Janne Nolan: from “fellowette” to godmother of the D.C. nuclear policy community

By Anne I. Harrington | July 9, 2019

Janne NolanJanne Nolan

The inimitable Janne Nolan passed away last week. Janne was one of the godmothers of the D.C. nuclear policy community. She made her name as an expert in nuclear weapons, proliferation, and arms control while working as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution during the waning years of the Cold War. Throughout the 1990’s she served as an advisor to the US Secretary of Defense, sitting on the Defense Policy Board as well as multiple blue ribbon commissions. She taught courses on national security and weapons of mass destruction at Georgetown, Columbia, and the University of Pittsburgh. In 2010, Janne joined the faculty of George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs where she headed the Nuclear Security Working Group (NSWG), hosting regular bipartisan gatherings of high-level policy makers, nuclear experts from think tanks and academia, and retired US military flag officers and generals. She authored eight books and numerous articles.

Janne started out her career working for Senator Gary Hart, a Colorado Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee. She went on to become an advisor to his 1988 presidential campaign. Hart was the frontrunner for the Democratic party’s nomination until questions of marital infidelity and womanizing began to plague him, a photograph of him aboard a yacht with a woman (who was not his wife) perched on his lap finally tanking his campaign.

For Janne, the fact that Hart did not go on to win the presidency represented both a personal and political loss that played a pivotal role in the formation of her worldview. As Doug Shaw, a special advisor at the Nuclear Threat Initiative and long-time friend and colleague of Janne, put it, “the Hart Campaign was a central metaphor for a lot of things to Janne—a kind of political home town.” It brings into relief the key themes that run throughout Janne’s body of work: the profound dangers associated with existing nuclear policy and force posture; the foundational, and often invisible, role sex and gender play in shaping national security; and the thorny problems associated with building and challenging political consensus. Janne, with good reason, revered Hart’s mastery of foreign policy. She was personally invested in his success, not only because it would have changed her political fortunes, but also because she believed that he was the right leader to build a consensus around reforming US nuclear policy. Doug explained it this way:

One of the things Janne revealed to me through her endless references to the Hart campaign is that she and her friends had a well-thought out and perfectly viable plan to seize control of the most powerful institution in human history and, specifically, to reform its nuclear weapon policy to be less extinction prone. Her imagination was unbelievably powerful, not just in scope but in scalability. She could envision global change and the Swiss clockwork it would require everywhere from K Street to launch control centers in the Great Plains. That this plan was scuttled on a boat called “Monkey Business” proved to her the absurdity of existence and power and I suspect triggered much of … her zaniness.

As Janne went on to argue in her book, An Elusive Consensus, instead of having a leader at the end of the Cold War who took real, revolutionary steps towards negotiating the elimination of nuclear weapons, they fell off the presidential radar. The basic policy commitments that drove Cold War-era nuclear force posture went largely unchallenged. Janne never tired of pointing out and driving home the fundamental absurdity of it all.

Janne’s legacy has two distinct threads that, for her, were intimately intertwined: reforming nuclear policy to be less extinction prone (for a quick, classic intro to Janne’s take on nuclear weapons, see this article) and opening up the expert field to more diverse voices. These were the ethical imperatives that guided Janne’s work. Janne’s practical goal—to break open the “nuclear priesthood” that she so eloquently described in her book, Guardians of the Arsenal—brought these two imperatives together. They were the ways she challenged the ruling priesthood, by attacking its ideas, and attacking its closed composition.

Taking on the nuclear priesthood, though, was just one instance of what Janne saw as a more general problem of consensus—how it is built, by whom, and to what end. When asked about what drove her interest in nuclear policy, she explained that it provided a window onto a host of other issues—”ideological fault lines that bedevil discourse about national security, the influence of embedded organizations and bureaucratic politics, civil-military relations, complex interactions of interest groups, and most importantly…the legacy of failure by political authorities to conduct very effective oversight”—all of which impact the ability to create and sustain a healthy political consensus that matches facts on the ground.

Her overarching passion was understanding the inherent tension between the necessity of political consensus to drive action and the ethical imperative to protect space for oversight and dissent. As I’ve already mentioned, in An Elusive Consensus Janne argued that in the absence of strong presidential-level consensus on nuclear policy, lethargy set in and an historic opportunity for reform was lost. Later, in Tyranny of Consensus, she grappled with what happens when the pendulum swings in the opposite direction and a strong consensus strangles space for political dissent, leading to dangerous miscalculations.

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This latter work was heavily influenced by Janne’s service on the official board investigating the Al Qaeda terrorist attacks on American embassies in East Africa in l998, and the deep friendship she subsequently developed with Ambassador Prudence Bushnell, who was serving at the US Embassy in Nairobi when Al Qaeda bombed it. For Janne, Pru was the epitome of an ethical public servant who, when caught between a flawed political consensus and what she knew was the right thing to do, followed her conscience.

Where Pru was Janne’s shining example of who to become, Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy administration, was her cautionary tale of what happens to someone when they continue to support a policy despite their moral qualms. She met McNamara in his old age. He used to stop into her office at Brookings and reminisce, wracked by guilt over his role in the Vietnam war. She described how he supported a strategy that was failing, one that he knew did not line-up with facts on the ground, yet he continued sending American military troops into combat to fight and die. In Janne’s version of the story, at the end of his life McNamara was bed ridden and isolated, with nothing but his own tortured thoughts to keep him company, his conscience destroyed by years of neglect. “It’s actually demonstrably true” she would warn, “that your conscience is a living breathing organism that you cannot mess with too many times before you become a broken person.”

To say that there were few women working in nuclear policy when Janne started out would be an understatement. Even today, when women occupy 20 percent of assistant secretary and above positions at the Defense Department, those numbers continue to be much lower in the nuclear policy community. They were even lower in the world that Janne inhabited.

Everyone who knew Janne had the pleasure of listening to her stories of what it was like to be a woman in the field in those early days. Janne always joked about forming a girl gang, a type of mutual admiration society for women who wanted to get ahead and needed a boost. In the early years of her career she may not have had enough women around her to form a gang, but she had the fellowettes. In 1982, when she accepted a fellowship at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, there were four women in her cohort. Among the fellowettes, as Janne dubbed them, were Cynthia Roberts, now an associate professor at Hunter College, Gloria Duffy, who among other things went on to negotiate the dismantlement and destruction of weapons of mass destruction in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan as a deputy assistant secretary for defense in the Clinton administration, and Condeleezza Rice, future National Security Advisor and Secretary of State to George W. Bush. These women formed the core around which Janne started to build her gang.

In the late 1980s, while attending a meeting of the Aspen Strategy Group with Condi, as she referred to Secretary Rice, Janne came up with her famous tongue-in-cheek description of what it was like to be one of the only women in the room. Thanks to Frank Gavin’s lovely remembrance and Janne’s penchant for late-night texting, we have this gem saved for posterity in Janne’s own words. It bears repeating again here not only because its central metaphor so perfectly captures Janne’s piercing wit and keen sense of social observation, but also because those of us who loved Janne heard it told so many times that it is profoundly comforting and oh-so-familiar to hear it once again. In it Janne describes an exchange with a younger colleague:

She asked what it was like being the only female in countless meetings and I said it was much like being dressed in a gorilla costume, surrounded by a sea of grey polyester suits. But, I explained, sometimes this could work to one’s advantage, a phenomenon we called “The Gorilla Playing Mozart” – e.g. after you made a simple remark (assuming you were halfway articulate), you could see jaws suddenly dropping open and all the geezers turning starry eyed and over dazzled: “That gorilla! Isn’t she something?!” It might not be the absolute best Mozart they’d ever heard but hey, it was played by a gorilla!”

There was a magic to being in Janne’s orbit. Most people in Washington lean on their formal position or institutional authority to draw people in, but Janne didn’t need someone to give her a position in order to make things happen. Janne understood that convening people was both an art and a science, and she had mastered both. She created a beautiful environment, engaged in charming conversation, and made everyone feel warm. It’s kind of like building fire. You need oxygen, fuel, and heat, and then it ignites. Janne knew how to bring the elements together and light the kindling with her personal combination of charisma, intelligence, and savoir faire.

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For years, Janne hosted a regular dinner salon at the Cosmos Club, an exclusive venue just off Dupont Circle, and retreats at the Wye River Conference Center on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. At first these meetings were held under the guise of something she called the Consensus for American Security, what later became the NSWG. The major achievements of this group included education efforts toward the successful ratification of New START, an arms control treaty with Russia, and supporting the conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a multilateral agreement that limited Iran’s access to nuclear technology.

There were many people who participated in these educational initiatives at the tactical level, but it was Janne’s strategic vision that brought everyone together. Janne didn’t only study consensus. She built it. She started off with a Rolodex of nuclear experts at major think tanks and universities, key contacts at the executive agencies and in Congress, and a small group of US military generals and flag officers that she slowly but steadily grew. The goal was to build a strong bipartisan consensus among these different constituencies, then mobilize the members of the group to educate policy makers on behalf of that consensus in order to overcome political barriers to concluding and ratifying these historic arms control agreements.

One of the most important and yet least visible aspects of Janne’s consensus-building work was mobilizing retired generals and flag officers to come out strongly in favor of arms control. There was no better way to counter the impression that arms control was “soft” than having those people who were responsible for bringing violence to bear against the enemy speak on its behalf. Lt. Gen. Dirk Jameson, former deputy commander in chief and chief of staff of US Strategic Command, recalled working on New START over the course of three years. During that time, Janne organized the publication of regional and national op-eds, media appearances with outlets such as National Public Radio, and meetings with congressmen, including Democrats like Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Republicans like Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming and Nebraska Rep. Jeffrey Fortenberry. Jameson and his fellow generals were doing the talking, but it was the relationships Janne cultivated that created opportunities for advocacy.

Janne’s most recent initiative through the NSWG was to found a congressional fellowship program that funds young experts in nuclear policy to work in offices on Capitol Hill. Janne had a reputation for always having the next, latest, and greatest young star at her side and under her wing. Yes, she had an eye for talent, but she also played a role in their future success. Janne did the typical things, like writing letters of recommendations and making personal introductions. But she didn’t treat mentoring the next generation as just a personal project; she also put institutional structures in place that would fund and support individuals as they worked to enter the field. She used her connections in Washington and at the major funding bodies to create pathways for young talent to bridge that space between their professional aspirations and landing their first full-time job.

Janne’s house, and Janne herself, always carried the comforting scent of fresh laundry. She prided herself on being the consummate hostess making her house guests feel simultaneously looked after and free to do as they pleased. Janne opened her home to many friends over the years, but she also opened it to younger colleagues, sometimes giving them a temporary place to stay while they found their way in the field. Janne sensed and responded, not just to the professional but also the personal needs of her protégés. At her best, she made her home a safe place to rest, a place where you were good enough just the way you were. Breaking into the nuclear policy community as an academic or a practitioner is an uphill battle. The marketplace is hyper-competitive and hard on the ego, and sometimes what one required was not advice, but a little generosity and care. “I bet [name redacted] doesn’t offer to lend you his hairspray,” she once quipped, a comment that in that moment stood in for all of the ways in which having a strong female mentor and role model like Janne felt different and right, even when you had the ear of powerful men.

Janne made us all part of something. Part of her girl gang. Part of her consensus. Part of her plan to break open the nuclear priesthood and speak truth to power.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story inaccurately described the work of the Nuclear Security Working Group, which focuses on education.

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Dr. J.H. Beall
4 years ago

Very fine article! Janne was a good and long-time friend, and her loss is a real tragedy.
Jim Beall, St. John’s College