By Suzannah Brecknell

13 May 2024

Suzannah Brecknell meets director general of defence and security think tank Rusi Karin von Hippel


Karin von Hippel’s experience of conflict zones stretches back more than a quarter of a century, to her time working for the United Nations in Somalia and then Kosovo. She went on to work in senior roles at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Centre for Defence Studies think tanks. A move to the US State Department in 2010 followed, where she spent six years working on counter-terrorism and conflict and stabilisation operations. Von Hippel, who has a doctorate in international relations and national security studies, has been director general at Rusi for almost a decade.

Rusi’s impressive Grade II listed office on Whitehall, built in 1896, which recently underwent a £12.2m renovation.

We discussed...
Career highlights
The most interesting work that I’ve done in the policy sphere was when I worked for the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo. It was all about how local government works, the delivery of services to people and the protection of minorities. But we were actually doing it instead of sitting on the sidelines telling people how to do it better. It was challenging but I enjoyed it and learned a lot. In terms of my time in think tanks, working at Rusi has been an incredible experience.

Taking over at Rusi
At the beginning, people were a little surprised at this American woman arriving. I’m the first woman, the second civilian and the first foreigner to lead Rusi. But it’s been a privilege, it’s a great organisation, we have a lot of fun. I’m really lucky, I get to work with a lot of amazing people, though technically I work for them. My job is to try to make their lives easier. 

What she learnt in Kosovo
It made me understand at first hand how long people hold grievances. I was there after the NATO bombing in 1999, when Milosovec and the Serbs had been driven out of Kosovo, so there were many Albanians returning to the country. They started taking revenge on Serbs who stayed. It gave me a better understanding of how hard it is to protect minorities and how insidious these long standing enmities are. In Kosovo it had got to the point where there were ways of sabotaging access for other people in almost every aspect of services provided by the government. 

My time there taught me about the art of the possible and that while foreign and international organisations can help with things like investment, security and training, the work has to be done by locals if it’s going to succeed.

What civil servants can contribute, and need to do more of
We have had many civil servants come and work at Rusi, as well as people from law enforcement and the military. They bring practical government experience, and an understanding of the way the British government works, it’s very helpful. Generally, the Brits engage really well with think tanks. In America you’re excited if you get some senate staffers at an event, whereas here, we get everyone from junior officials to ministers. There’s a lot of interaction here and people in government are very open to interacting, which we all appreciate – we learn a lot from each other. In America there is a revolving door between working in think tanks and the government and the movement is too much. It’s almost to the point where it’s not always effective because when you’re in a think tank, you’re afraid to criticise your own party if they’re in government, because you want a job. Here in Britain I think there isn’t enough of that movement – it does happen but it could happen more.  

"In every job, no matter how great or bad it is, you learn something about yourself"

The best piece of professional advice she’s been given
In every job, no matter how great or bad it is, you learn something about yourself. You learn what you’re good at and what you’re not good at. What you enjoy and what you don’t enjoy. So if you’re in a job that you’re not desperate to do, don’t despair. And when you are starting out, don’t put too much pressure on yourself to know what you want to do. Some people know exactly what they want to do when they’re born. But many, many people, like me, are never really sure what they’re going to be when they grow up.

How a lot of humanitarian suffering is not getting the attention it should
There’s always this great big spotlight on the conflict of the moment. And then as soon as people move on, or they get bored, they shift to the next one. Part of the reason why some of these conflicts, like Haiti and others, are so persistently challenging is that they don’t get the sustained attention that they deserve. Burma has been in the headlines, but not to the degree that the conflicts in Gaza or Ukraine have been. There are a lot of these other conflicts and a lot of places, like the Balkans, where tensions are bubbling beneath the surface.  

The shift towards preventing problems rather than dealing with them
I feel like we’ve moved on from “post conflict”, we’ve moved on from “countering violent extremism”, we’ve moved on from some of the jargon of the past. Everything now is really about violence prevention, however you define it. And because we’re in this global transition, we’re not entirely sure what the new world order will be. I think that the bureaucracies haven’t figured out how to come together and think about how to spend their money in the most effective ways. In this country we had the integrated review of national security and international policy, but I haven’t seen too many strategies recently that are looking at how they can be implemented from start to finish. 

How less is more and letting others take the lead in conflict zones
There’s not enough money to do everything well. So it’s about focusing on a few places and doing those properly. And, at least in the first instance, demonstrating that working together does help while making sure that you always have good local people and organisations in the lead. We should provide seed funding and be a catalyst. I don’t think it’s ever helpful when we try to get in there and do it ourselves like we did in Iraq and Afghanistan. We won’t ever prevent all violence, but we can mitigate it and prevent it from spilling over into war.

I think probably we do need a refresh and a new approach and a new focus, given what’s happened in Ukraine, and given what’s happening in Gaza right now. We need to think in a more creative way than we have in the past, including thinking about working with new partners. It’s not just having the traditional Western powers doing more; we need to work with medium-sized states, and think about involving the private sector and organisations like the Gates Foundation in our planning and our conversations. 

Finding common ground in tackling global issues amid tense and distrustful geopolitical backdrops 
A long time ago, [political theorist] David Mitrany came up with this functional approach, where countries come together for a particular purpose and then when that purpose is over, they disband. My best example of that in more recent times was in June 2014, when the so-called Islamic State was declared as a caliphate by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Mosul. The US brought together a coalition of more than 80 countries and organisations like Interpol to look at how to deal with this threat.

At that time, don’t forget, there were 500 people a month travelling to Iraq and Syria to fight from 140 countries around the world. There were attacks all over Europe. So the threat was quite considerable. 

Within that coalition we had five or six different groups beyond the military side of the campaign. There was one on foreign fighters, one on terror financing, and one on terror messaging, for example. A number of countries were leading these various subgroups. America was convening and trying to lead but it was not actually running all these committees. And even in these various committees there was a mix. So it would be the UK and Saudi Arabia working on one, and the Netherlands and Jordan on another, for instance.

The benefit of this approach is that you don’t need a new building, you don’t need to hire new staff, you don’t need to worry about bureaucratic stuff. And then when the threat is gone, that coalition doesn’t really need to exist in the same way that it did before. Islamic State has been defeated militarily, although it still lives on in many ways, so you can disband the coalition or you can minimise it and integrate it into other work. 

The prospects of countries working in this more flexible, creative way 
The problem with implementing anything like this is that we have all sorts of competition. So the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) countries are trying to expand and bring in more countries. You have all sorts of other competing smaller multilateral or international organisations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Most of these groups aren’t that effective at the moment and it’s not entirely clear what’s going to shake out at the end of all of this. 

But this way of building coalitions around challenges could be a practical way of dealing with the muddling through that’s happening right now. The Covid pandemic was an example where we didn’t have a coalition. And this is the point I often make about Donald Trump pulling away from America’s traditional leadership role – he just got out of the way and he wasn’t interested. Any other president – Democratic or Republican – would have pulled countries together, just like Obama did with the Islamic State. Instead, when Covid happened it was just every country for themselves. It was the Swedish model, the Korean model, the Taiwan model. And there was no real attempt by governments to come together to solve it.

The role of the UN, whether it is fit for purpose, and the rise of a new world order
Organisations like the UN were designed for a different era. They were designed by Western countries, the winners of the Second World War, and mostly run by them. That’s changing. We’re seeing China use all sorts of creative ways to try to control a number of these UN organisations, so they are just not as effective anymore. And we’re seeing the Security Council unable to pass resolutions on various conflicts. That’s been happening for a while, and of course during the Cold War it wasn’t able to do much either. But then there was a short period of time, where we thought, “Oh, it’s a post-Cold War order, peace in our time”. But the UN isn’t really fit for purpose anymore. Its secretary general isn’t as much of a great leader as I thought he would be. He seems to spend more time admiring the problem than saying “this is what we’re going to do about it, come with me”. 

How trying to do too much can be a pointless exercise 
When I was in the US State Department, I worked on the quadrennial development and diplomacy reviews. It was the first time the non-military side of the house said “we’ll have a strategy”. But because it was the first time, it kind of looked like a Christmas tree – it had everything on it – and then very little got implemented. Very little of it even made it to the final report, because there are so many battles. For example, where there’s one part of the government that does exactly the same as another part, should we get rid of one of them and blend them? No, because they all have their defenders.

"“Not all the good ideas come from London or Washington. So be open to listening”"

If governments have had their day
I sometimes wonder how relevant governments are at all, because there are a lot of people just getting on with things without governments, interacting with people all over the world online, motivating each other and learning from each other online in positive and negative ways. You see cities doing things in creative ways, collaborating with other cities in different countries. So I sometimes wonder how relevant government is anymore. Maybe local government is more relevant to people’s lives, but I do sometimes reflect that while parliament or congress have everybody faffing around and arguing, ordinary people are just getting on with their lives and they don’t feel like they’re touched by government anymore. Yes they pay taxes, and they worry about things like the roads being paved and healthcare, but I do wonder if it’s just increasingly less relevant in many people’s lives, because most people don’t vote.   

Many years ago I was working in Somalia, which didn’t have a central government for over 20 years. It arguably has one right now, but it’s not really a central government; it basically controls the capital and barely gets outside the capital. So we were having these conversations with Somalis, discussing different options of a decentralised government and they said: “But what do you want a central government to do?” A lot of the things people want a central government to do, you don’t need a central government for. Maybe you think about printing currency, but some places have more than one currency in a country, and some countries use both the US dollar and local currencies. A central government might provide security, but you have places that have don’t have a military, like Costa Rica, where the local police are providing security. So it is interesting to think about what you actually need a central government to do. What are the minimum things that central government can do? And should everything else be done much more locally? 

Taking a positive approach in a dangerous world 
I am generally an optimist, even though it’s very easy to get pessimistic about the state of the world right now. I think the world is changing in a lot of profound ways that we don’t fully understand yet. Some of them aren’t so bad. Having the US be the sole superpower isn’t really a good thing. The US gets complacent; it doesn’t listen and learn enough. The fact that smaller countries are asserting themselves in ways they haven’t before is good, because I think the big powers haven’t shown others the respect that they should be showing. I think the more we listen to each other and learn from each other the better. There are amazing things we can learn in so many different places. Not all the good ideas come from London or Washington, DC. So being open to listening, rather than bigger powers just being able to bully their way through everything, actually I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It should be good for the world. 

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