Emma Campbell-Mohn: On a Foreign Policy Path

How a family trip to Paris changed an 11-year-old’s life

Campbell Mohn

Emma Campbell-Mohn has her sights on continued studies of American foreign policy. Photo by Les Todd/Duke University Photography 

Most 11-year-olds would remember a family trip to Paris for the sights, history and food. 

Not Emma Campbell-Mohn. 

For this graduating Duke senior, getting peppered with hostile questions about U.S. foreign policy at the height of the Iraq war in 2005 actually sparked something life-changing.

“I was asked, ‘How do you support your government?’ ‘What about your actions in Iraq?’

Being an 11 year-old from Vermont, I did not have clear answers, but I knew I wanted to learn more,” she recalls.

That experience, plus an innate sense of patriotism, led to a love of studying U.S. foreign policy. This self-described nerd would go on to spend many of her teen hours watching C-SPAN and studying international law, particularly the International Criminal Court and Law of the Sea. After moving to Westport, Connecticut, in high school she took three years of Chinese language classes.

This week, this third-generation Dukie graduates with a double major in political science and Asian & Middle Eastern studies with a minor in history. In August, Campbell-Mohn will head to Tsinghua University in Beijing for an accelerated, one-year master’s program as a member of the first class of Schwarzman Scholars. There she’ll study international relations.

She will then consider whether to pursue a Ph.D. or seek a job in international relations with the U.S. government or a think tank.

“I’m interested in is how China interacts with the rest of the world,” she says. “China in the Middle East, China in Africa, how is China shaping the global political landscape? What are the impacts and what are its methods? How does China’s actions align with or impede U.S. foreign policy?”

Campbell-Mohn should be well-positioned for such a career. At Duke she says the rigorous academics coupled with opportunities to develop leadership skills were just what she hoped for when deciding whether to apply to college.

Her decision process included meeting with Duke political science professor Mike Munger and public policy professor Bruce Kuniholm to get a better grasp of what a student should expect.

“They were so enthusiastic about students in a way that just wasn’t there at other schools,” Campbell-Mohn says. “I was early decision Duke; I was a huge Duke fan. It had a unique nexus of academic rigor and extracurricular engagement. At Duke, there is a strong emphasis on leadership and being able to pursue one’s interests outside the classroom. I found a place where I could not only learn but also develop into the person I wanted to become.” 

At Duke she received the Alona E. Evans Prize in International Law and an American Grand Strategy Fellowship in 2015, and was also a Duke University Chapel Scholar.

Campbell-Mohn says she learned a tremendous amount from the mentoring of political scientist Peter Feaver, who was serving as a special adviser on the National Security Council staff at the White House when Campbell-Mohn was being grilled about foreign policy on her trip to Paris.

Feaver says he can see the day when he asks Campbell-Mohn for a job.

"When professors first begin thinking about being a teacher, they imagine that they will work with a certain type of student.  And I expect that long into retirement, professors remember fondly working with such a student. Emma is that student,” Feaver says.

“She is bright, passionate, deeply thoughtful, ambitious and hard-working, all qualities that are in above-average supply at Duke. But she has something more, something that might be called 'sparkle.' It shows up as a balance between gracious and tenacious, between principled and pragmatic. She’s capable of doing very high-end work but she is also willing to do mundane work. I expect to read a lot more about her in the future and maybe ask her for a job one day."

Campbell-Mohn has already contributed her insights to one major international relations issue: UN peacekeeping missions.  She delved into this topic on her thesis, which focused on China’s peacekeeping contributions, and by co-writing an op-ed on where the UN sends peacekeepers with Kyle Beardsley, an associate professor in political science, which appeared in The Jerusalem Post and The News & Observer. 

Some 10 years after U.S. foreign policy first gripped Campbell-Mohn’s interest, she’s now ready to find a place where she can help shape that strategy.

“I want to serve my country and assist in crafting effective foreign policy,” she says, “It is my belief that the United States does, and will continue to, have a positive influence on world affairs.”