ideas we might have.
Rory also speaks to the key skills we need to be successful in international careers. His top tip? A sense of patience. Anyone who has applied for graduate positions or international jobs probably already appreciates this. However, during these times, Rory explains that we can acquire skills by shadowing, mentoring, observing, and working in other sectors. Aspiring to work in international relations and foreign policy often means entering a competitive environment. Rory reminds us that we have time—we do not need to rush to work towards big outcomes too early.
Other underrated skills include a perpetual curiosity and willingness to ask the ‘why’ behind what we do. Rory reflects that he really began to develop this skill during his time as a journalist. Finally, he also emphasises the value of being able to join the dots. While we’re unlikely to see this as a key selection criterion for a role, this ability to synthesize information and connect disciplines is really the answer to whether we specialise or be generalists. You could be both by linking disciplines and breaking down silos to help stay ahead of the curve in the sector.
Part 2: Reflections and Creating Opportunities
Rory has experienced an impressive career across a range of different roles that many people admire. Therefore, we asked him whether there was any aspect of his career that he would ‘re-do’ if given the chance. He noted that the decisions he has made—even the “mistakes”—have led him to where he is today. There are lots of choices we have to make in life, and it is indeed important that we do make them in order to continue growing professionally and intellectually.
However, Rory notes that he had an exceptional and formative experience working at the Official of National Assessments—now known as the Office of National Intelligence. He describes it as “one of the finest places to work if you are interested in the world, and Australia’s interests in the world”. If he were to identify a “road not taken” it would be spending many more years working at the agency.
When asked about the highlights of his career, Rory notes that he has been grateful to identify transferable connections between all the domains that he has worked in, thereby allowing him to step sideways or upwards and take on new challenges as they arise. He notes the importance of seizing—and proactively making—opportunities.
An example of this comes from when Rory served in a diplomatic capacity, where he had an opportunity to leverage his influential writing skills on topical matters such as arms control and nuclear non-proliferation in the 1990s. In turn, in 1998, he assisted the Japanese Government in seeking advice from the Australian Government to establish a Japanese equivalent of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. Thanks to the expertise in nuclear weapons he had earlier honed, Rory was placed in good stead to advise the Japanese Foreign Ministry on such matters. Rory demonstrates how, despite the evolution of foreign policy, building our skillset and networks can help create opportunities we may have never imagined in the first place.
Rory concludes this section by sharing what a day as Head of the National Security College looks like, describing the College as “a national asset”. The College runs short courses for professionals, with thousands of public servants having undertaken executive education with the College. It also runs dialogues for the Government, which tackle some of the challenging national security issues of the future. Of course, there is also an academic program, comprising a Master of National Security Policy. Finally, the College engages in public debate to develop awareness surrounding national security issues from an Australian perspective.
Part 3: ‘Quick-fire’ Questions
Rory concludes the interview by responding to ‘quick fire’ questions including his favourite podcast recommendations, foreign language phrases, and books.
Rory recommends listening to Australia in the World and The National Security Podcast. In an age where all people working in international affairs need to be ‘China generalists’, podcasts about China, such as The Wire, are likewise valuable for gaining awareness about contemporary China. He encourages reading fiction and non-fiction alike, particularly recommending Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson. This is a historical study of nationalism and the political and sociological reasons explaining the development of nation-states.
The first places Rory would like to travel to once borders reopen are Finland and Japan. However, it is actually the German language that has some of his favourite, albeit quite long, phrases.
Finally, many people are inspired by Rory, but who inspires him? In responding to such an unexpected question, Rory mentions that he takes inspiration from the millions of ordinary people operating on the front lines of current global crises confronting humanity, particularly health care workers and service personnel evacuating people from Afghanistan. Touché!