As COVID-19 has ravaged the world economy, the creative sector—media, gaming, music, and fashion—has shown the most resilience, adapting to public health challenges and likely playing a central role in a global economic recovery. That strength also has implications for countries’ use of soft power to build influence through forging of cultural connections across a pandemic world.
Blair Sullivan ’22

Blair Sullivan ’22

So said a report published recently by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), one of the world’s most respected and influential think tanks. Much of the 50-page report, “Creative Economies in the Indo-Pacific and Covid-19: The Show Must Go On,” was written by contributing authors Blair Sullivan ’22 and fellow intern Duke University graduate Robert Carlson.

“We really wanted to give a narrative because it is a report on the creative economy. We wanted it to have a bit of a storyline,” Sullivan said.

They did just that, and it’s a storyline that isn’t destined to simply gather dust on a virtual shelf.

CSIS reports are closely read by policymakers, including members of Congress and their staff, said Kimberly Flowers, who, prior to becoming executive director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs, spent five years as a director at the Washington D.C. think tank. “They’re read by policymakers globally as well,” she said. “For this particular report, because it gives policy recommendations related to the Indo-Pacific, it is highly likely that officials within foreign ministries will be asked to read and write briefings from it for their higher-ups.”

And for an undergraduate intern to be credited as a contributing author on commentary at this level?

“It is so rare,” Flowers said. “That’s a big deal.”

A big deal and not a small challenge, said Assistant Professor of Government Laura Seay, who is also an editor of the political science blog The Monkey Cage at the Washington Post. In her editor role part of her task is to help academics translate what they’ve learned in their research into language that ordinary people can understand. “It’s got to be something that an undergraduate student could access, all the way to policymakers at the White House, or the Central Intelligence Agency, or the Defense Department,” Seay said. “Then I think you’ve done a good job at that kind of work, translating complex concepts into something that can be widely read.”

In that light, it may have been an advantage to Sullivan that some terminology was new to her. “There was a lot of research for my research,” she said, “a lot of new language to learn, looking at different types of bonds—green bonds, infrastructure bonds, impact investment, all sorts of financing options.”

She credits her work at Colby in global studies, including economics, and English (she’s a double major), the two disciplines providing research skills, knowledge of global affairs, literature and cultures, writing skills, and the ability to frame and support a thesis. This semester, she melded exploration of 21st-century literature with research into the role ideology plays in the competition between the United States and China in regards to Taiwan.

With that foundation, Sullivan was excited to be given such an opportunity at CSIS and wanted to rise to the challenge and prove herself—which she has done.

Since the report was published, she has been credited for her part in research for another CSIS commentary, “Post-pandemic Infrastructure and Digital Connectivity in the Indo-Pacific.” That report focuses on the region being critical to the United States as the pandemic makes infrastructure and economic development there more difficult “but also reveals openings for U.S. leadership to collaborate with allies, development banks and institutions, and the private sector to compete with China as the region seeks to accelerate recovery efforts.”

It’s a geopolitical situation that Sullivan has explored as she’s done policy research for CSIS, beginning with an initial assignment involving research into China’s influence in the Mekong Valley, including construction of hydroelectric dams that are having a significant impact on that part of Southeast Asia. “That was how I was first introduced to the region. [From there] I learned that there are all sorts of different forces at play.”

Before either report had been published, CSIS had asked Sullivan to stay on. She turned to DavisConnects at Colby to explore her options and was able to turn the opportunity into a for-credit independent study with Seay. “It’s a project working with USAID and looking at their free and open Indo-Pacific Strategy and at the different pillars within that strategy.”

It’s also yet another project with real-world implications.

“You don’t realize how one thing happening on the other side of the world could have the strongest, most unexpected impact on our day-to-day lives,” Sullivan said. “I’m fascinated by this interconnected nature of the global world.”