Northeastern’s Mai’a Cross receives prestigious lifetime membership on the Council on Foreign Relations

headshot of Mai’a Cross
Mai’a Cross, Northeastern Associate Dean of Faculty Affairs, Diversity and Inclusion; Edward W. Brooke Professor of Political Science & International Affairs poses for a portrait. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Mai’a Cross, dean’s professor of political science, international affairs and diplomacy, and director of the Center for International Affairs and World Cultures, is one of the most accomplished scholars in the field when it comes to topics and issues of European and transatlantic foreign and security policy.

Her scholarship in international affairs has been nothing short of prophetic. A former Fulbright Scholar and Nobel Peace Institute Fellow, and current editor of the Journal of European Integration, Cross has kept a close eye on security developments across Europe for the better part of two decades. She heralded the creation of the European Defense Union in one award-winning book and detailed the threat posed by Russia in another, which was published a year before Russia invaded Ukraine.

Now, she’ll join the Council on Foreign Relations as a lifetime member. The council, a premier U.S. think tank, grapples with some of the most pressing issues facing nations, sponsoring a constant stream of “discussion, analysis and research” in the field of international affairs. The two kinds of membership include a life membership (for which Cross is now member) for “seasoned professionals,” and term membership for “young, rising leaders in international affairs,” according to the organization’s website. Cross was also a term member from 2014 to 2019.

In what is a highly selective process, a lifetime appointment to the Council on Foreign Relations comes by way of nomination from several current members, Cross says. As a lifetime member of the prestigious body, Cross joins the ranks of renowned scholars such as George Kennan, Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright. 

“Mai’a’s selection for life membership at the Council on Foreign Relations is a recognition of the extraordinary breadth and impact of her scholarly contributions to the field of international affairs,” says Stephen Flynn, founding director of the Global Resilience Institute at Northeastern.

“Mai’a is a multidisciplinary trailblazer, drawing on evolutionary biology, neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and anthropology to provide novel insights on the source of international cooperation,” Flynn adds. “For me, it has been an honor to have her as a faculty colleague at Northeastern and now as a fellow Council member.”Northeastern Global News sat down with Cross to discuss her work and the lifetime appointment. The discussion has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Major congratulations on this achievement, Mai’a. What does all of this mean to you?

I was really happy about the news because it’s such a great opportunity to have access to the highest level of policy- and decision-making across the U.S. and around the world. 

One of the reasons I was excited about receiving the lifetime membership is that I’m the recently appointed director of the Center for International Affairs and World Cultures at Northeastern. So I’m really hoping to bring that policy access and the policy impact that I might have into the center on campus and continue to make it as global as possible in terms of involving the whole Northeastern network.

So what does lifetime membership entail?

All of the members have access to policymakers and are able to receive off-the-record briefings and really get insider knowledge about what’s going on—particularly in the U.S. government (you have to be a U.S. citizen to be a [Council on Foreign Relations] member). 

But membership also involves serving on roundtables and task forces that go in depth in a particular policy area, combining members’ expertise to propose policy directions and analyze current challenges. 

I’ve already been added to the roundtable group that focuses on Europe and the European Union; so I am expecting that I will be part of special sessions that will involve policy prescription, and the capacity to have some sort of impact on policy over time. 

The nature of these meetings is very discussion-based; so, while you might get a ten-minute briefing, the emphasis is on members participating. In a way, it’s a kind of a give and take of the various expertise in the room.

Could you give us an overview of your scholarship and research interests?

From the beginning of my scholarly career, I’ve tried to translate my research into policy relevance. I’ve written all of my books and articles in a way that, if a policymaker reads this, they can be of some value. Sometimes I go so far as to write a policy brief or an op-ed, or present to policy-oriented audiences—one example of this is every year I offer a training seminar to European Union diplomats to help prepare them for their work in public diplomacy. I’m always looking for these opportunities to take the more in depth, long-form research and turn it into actionable advice.

My work has mainly been about, how does European and transatlantic security cooperation occur? What are the processes by which it happens—and when can we see breakthroughs? Because I do think in this post-World War II order, it’s really important to have at the center of it, a strong sense of a willingness to cooperate, especially in the security area.

In my earlier work, I really focused on elite-level interactions. I found in my early years that transnational networks of experts really have a fundamental impact on the ability for countries to cooperate. So you don’t just look at the capitols and the leaders themselves—you really have to look at the experts in the trenches trying to hash out agreements. 

And that grew to really focus on contemporary security. My second book, which won a book prize in the field of European studies, foreshadowed the creation of the defense union [the European Defense Union] in Europe that exists today 10 years before it actually happened. As I continued in my work, I started to look beyond the elites and look at the bigger dynamics of European society, and how you have cooperative breakthroughs that emerge at the societal level. My most recent book [“International Cooperation Against All Odds: The Ultrasocial World”] is my largest project to date because it’s extremely interdisciplinary, and it goes beyond Europe. It’s about how these major moments in cooperation have occurred in key issue areas, so not just the EU, but also in space, in nuclear weapons, and in climate change. That book is coming out later this year.

Do you eventually plan to move beyond academia into the world of policymaking and government? Is that something that interests you?

If you’re on an academic track, you have to get tenure, get promoted. And I’ve done all of that, so, yes, I’m in this great place where I can really be free and pursue the kind of research and the kind of impact I want to have. For me, it’s definitely going to be about trying to engage more heavily with the policy world, and to think about the ways that extending the research I’ve already done can result in useful policy recommendations. 

As a member of [Council on Foreign Relations], it opens doors and gives me access—and I think, in these discussions, I basically get a platform to sort of debate things with those who are really grappling with policy decisions in real-time. 

If you had to choose three specific issues to work on while serving on the council, what would they be?

Well, I would rank them based on my own expertise. What I think is most important, I would say, is really investigating the future of the transatlantic relationship as Europeans grapple with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and start to really integrate their defense capabilities further. And what does this mean for the U.S., and how can we encourage these processes? That would be one area of focus for me. 

A second area that is really changing quite rapidly is space diplomacy and space security. I actually have a special journal issue coming out on space diplomacy in a couple months, and I’m organizing a conference in the Hague that will target practitioners in this area. The idea is to present our findings on space policy and space security to these policymakers in Europe, and to try and have an impact on what happens going forward as the space economy grows dramatically.

If I had to pick a third one, I’d really like to continue further along the lines of my book that is coming out later this year, which is on the tendency of human beings to be ultrasocial. I’m essentially building on scientific consensus to say that human beings have a tendency to want to cooperate. 

How do we build on that to improve international relations and international security? I would like to look into the policy applications for that, which could involve looking at the institution of diplomacy and what diplomats do and best practices to improve diplomatic breakthroughs. 

Tanner Stening is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @tstening90.