To say that John Steinbruner always made time for colleagues and students would be an understatement. In all the years that we worked with John, we rarely saw him pass up an opportunity to engage in a spirited conversation about security policy, listening carefully to questions and different points of view, and challenging others to rethink the assumptions that lay beneath their analysis. Even in his last months and weeks, among John’s highest priorities were to finish teaching his course on civil conflict and to help the doctoral students he was advising to make progress toward their degrees. John’s commitment to students and colleagues was emblematic of his intellectual curiosity and the generosity of spirit that he displayed throughout his professional and personal life.
A professor of public policy at the School of Public Policy and director of the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM) since 1999, John D. Steinbruner died from cancer on April 16, 2015.
From the start of his academic career, which included positions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and Yale University, John challenged the prevailing orthodoxy of national security policy and tried to show in practical detail how international security could be achieved with lower cost and risk through strategic restraint and mutual reassurance. Much of John’s early research drew from his work in cognitive psychology and argued that decisions about complex topics, such as nuclear deterrence and nuclear weapons policies, reflected simple cognitive principles and organizational routines rather than the rational choices that they were assumed to represent. His book, The Cybernetic Theory of Decision (1974), remains a seminal contribution to the security policy field.
As the director of the Foreign Policy Studies Program at the Brookings Institution, a position he held from 1978 to 1996, John played a central role in U.S. efforts to cooperate with the Soviet Union and avoid open conventional and nuclear conflict, a topic about which he testified before the U.S. Congress and advised the government. In the 1980s, as a founding member (and later vice chair) of the National Academy of Science’s Committee on International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), John participated in Track II dialogues between U.S. and Soviet arms control experts at a time when official channels were closed. He also helped foster a similar dialogue with Chinese scientists and security experts that contributed to China’s integration into a range of international security regimes.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, John led an ambitious effort to develop a new logic for close cooperation between the United States, Russia, and other key countries. Changing the core principles of security policy from confrontation and deterrence to cooperative prevention and reassurance was, John argued, the most effective and affordable way to reduce the costs and risks of force structures and operational practices left over from the Cold War and poorly suited to new security challenges. His collaboration with Ashton Carter and William Perry, both future U.S. secretaries of defense, laid the conceptual foundations for U.S. cooperative threat reduction programs. John saw these programs as a step in the right direction, but spent much of the next two decades trying to show how much more could be accomplished through a more fundamental transformation of security relations.
When John moved to the University of Maryland School of Public Policy and became director of CISSM, he created the Advanced Methods of Cooperative Security Program to develop innovative cooperative approaches to spreading the benefits and reducing the risks associated with the global spread of powerful capabilities that can be used for both constructive and destructive purposes—including biological technology, space technology, nuclear technology, and information technology. He also participated in and led research initiatives focused on understanding the local dynamics of civil conflict and exploring the societal and political implications of climate change. He particularly enjoyed helping religious leaders think about moral issues raised by a wide range of global security problems, including the war in Iraq and continued reliance on thousands of nuclear weapons for deterrence decades after the Cold War ended. John was an adviser to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ International Policy Committee for two decades and worked closely with them until very recently to move forward a dialogue with senior Iranian clerics about religious beliefs and weapons of mass destruction.
John shared his depth and breadth of knowledge with School of Public Policy students in many ways. He developed three new courses that explored the formative experiences shaping current policy problems and focused on an explicitly international, rather than national, understanding of issues, building on research that had culminated in the publication of Principles of Global Security (2000). He also guided many doctoral students through the completion of their dissertations, which spanned his broad areas of interest. Under John’s leadership, CISSM also initiated a joint educational program between the School of Public Policy and the Russian Academy of Science’s Institute of U.S. and Canada Studies, which has afforded nearly 100 Russian graduate students the chance to visit and study in College Park alongside School of Public Policy students. In recognition of his many achievements and contributions, John was awarded the university’s 2006 Landmark Award for exceptional long-term achievements in support of international life at the university. He also received the university’s Distinguished Scholar-Teacher Award in 2007.
John’s commitment to public service and global security extended far beyond the walls of the university. Since 2000, he served as the co-chair of the American Academy of Arts and Science’s Committee on International and Security Studies and as the chair of the Arms Control Association’s board of directors. He was also an active member of the board of directors of the Financial Services Volunteer Corps. Among his many other past commitments, he was a member of the Aspen Strategy group from 1980-2001, the Defense Policy Board from 1993-1997, the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict from 1995 to 1998, and Sandia National Laboratories’ Distinguished Advisory Group for Nonproliferation and Arms Control from 1994 to 2005.
Though John achieved much in his professional and academic life, he was humble and well-grounded. It was this quality that endeared him most to his colleagues and students. While he could be feisty and unyielding when discussing policy and politics, he was always respectful and gracious.
When John first fell ill, he took up writing fiction and penned The Secular Monastery (2011), a novel that presented his thinking about international security policy in a new format and to a new audience. John’s foray into fiction was representative of his belief in the power of persistence and of individuals joining together to work toward a greater good. It was also evidence of John’s own deep and abiding strength and humanity, his embrace of the power of friendship, loyalty, and love.
If you knew John, you probably already knew much of this about him, although he never ceased to surprise even his closest friends and colleagues. That is why his loss is so difficult to bear. For as much as John’s death is a loss for the School of Public Policy and the security policy community, of which he was a leading light, it is also a loss on a much more personal level. It is the loss of an extraordinary teacher, mentor, colleague, and friend.
This tribute was penned by Nancy Gallagher, Steve Fetter, I.M. “Mac” Destler, and Jonas Siegel. We encourage you to share your thoughts and memories of John below as he impacted so many and will be greatly missed.