Leadership. We have heard a lot about that lately.
And, as each day passes, I am amazed at the singular lack of the same at the highest and some of the lowest levels of government. Ordinary Americans throw up their hands at the thought that there are too few people able to lead this country through some very difficult times and far fewer who are in positions of power to even try. History has shown that these challenges can be navigated — but only with principled, intelligent and dynamic leadership.
I have been a member of the board of trustees of the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., for almost two decades. During that time, I have witnessed up close and directly the leadership style of Strobe Talbott, an American icon of high ideals and great capabilities. He led the nation’s oldest and largest think tank to the end of its first 100 years with a success rate that is the envy of that world.
But time, as always, moves on and we must move with it.
Last week, at the dawn of the next 100 years of Brookings leadership throughout the world, a new president took the helm. He is, I believe, a man for these times. And he represents what I believe are the qualities of great and inspired leadership.
Gen. John Allen, in accepting the weighty responsibility for leadership of one of this country’s most cherished institutions of thought and impact, addressed the trustees and scholars. His remarks were not only moving but epitomize what inspired leadership should be in the 21st century.
I have edited his words for brevity and commend them in their entirety to anyone who laments a lack of quality leadership in our country. Gen. Allen’s background, experience, words and vision provide a template for what our next leaders should look, speak and act like.
Remarks of Gen. John Allen
“Ladies and gentlemen of the board of trustees, this is my first appearance before you as the president of the Brookings Institution. I recognize the enormity of the decision to select the president of this great institution, and I want to thank you for your confidence in me … and I want to assure you in the first words of my first address that I fully appreciate the significance of this decision, and that I will give you, and give Brookings, my full measure of leadership and dedication and support. I am deeply humbled by this decision.
“Let me also thank you sincerely for your support and generosity to this institution. Indeed, while truth and unparalleled scholarship are the obvious products of the Brookings Institution, the critical mass of knowledge, wisdom, and experience assembled in this room today, residing in the board of trustees, is also a product of Brookings. It is unique in the world, and my intention is to get to know you all, and to continue to seek your advice and your support as we move forward together.
“I recognize that I’m the president of this institution, and that this position carries with it inherent responsibilities and expectations. I have had some experience myself in making decisions, but in my mind, Brookings has always been … is today and will always be … better for the close relationship of the president and the board of trustees. Thus, ladies and gentlemen, on the first day of my tenure here at our precious Brookings Institution, I want you to know, I will consider myself fortunate to work closely with you and hopefully to involve you more closely in our activities here.
“And let me thank my predecessor, my personal hero and a genuine American icon, Strobe Talbott. His run as the president of this organization has been truly remarkable. His leadership, his scholarship, his commitment, his treasured collegial touch, have changed for the better nearly every dimension of Brookings over these 15(+) years. He completes his term as president coincident with the 100th anniversary of Brookings … a hundred years! … and from your support and involvement, he leaves us important clarity and the way ahead into our second century with the Brookings 2.0 strategic plan. Thank you, Strobe.
“Thankfully, in this dear friend, I’ll have a font of wisdom and advice close at hand as we move forward, for as you know, Strobe isn’t departing Brookings; he’s taking up residence in our foreign policy program, in a spot exactly suited to his talents and his interests.
“With these introductory remarks … and as we get to know each other … please let me also tell you a bit about myself. I was raised in a Navy family. Indeed, until I retired from the Marine Corps in 2013, I’d only ever known life in the naval service. The military legacies of both my, and my wife, Kathy’s, families stretch back across the history of the United States. My father’s destroyer, the USS Kearny, was torpedoed by a German U-boat in the North Atlantic even before Pearl Harbor. He would fight in two wars and would be one of the architects of U.S. strategic communications during the Cold War. My grandfather, an Army combat engineer, would be horribly gassed on the Western front. My family fought for the Union in infantry regiments out of Ohio and New York and fought in the Revolution in regiments out of Virginia.
“Kathy’s grandfather was a Marine Corps second lieutenant on the Western front during WWI where he would meet and marry an Army nurse in a field hospital in France, and my wife, Kathy, would bear her name. He would retire as a brigadier general in 1954 after serving in Haiti, in China, and after fighting in such WWII battles as Saipan, Tinian and Iwo Jima. Kathy’s mother’s first husband, a strikingly handsome Marine captain, was killed in action leading his rifle company in fighting the Japanese on Okinawa, and Kathy’s father, her mother’s second husband, was a Marine raider at the Battle of Tulagi and would be medically evacuated from the hell of the fighting on Guadalcanal. Kathy’s family would also fight for the Union in regiments out of New Hampshire, and would fight in the Revolution and in the French and Indian War also from regiments out of Virginia.
“My own service as a Marine was defined for many years by the Cold War, and I’d served along the periphery of Communism from Norway, to the Mediterranean, to the Western Pacific, and to the DMZ on the Korean Peninsula … which is one of the coldest places on the planet. I’d lead Marines into Sarajevo in 1995 to help establish the Dayton Accords, fight alongside the ancient Arab tribes of the Euphrates against al-Qaida in the Al Anbar province in Iraq, and command the U.S. and NATO war effort against al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
“Immediately after my retirement from the Corps in 2013, I was asked to return to the government where I worked closely with John Kerry on the Israeli/Palestinian peace plan. Later, President Barack Obama would ask me to build out the global coalition to counter the so-called Islamic State. From the day I enlisted when I was 17, to the day I walked out of the White House in November 2015, it had been my honor to serve our great country for nearly 45 years.
“Ladies and gentlemen, with that as the context for my background, the affairs of government are not theoretical to me. I have seen us, America, when we were at our best. I have seen the soaring results of American transformative leadership, but I have been a close and personal witness to what the catastrophic failure American policy can beget, and I’ve been splashed with the blood of our precious children who paid the bill for these failures. From the strategic to the personal, the affairs of government are not theoretical, nor will they ever be academic to me.
“It was against this background in 2013, that I received a letter from someone I’d only heard of … and I’ve already called him an American icon … Strobe Talbott, the president of the Brookings Institution, inviting me to be a nonresident senior fellow in the foreign policy program at Brookings. The ink was barely dry on my acceptance letter, which I sprinted to complete so great was the reputation of Brookings in my mind, when I found myself bundled off to the Middle East with another great Brookings scholar, and one of the foremost diplomats of our time, Martin Indyk. Martin and I worked with the tireless John Kerry and within the Obama administration on Middle East peace.
“When the Gaza War put an end to our labors in the spring of 2014, we both came home, but I was delighted to be invited at that point to come to Brookings in residence, an opportunity I immediately embraced. As luck would have it, I was sent straight back out to the region as the president’s special envoy to organize the Global Coalition against ISIL, forcing me to take an extended leave of absence from Brookings.
“During this period, Brookings was for me personally intertwined everyday with some of the most galling and immediately important challenges of our time: Middle East peace and the stopping and defeating one of the world’s greatest terrorist abominations. The relevance of Brookings was manifest in everything I undertook. Not just in the Foreign Policy realm … and indeed not even mainly in Foreign Policy … for the truly formidable work of the scholars here at Brookings on economic studies, cities, the middle class, governance, education, global development, and the rise of technology profoundly shaped my thinking on these issues. I can’t tell you how many times, from thousands of miles away, I read or downloaded the work of our scholars and from the research programs led by Ted Gayer, Amy Liu, Darrell West, Bruce Jones, and, until very recently, Kemal Derviş. They don’t know it, but they were with me in some tough times.
“So, when the search began for the next president of Brookings, I asked to be considered. Not so much out of desire to be in charge of this great institution, but to humbly serve this great institution. Brookings for me, and based on my life’s experiences, may be at this moment in history one of the most profoundly important engines of fact and truth and change … not just in America, but in the world.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are in very challenging times. The results of the most recent presidential election are more a cry for help from within America than almost anything else. The awful twins of divisiveness and polarization, which have emerged with a vengeance, have created epic distortions and rifts within our society. Great violence has been done to the civility of the American political discourse with this result: where before if we differed in our views we could debate the merits of our ideas. In this toxic environment today, these differences frequently lead to enmity, violence, and worse.
“Diagnosing the underlying causes of the results of that election, and offering prescriptions for the solutions will, in my mind, fall uniquely to this institution. Other institutions may be narrowly focused, or not possess the depth and breadth of scholarship to do other than “admire the problems” we are facing. Brookings has both the breadth of scholarship, and the depth of quality to do both, and every day here, scholars are leading the think tank community in decomposing the challenges we face and addressing them head-on in a comprehensive manner.
“Against this broad background, as I become president of your Brookings, it seems to me we’re both uniquely positioned and well poised to inject all three components of the Brookings mantra … quality, independence, and impact … into the domestic and international discourse. In the months ahead, I plan to take a fresh look at our institution and what these foundational tenets mean for us and our way forward. A looming question that I’ll address in a few minutes: What is the impact of this institution in this day and age and how do we assure ourselves of our relevance?
“My intention is to do all I can to support the work we are doing at this moment. In the weeks and months ahead, I will closely observe, and I will carefully listen to all here within the institution and to the voices of the board of trustees. And while decision making is in my DNA, I also know there are the right times and the right places for decisions, and I will take them carefully, deliberately, and collegially. For now, I’m in watching and listening mode. When we gather in March, I’ll have some ideas and answers for you, which I will have developed with our Brookings leadership.
“All that said, let me say a few words about my interests, which I find align solidly with the scholarship and interdisciplinary approach already underway across our five research programs.
First, I am deeply concerned about the American middle class and protecting it in these uncertain times. Household income may seem to be on the rise, but there are other factors at work that mask a different story. Health care, education, tax policy, infrastructure renewal, wealth inequality, and the state of our cities, are all very much front burner issues for me. And the opioid epidemic is, to me, a national security matter.
“Race in America may be the most important challenge we face as we strive as a people … united by the idea of America … to be the last great hope of humankind. To that end, the recent presidential election campaign, and subsequent events, have torn the scar tissue off many of the wounds of American society. Dealing with the importance of race, ethnicity, gender, gender orientation, and religion will be central to the healing we must undergo as a people. Brookings scholars are at the leading edge and the very forefront of these issues. And later this afternoon, it will be my distinct honor to introduce one of them to you, Camille Busette, who will lead our first panel.
“Not a day goes by that Brookings scholars aren’t quoted frequently by the media, or summoned to the halls of the administration or Congress for their advice, or ranging more broadly, touching Americans across the country in myriad ways. For me, as president, what I can do to support this work, and to extend the reach of the scholars and this institution, will be one of my highest and continuous priorities. The very future of America may depend on Brookings’ contributions on these issues.
“I’m also deeply concerned about the stability of the Middle East. Contained within the crises we are facing there today, from the Moroccan coast to the Hindu Kush and beyond, we confront the broad collapse of Arab and regional governance and the resulting civil wars wracking the region; unparalleled humanitarian crises; the spread and increasing virulence of jihadi extremism and violence; the future security of Israel and the independence of the Palestinian people; energy security; and the potential for a nuclear arms race built upon seemingly insoluble sectarian and confessional differences within Islam.
“The complexities of the problems and the difficulties of the solutions often seem overwhelming, but not doing anything is no longer an option. The Middle East “house” is burning down around our ears, and the stabilization of the region and the solutions to conflict there are an area in which Brookings is blessed not only with highly qualified scholars, and connections into this administration and the into the region, but also a Brookings center in Doha, which can … and I wager will … make a difference in the outcomes.
“Similarly, there are several key relationships which will define America’s place in the world even as we seem set as a government to retreat from it. These relationships will have, immediately, major social and economic impacts at home and broad global economic, governance, and security impacts within the community of nations. It’s not an overstatement to propose that the course of human events in the 21st century will be determined by how these relationships are fashioned and shaped. Broadly, America, Europe, and the transatlantic alliance; and our relations with Russia, China, and India will all define the future rules-based system of international relations and the resulting economic, governance, and security environment for the remainder of this century and beyond.
“To that end, while China is our most consequential overseas relationship for the foreseeable future, I believe India will be the indispensable relationship for America over the long term. The United States must figure out how to balance the two, while capitalizing on our bilateral relationships with both.
“Our scholars across all of Brookings’ research programs will play an extraordinarily important role in helping to understand the problems we will face, domestically and internationally from these relationships, and help to discover and prescribe the solutions. And here, again, Brookings is fortunate to have had the presence of mind, from the foresight of Strobe and Martin, to establish the centers in both Delhi and in Beijing.
“And as we imagine today’s challenges, there are also future challenges we must embrace today: the global megatrends. I’ve been paying attention to these trends for some time, and as I see it, Brookings may be the only public policy research institution capable of envisioning what’s coming at us and envisaging what we must do.
“My own view is time is not on our side, as these tectonic changes increasingly shape the world of our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. Leaving for them the challenges of dealing with these trends … and the opportunities and problems they will inevitably present … is nothing less than the dereliction of duty of our generation. In very brief terms, these trends are: the indebtedness of the West and the historic migration of economic power from the West to the East; the profound changes in demography; the challenges of the cities and the explosion of urban migration; the rise of technology; and resource scarcity and climate change.
“These issues are coming at us. They are knowns. And nearly every aspect of what we’re doing at Brookings maps across these trends. And Brookings can be a central … if not the central source in defining their enormity, in identifying their implications, and in suggesting policy formulations and mitigating strategies.
“And of these changes, and they all have my attention, one in particular, the emergence of artificial intelligence may be one of the most powerful, single, shaping influences of this century. In my writings I have called AI “… a revolution in human affairs.” It will affect the U.S. economy and the global economy. It will shape our middle class. It will impact our system of education and health care, and it will potentially drive us into heretofore unthinkable security and military capabilities.
“As a government, our capacity to think about the potential social, economic, and structural implications of AI is not keeping pace with the private sector’s capacity to innovate and integrate this technology. The technology is moving off exponentially, while broadly our human considerations for its implications are moving linearly. We can’t seem to overcome the speed of government which has become a strategic impediment to our capacity to embrace this change. All the while the Chinese are systematically investing hundreds of billions not only in AI, but also in the groundbreaking field of quantum computing, a capacity to compute that promises to far outstrip the most advanced family of supercomputers in our possession today.
“Here, in this area, Brookings scholars are already thinking deeply and writing prolifically, and here Brookings can not only shape the national conversation in this area, it can perhaps own the conversation.
“To conclude ladies and gentlemen, as I settle into the presidency of Brookings, and as I listen to and learn from you, the trustees and scholars and the staff of this magnificent institution, these issues are on my mind. Every day, your Brookings is making a difference in this country, and in the world … every day.
“The unique value of institutions like Brookings to conduct scholarly analysis of big data, and facts, and render a larger, nonpartisan truth … and from that truth offer serious, credible policy options and solutions … this capacity has never been more important to an American population increasingly skeptical of the public narrative and increasingly cynical toward their institutions of government and to the very democratic processes that define our precious democracy and our system of government.
“The reason fringe media have created alternative realities is not because of the quality of their analysis, but rather their capacity to penetrate deeply into the consciousness of the vulnerable segments of society and to drive their narratives across the panoply of social media. They are seizing the capacity for impact even as we claim it to be one of our core competencies.
“As we plunge deeper into the post-truth era, Brookings ability to penetrate … to reach a broader set of change makers, including Congress, state and local officials, and civil society … will be critical for driving essential impact and remaining relevant.
“In an environment increasingly defined by alternative facts, or seemingly free of facts … what is often being described as the emergence of the era of the post-truth society … we must together ask: what is the role and relevancy of think tanks today? How can Brookings continue to shape the conversation in this landscape as it has for the past 100-plus years?
“Addressing these vitally important questions is essential not only to how we perceive ourselves, but also to this institution’s very future. I plan to devote a great deal of time in the weeks and months ahead considering these questions in partnership with you, our vice presidents, and with our scholars and staff.
“Providing our programs and scholars with resources, so they can diversify their audiences and think creatively and organically about the best vehicles to reach them, will be central to this effort.
“And here, ladies and gentlemen, here may be the great contribution of Brookings in its second century: to rescue truth from the political morass of our time as we prepare for the inevitability of what we will face in the years ahead. And if in this process I can help in some small way to play a role in supporting this institution, working closely with you and with our scholars and staff to chart our way ahead together, I will be deeply grateful for this opportunity.
“Thank you for your kind attention.”
Brian Greenspun is editor, publisher and owner of the Sun.