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Prominent foreign policy expert Kori Schake returns to Sonoma to talk Ukraine

Sonoma High grad who has worked for Colin Powell and John McCain will discuss Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at Sebastiani Theatre on May 9.|

Kori Schake’s Barn Talk

General admission tickets to Schake’s May 9 Barn Talk at the Sebastiani Theatre cost $35 and can be purchased at svgreatschools.org. SVHS students receive complimentary admission by making advanced reservations. Limited seating is available. Proceeds benefit the SVHS Model UN Club and SVHS Gender Sexuality Alliance.

She’s one of the world’s preeminent foreign policy experts, having served in leadership positions on the staffs of Gen. Colin Powell and Sen. John McCain as well as for some of the nation’s top policy organizations, but back in the 1970s she was a self-described “dreamy, impractical kid” at Sonoma Valley High School after attending Altimira Middle School and El Verano Elementary School.

And quite literally, she’s coming soon to a theater near you.

She’s Kori Schake, and she’s returning to her roots to share her expertise during a presentation at Sebastiani Theatre in Sonoma on the topic, “Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine” on Monday, May 9. Schake will be conversing with Andy Gibson, chair of the history department at SVHS and an alumnus of the school. The event will begin with a reception at 6:30 p.m., followed by the discussion at 7 p.m.

The presentation is part of Barn Talks, a series of events presented by the Barn Talks team, Sonoma Valley Education Foundation and SVHS that began in 2017 featuring alumni who have made notable accomplishments in their fields.

Angela Ryan, executive director of the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation, is particularly excited about featuring Schake to kick off the renewed series.

“We’re thrilled and honored Kori has been added Barn Talks to her West Coast trip schedule,” Ryan said. “The convergence of the mask mandate being lifted from schools, Kori’s visit to the West Coast, and her unique expertise on the Ukraine conflict and world events make her an ideal speaker at this time.”

Schake also gave a Barn Talk in 2017, when she discussed national security challenges facing the United States. This year, she will concentrate on what Russia is attempting in Ukraine, why it’s not succeeding, why it’s important that it fails and how security in Europe should be shored up going forward. These issues are direct areas of emphasis in her work.

“I’m focusing on Ukraine to help people understand what’s at stake and I’m advocating for policies that result in Russia’s failure to subjugate Ukraine,” she said.

Schake is confident that Russia will ultimately fail in its efforts.

“The Russians will lose,” she said. “The most worrying question for me is how much damage Russia will inflict as they lose. It seems to me possible Russia will escalate—that is, use chemical or nuclear weapons and wreak even more destruction on civilians—before they capitulate. Sweden and Finland will become NATO members because Russia has just proven there’s no security outside the protection of the alliance. Ukraine will be a NATO member in a few years, too, because they fought so bravely for their freedom.”

Schake has been working on European security issues for her entire professional life.

“It’s what I studied in graduate school and worked on intermittently ever since,” she said. “I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on the Berlin crises in the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, was responsible for Europe in Gen. Powell’s staff, taught it [European security issues] at Johns Hopkins and worked on it again in the State Department and in the White House. I think a lot about what it takes to create peace, and how important American ideals and leadership are to secure it.”

Highlights of a distinguished career

Schake currently serves as a senior fellow and director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., specializing in NATO and national security.

“I now have the privilege of leading a team of 54 scholars of foreign and defense policy at an institution committed to principled conservatism,” she said. “Right now, we’re doing really important work on the chasm between U.S. defense strategy and spending, on the war in Ukraine—if you see a map of the war in the newspaper, it’s likely my team helped make it—and on China. Our assessment is that China’s rise has stalled, and we need to be preparing for the problems of a failing China rather than a successful China.”

Schake also spends about half her time doing her own work. She’s a contributing writer for The Atlantic and at the War on the Rocks smart defense website and is on the advisory boards to the Secretary of Defense and the commander of the U.S. Nuclear Forces.

“I also wrote a chapter in a forthcoming book, ‘Makers of Modern Strategy,’ about [Chief] Tecumseh and the Shawnee Confederacy, because they had an incredibly legant and effective strategy for trying to prevent settlers from moving into their land,” she said. “And I’m gearing up to write a long historical piece on whether there’s such a thing an accidental war.”

She worked in high-level policy positions at the U.S. State Department, U.S. Department of Defense and National Security Council at the White House prior to serving in her current role. Schake was also the senior policy adviser for the John McCain presidential campaign. She has taught at many top universities, including Stanford, U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, National Defense University, University of Maryland and King’s College in London.

Schake is the author of “America vs. the West: Can the Liberal World Order Be Preserved?” as well as “Safe Passage: The Transition from British to American Hegemony,” “State of Disrepair: Fixing the Culture and Practices of the State Department” and “Managing American Hegemony: Essays on Power in a Time of Dominance.” She also coedited, with former U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, “Warriors & Citizens: American Views of Our Military.”

When asked to name the highlights of her career, she replied, “Working in Gen. Colin Powell’s staff at the end of the Cold War, figuring out how to hold NATO together, building the coalition for the 1991 Iraq War, working for Sen. John McCain--because of his adamant belief that everybody deserves dignity and respect—teaching students at West Point who chose to be soldiers when our country was at war and teaching at my alma mater, Stanford.”

She received a bachelor’s degree in international relations from Stanford, studying under former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, after graduating from SVHS in 1980. Schake proceeded to receive a master’s and a doctoral degree in government and politics from the University of Maryland, College Park and a master’s in public management from the University of Maryland School of Public Policy.

Growing up in Sonoma

Schake said that her upbringing in Sonoma was critical to her later successes.

“I’m so grateful that my parents chose Sonoma as the place for me to grow up,” she said. “I was 4 or 5 when we moved here and my first actual memory is sitting on the Diamond A hillside with my dad and brother, watching the builders push up the framing of what would be our home. It was such a fostering community to grow up in —Thanksgiving dinners at El Verano Elementary School, swimming on the Sonoma Sea Dragons, Mrs. [Judy] Glover at Altimira betting me my grade that I couldn’t understand Shakespeare when I had been goofing off in the library and lifeguarding at the Sonoma Golf Club.

“Growing up in Sonoma helped me in my career in lots of ways. It instilled in me the importance of accountability because in a small town, someone always sees you and knows your parents. It taught me to value community to give us all a place to belong. It showed me that you have to contribute if you want community. I try to do my work grounded in principles that grew in me here: defending human dignity, expanding economic opportunity and making the world a freer and safer place.”

Schake’s parents, Wayne and Ceil Schake, had a very positive influence on her and her two siblings.

“I’m so fortunate to be their daughter!” she said. “My mom is smart and contrarian, and gave her intellect and her humor to being a mother. One of my favorite stories about her is from when I was about 9 and my grandma made me wear a dress to school, which was a disaster because you couldn’t go on the monkey bars. I was all upset, and my mom gave me an exasperated look and told me to change into something else at the bus stop — a great way to get around what I’d thought of as a fixed constraint.

“And my dad is such an inspiration! He’s hardworking and adventurous. Some of the happiest moments of my childhood are from traveling around the world with him. He was a Pan Am pilot and took me all over — we’d run the Circus Maximus, where Romans raced chariots, and see cherry blossoms in Tokyo. But the thing that best exemplifies him is when he was flying in the California Air National Guard, he’d bring me his lunches because I loved the fried chicken they’d put in boxed lunches. He’d go without eating to make me happy.”

Schake’s intelligence was apparent at an early age.

“Somehow, El Verano thought she was really smart and wanted to advance her a couple grades,” Wayne Schake said. “We didn’t think that was a good idea and thus declined the offer. We felt that maybe she could handle it, but that socially it wouldn’t be good for her to be with older students. I think that was a good decision.”

At SVHS, Schake served as student body president and was involved with other activities, but she feels that her participation on the cross country and track teams best define her time there.

“I don’t actually think there was a girls cross country team my freshman year: It was just me and the boys,” Schake said. “But Mr. [Bob] Hardcastle welcomed me, made me part of the team, and I loved it. And Stan Augustine [the track coach] was my most important mentor other than my parents when I was growing up. He taught me strategy and he taught me leadership. He chose me as the track team’s captain and taught me lots about the responsibilities of leading by example.”

A family of high-achievers

Both of Schake’s siblings also served as student body presidents at SVHS. Kurt Schake graduated in 1979 and then received a bachelor’s degree from the United States Air Force Academy before serving as a colonel in the U.S. Air Force and as a Top Gun F-15 pilot. He also obtained a master’s degree in history from University of Colorado Colorado Springs, an MBA in business from St. Mary’s College in Moraga, a doctorate in education from University of California, Davis, and a doctorate in history from Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

He then served in many international and national positions, including national defense fellow at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, dean of the U.S. Air Force War College and professor at several universities. He’s currently the CEO of Veterans Transition Center of California in Monterey.

The youngest of the three siblings, Kristina Schake — also the most talented of the bunch, according to her sister — graduated from SVHS in 1988. She then received a bachelor’s degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University and later worked in several prominent communications positions, including special assistant to the president and communications director for First Lady Michelle Obama as well as deputy communications director and TV spokesperson for Hillary for America (Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign). Among other things, she advised Obama to visit Target to demonstrate her closeness to common people and worked to soften Clinton’s image.

Kristina also served as head of global communications for Instagram and as COVID-19 public education campaign director for the counselor to the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She is currently the executive vice president of global communications for the Walt Disney Company in Burbank, California.

“I wish that I knew how all three children accomplished so much,” Wayne Schake said. “I’d like to say it was genetic, but no one who knows me would believe it. If they knew my wife, they could think it was possible.”

Schake’s parents still live in Sonoma’s Diamond A neighborhood, near Schake’s local home, and plan to be at her Barn Talk. Schake is excited about returning to Sonoma.

“I love being home in Sonoma — so much that I keep a house in Glen Ellen that I often visit,” she said. “Whenever I’m too far east of the hundredth meridian, I get homesick for Sonoma. I miss the great food at El Molino Central and Mary’s Pizza Shack, drinking champagne at Gloria Ferrer with my parents, spending time with [friend] Andy Gray, riding my bike along Warm Springs Road to Glen Ellen Market, hiking at Jack London and the Sonoma Developmental Center, the beauty of the hills and the starry nights.”

Reach the reporter, Dan Johnson, at daniel.johnson@sonomanews.com.

Kori Schake’s Barn Talk

General admission tickets to Schake’s May 9 Barn Talk at the Sebastiani Theatre cost $35 and can be purchased at svgreatschools.org. SVHS students receive complimentary admission by making advanced reservations. Limited seating is available. Proceeds benefit the SVHS Model UN Club and SVHS Gender Sexuality Alliance.

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