As Russia amassed troops along its border with Ukraine in late January, Luke Coffey headed to briefings at the U.S. Capitol.
Members of the Senate wanted to hear from him about what could be coming amid growing concerns that Vladimir Putin would soon launch an invasion into the former Soviet republic.
“If you’ve actually been on the ground there, you have a much deeper understanding of what’s going on,” says Coffey, who serves as the director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at The Heritage Foundation.
Coffey, a 2002 graduate of the University of Missouri–St. Louis, has been on the ground in more than 70 countries and developed contacts and a particular expertise in transatlantic and Eurasian security, as well as the Middle East, over the past two decades.
Coffey began building his knowledge of global affairs long before joining Heritage, a conservative think tank in Washington, in 2012. A veteran, he was stationed in Italy during his time on active duty and did a tour as a U.S. Army captain doing detainee operations in Afghanistan in 2005, earning a bronze star.
When he left the military, Coffey enrolled at the London School of Economics to pursue a master’s degree in politics and government of the European Union. He was just beginning school when he landed an internship in the office of a member of Parliament, which eventually helped him secure a full-time position in the office of another member, Liam Fox.
When the Conservative Party took control of Parliament in 2010, Fox ascended to secretary of state for defense, and Coffey became a senior special adviser, the first non-U.K. citizen appointed by the prime minister to such a role.
Coffey couldn’t have imagined making that type of history growing up in the Franklin County town of Catawissa, Missouri, though he was always fascinated by the wider world.
“I was a young boy when the Soviet Union collapsed, and I remember making my mom go to Walmart to get a new globe with all the new countries,” he says.
One reason Coffey joined the military was the sense of adventure that came from the opportunity to travel abroad. He earned an associate degree at Wentworth Military Academy, then a bachelor’s in political science at UMSL before going on active duty.
Affordability and convenience heavily influenced his college decision, but at UMSL, he found professors, including J. Martin Rochester, who fertilized Coffey’s interest in foreign affairs and encouraged debate. He also engaged with international students on campus and studied abroad for a semester at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa.
All those experiences helped propel the first-generation college student to a career in foreign affairs, one of the few areas of politics and policy where there’s still some agreement across the political spectrum.
“Thankfully, in the foreign policy space,” Coffey says, “the mainstream of the political right and the mainstream of the political left find a lot of areas to cooperate and work together.”
This story was originally published in the spring 2022 issue of UMSL Magazine. If you have a story idea for UMSL Magazine, email email@example.com.