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John D. Steinbruner, 1941-2015

in Program

On November 11, 1991, David Hamburg, then president of the Carnegie Corporation, called three academics to a closed-door meeting in New York to discuss the worsening security situation in the Soviet Union. Two would go on to become Secretaries of Defense—William Perry and Ashton Carter. The third, John Steinbruner, would eschew politics in favor of academia, yet over a career his contributions to American and global security would be no less profound.

As the world celebrated the end of the Cold War, these four men lcamented the emergence of a heretofore unimagined threat to global security—one based not upon Soviet strength, but upon the weakness of states emerging from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Together, they would go on to help build a coalition of experts, officials and political leaders to construct what many consider to be the most successful national security initiative in history: the Cooperative Threat Reduction program. For pennies on the US defense dollar, the program has helped keep America and the world secure from the threat of loose nuclear, biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction for a quarter century.

The effort was built upon Steinbruner’s conviction that forging cooperative responses to the next generation of international security threats—weapons proliferation, the spread of disease, climate change—was not a matter of choice, but a new strategic imperative. With John’s leadership and the generous support of Carnegie and the MacArthur Foundation, experts from Brookings, Harvard and Stanford engaged in pioneering studies to articulate new principles for the 21st Century. For many Cold Warriors whose careers were organized around the principles of deterrence and containment, notions of “cooperative security” were derided and dismissed as Pollyanish. Yet two decades later, it is difficult to imagine a solution to an international security dilemma where we still believe American might alone can compel enduring solutions.

John Steinbruner passed away on April 16th, 2015. But his legacy transcends the immediate national security successes his intellect and tenacity yielded for humanity. His legacy built a gold standard for the modern think tank that today remains far too elusive. As Director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution for almost two decades, Steinbruner inspired rigorous multidisciplinary scholarship focused on over-the-horizon policy challenges—an organization based not upon rapid reaction to the news cycle, on the trite repackaging of facts, or as a holding pen for would-be government officials. Rather, he defined the think tank as an entity that exists for the very purpose of public service—for the betterment of society by building enduring solutions to over-the-horizon threats. To many, he was a brilliant mentor, a nurturing leader, and an honorable teacher. For think tanks in Washington and around the globe, his enduring gift to us is a high bar of integrity and far-sighted innovation.

In eulogizing his brother Robert in 1968, Edward Kennedy invoked these words that a half century later may equally describe the enduring contribution to humanity made by John Steinbruner. Senator Kennedy said, “[He] need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life, but to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.”

Photo credit: Brookings Institution

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