In the Nation’s Defense: SINSI Scholar Kevin McGinnis Shapes National Security Policy
Growing up, Kevin McGinnis ’11, MPA ’15, never imagined he’d someday be advising the U.S. Secretary of Defense on national security policy and overseas military basing. Hailing from the eastern shore of Maryland, an area facing many ecological and economic challenges, McGinnis originally thought he’d end up in environmental policy and sustainable water resources management, a major focus of his high school years. As an undergraduate at Princeton University, McGinnis majored in the Woodrow Wilson School and earned certificates in environmental studies, Latin American studies and Spanish language. He also joined Engineers Without Borders as part of a team that designed and installed a sustainable irrigation pumping system in the village of Kumudo, Ethiopia. Interested in pursuing public policy, McGinnis applied to Princeton’s Scholars in the Nation’s Service Initiative (SINSI) his junior year.
SINSI is a graduate program that combines a Master in Public Affairs (MPA) degree at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs with professional-level practical work experience in the U.S. government. SINSI scholars are placed in jobs with an executive branch department or agency of the federal government through a fully-funded, two-year, full-time fellowship. Once accepted as a SINSI scholar, McGinnis spent his SINSI summer internship after his junior year in Washington, D.C., at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), where he worked on water policy in Asia and the Middle East. After spending the spring semester of his senior year studying abroad in Cuba and researching water management at the University of Havana, he received a Development Grand Challenges Grant to compare water management policies in Peru and Chile for his senior thesis.
As McGinnis’s experience with water policy grew, however, he began to realize that water policy and national security policy were intricately linked. His SINSI summer internship helped him realize he could be very influential regarding water policy if he focused on security and defense policy.
“As much as I wanted to try to make a difference on water policy directly, I found that a lot of the places where water was most inaccessible was due to conflict or to scarcity that related to conflict in some way. This piqued my interest in both national security and then also instability and conflict,” McGinnis said.
After his first year of the MPA program, McGinnis chose the Pentagon’s Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) through SINSI, where he was able to directly shape Latin American security policy as country director for Mexico and the Caribbean. A main focus of his job was humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. McGinnis and his team had to make sure that U.S. military forces were able to react to natural disasters, particularly hurricanes, if a foreign country requested assistance. He worked closely with USAID and the Department of State to ensure the military was ready to provide assistance, fly in food, water and other aid, and have resources accessible for disaster relief once the hurricane ended.
“I would monitor the National Hurricane Center every day during hurricane season to make sure senior defense leaders were aware of the conditions and we were ready to respond quickly,” McGinnis said.
In addition, McGinnis’s position as director for Mexico and the Caribbean involved work related to counter-narcotics and counter-drug trafficking, a major component of the U.S. Department of Defense’s involvement in Latin America. Part of McGinnis’s job was working to assist the Caribbean nations in building up their militaries and coast guards to protect against drug traffickers and drug gangs. His job also entailed coordinating policy for training and assisting the Mexican military, particularly ensuring that efforts to combat drug cartels were consistent with American values and human rights principles.
SINSI’s two-year fellowship generally consists of three or four rotations, allowing scholars to experience multiple positions and perspectives within the government. For McGinnis’s second rotation, he moved to the office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans, and Capabilities, a branch of OSD that advises the Secretary and Deputy Secretary of Defense on national security and military strategy. McGinnis’s role focused heavily on global posture and military forces based in Europe. At the time, two big questions facing the Department of Defense were determining the right basing and posture in Europe and assessing opportunities to consolidate bases and save costs.
“I spent almost a year working on that problem, engaging with people in Europe, meeting with military officers and civilians trying to figure out what is the right long-term presence we should have in Europe, based on what we can see now,” McGinnis said. “I learned a lot about how the U.S. military operates around the world.”
Through this position within OSD, McGinnis briefed four-star generals on a consistent basis, drafted decision memos for the Secretary of Defense, and received awards for outstanding writing and contributions to offices across the Department of Defense.
“It was absolutely tremendous exposure and an experience that I never could have imagined before. …I was very lucky,” McGinnis said.
Ultimately, the Secretary of Defense decided to consolidate some facilities but retain a strong presence in Europe, a decision that proved to be fortunate. Shortly thereafter, Russia invaded Ukraine, and the Department of Defense continues to rely heavily on its posture in Europe to deter Russian aggression and reassure NATO allies and partners.
At the same time as his work on overseas basing, McGinnis was also working on another project: the Department of Defense’s 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), a report on military strategy that looks toward the coming 20 years in developing long-term strategy. McGinnis worked on the QDR as chief of staff for the team covering Europe and Africa, coordinating a group of officers, civilians, and analysts with varying areas of expertise.
McGinnis’s next rotation came about by chance. In March 2014, a widespread cheating scandal emerged at a U.S. Air Force base in Malmstrom, Montana, a base responsible for maintaining and securing nuclear missiles. Officers were caught sending answers to standardized proficiency tests to each other over cell phone networks. Then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel immediately set up a team – dubbed the Nuclear Enterprise Review – to investigate the incident and the systemic factors that may have led to it; McGinnis was selected to be on this six-person team.
Alongside an Assistant Secretary of Defense and a two-star admiral, McGinnis travelled the country, interviewing young officers and enlisted military members in both the Air Force and Navy to share their experiences and understand what led to the cheating in Malmstrom.
“We weren’t investigating people to punish them; we were interviewing people to figure out what was wrong with the organization,” McGinnis said. “Air Force missileers have a difficult job, and we wanted to make sure they have everything they need to carry out their mission.”
McGinnis’s team discovered that a few management and leadership failures, combined with a zero-tolerance, perfection-oriented model with near-daily standardized tests and unreasonably high expectations, were generating overwhelming stress. After six months of flights, interviews and analysis, the Nuclear Enterprise Review presented its findings to Secretary of Defense Hagel, who accepted the findings and their major budgetary implications.
After that, McGinnis returned to Princeton for the second year of the MPA program. After his SINSI rotations, he shifted to economics and public policy. With these experiences under his belt, McGinnis knew he wanted to work for the government after graduation. So, in the fall of 2014, he applied to the Presidential Management Fellowship (PMF), a program that would allow him to seek jobs within the federal government. McGinnis was accepted into the program and interviewed at the White House with the Office of Management and Budget, where he was hired to work in the National Security Division. He’s been at this job since July 2015, working on defense reform initiatives and defense budget decisions.
“I’ve found that the key to this job is knowing which questions to ask and who to seek out for more information,” McGinnis said, adding that his diverse experiences during his SINSI rotations helped prepare him for the plethora of issues he faces day-to-day. “The issues I deal with on a daily basis can be everything from [the President’s recent trip to] Cuba, to overseas basing in Europe, to nuclear weapons, to a longer-term project on defense reforms that I’m working on right now.”
McGinnis emphasized that the breadth of experiences and exposure he has had within the federal government would never have been possible without the networks and support of the SINSI program. He expressed a deep gratitude for the generosity of Andrea E. Bernstein ’80 and Tom A. Bernstein, the donors he was matched with whose funding made his experience possible.
“There’s no other program like this anywhere else in the world,” McGinnis said. “Even working in the federal government, when I tell other people what my experience is at my age they’re shocked, they’re absolutely shocked. I think that’s really special and not something that exists anywhere else, and I think Princeton and SINSI specifically have worked really hard so that we can have that opportunity.”